Tuesday, December 3, 2019
I recently attended a meeting of our law school alumni to talk with them about being mentors. We have a very energetic alumni community, many of whom participate in our school's formal mentoring programs -- one for our 1L students, to help introduce them to law school and the legal profession, and one for our 3L students, to provide guides for their transition into the working world. Like most mentors, these alumni are eager to provide guidance and support. Still, those of us who run the mentoring programs know that there are every year a small number of mentors whose experience in the program turns out to be awkward or even unpleasant. Sometimes their students fail to demonstrate the zeal or professionalism the mentor had expected, and other times the student and the mentor just do not seem to hit it off. Because our alumni mentors are such a valuable resource to our students, and therefore I don't want to lose any mentors due to a single unpleasant interaction, I offered the following thoughts:
All of our students possess varied interests, strengths and weaknesses, and past experiences, each across a broad spectrum. Broadly speaking, though, we can divide the students who participate in our mentoring programs -- our "mentees", as we say -- into four groups, based on the extent to which they possess each of two characteristics key to any sort of networking relationship: enthusiasm and know-how.
The first group are the students who possess both. They understand what goes into developing a professional relationship, and they are genuinely interested in working with their mentors to develop such relationships. These are the dream mentees -- they ask lots of thoughtful questions, and they listen to your answers; they participate appropriately, whether invited to a one-on-one lunch or to a busy firm event; they know how to make eye contact, what to wear, and when and how it is appropriate to change or cancel planned meetings. To mentors who are lucky enough to have one of these mentees, I say: Congratulations! This is a great opportunity for you to help someone make the most of what you have to offer. Challenge them a bit, and they will likely rise to the occasion.
The second group of mentees are enthusiastic, but they do not quite know what they are doing in a professional relationship. In the moment, face to face, they may come across as quite interested, perhaps even charismatic. But they are also capable of making striking faux pas -- wearing torn jeans to a business-casual luncheon, for example, or failing to show up for a scheduled meeting without calling or email to let the mentor know. These folks are often achievers in an academic context, but have had little experience in practice. They may want to reap the benefits of a mentoring relationship, but simply not realize that they are missing opportunities, and perhaps even causing offense, along the way. But . . . that is one of the main reasons we introduce students to mentors -- to help them learn this kind of professional behavior that they may never have encountered before. And even if they can be somewhat clueless, at least the members of this group do possess that enthusiastic motivation, That is something that a mentor can leverage, by inviting participation, in the knowledge that such invitations will usually be accepted, and they by pointing out that the behaviors they are failing to demonstrate are some of the very skills they were hoping to develop. So this group of mentees may sometimes elicit eyerolls, but by playing off of their enthusiasm, mentors can help them to overcome their deficiencies.
The third group of mentees are those in the opposite position. They have the know-how -- for whatever reason, perhaps a previous job or perhaps just a supportive upbringing, they have a proper sense of professionalism, and in fact may come across as very worldly. But they act as if they do not see any value in a mentoring relationship. They do not display any particular enthusiasm, and may even seem to treat the mentoring relationship as a chore. They may see a mentoring program as a kind of remedial finishing school for emerging professionals -- one they do not need, because they know which fork to use -- and not recognize the rich possibilities for connection and experience that a mentoring relationship holds. But, as with the second group, at least this group does possess one asset that can be leveraged -- in this case, their ordered sense of professionalism. A mentor could take advantage of that by inviting their mentee to participate in gatherings and events, by introducing them to colleagues, by prompting them to talk about their interests and plans. The mentee's own worldliness will prevent them from totally ignoring all of these opportunities, and each meeting and conversation can be a wedge, opening up their minds to the realization that a mentoring relationship can be much more than a series of ritualistic interactions.
But this brings up to the fourth and final group, the most difficult group for mentors to contend with -- students who are neither enthusiastic nor knowledgeable. These are the students who don't know how to be a mentee, and don't see why they should. They might not even participate in a mentor program if it is not required. These are usually students without any role models in the legal community, or perhaps in any professional community. They can be tough on mentors, because they are the type who might miss a scheduled meeting, without warning or explanation, and then not see any reason to feel bad about that afterwards. Sometimes mentors, seeing apparent futility in trying to encourage these mentees to participate, simply give up after a few attempts. And this is a terrible loss to both the student and the mentor, because these are the students who need this mentorship the most, and theirs are the mentors who would justly feel the greatest satisfaction if they were able to teach these students how to be great mentees. It can be hard to get these relationships to catch, because there is neither enthusiasm nor know-how there to leverage. But because these mentoring relationships are, in a sense, the most valuable, these are the ones we, in student services, want to do the most to help nurture and preserve. So I encourage our mentors to turn to us for support -- to ask us to approach these mentees from our side, so that we can nudge them into at least testing the mentorship waters, and so that, by explaining plainly what is expected of them, and what to expect from their mentors, we can lower the barriers of self-consciousness and dubiousness that might be keeping them from committing to the process.
Mentoring is, after all, only one facet of the larger construct of the legal community, and those who support our students in school can also support those who support our students out of school.