Memoirs of a Mentor: Or, How to Be A Good Mentee


Guest post by Sandra Yamate, CEO of Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession

When I received an email from a friend in Seattle introducing me to a lawyer newly-admitted to the bar, I groaned. It’s not that I don’t like young lawyers or enjoy speaking with them; I do, and count many among my friends. But I put it to you, my fellow Baby Boomer lawyers (and even you Gen X-ers): is there any lawyer among us who relishes spending an hour or more talking with some young lawyer who a) has no idea what he or she wants to do with their career; b) has a career plan that, if realistic, lots of lawyers would have pursued it; c) has employment aspirations without any preparation for said employment; d) is seeking career advice (read “immediate employment”) and wishes you to open your rolodex (that’s the technological predecessor to one’s contact or Linkedin lists) to them; e) is seeking your help to navigate a difficult situation but is only willing to tell you the situation piecemeal, if even that; f) is seeking validation for an act that was naïve/stupid/unethical/etc.; or, g) is soliciting your advice but has absolutely no intention of following it.

Law students and new lawyers know about the need for mentors. They are not shy about seeking them out. But often, in the enthusiasm of seeking, finding, and asking for mentorship, it is important that they be reminded to be someone that prospective mentors want to mentor.

I was lucky in the case of my friend from Seattle. The young lawyer whom he referred to me, easily fell into the mentor-able category. As a result, I was happy to spend an hour talking with her. I am more than willing to introduce her to others who might be of further assistance to her. And, without her asking or prodding, I am considering other ways that I might help her in her career, now and in the future. Whether she expected it or not, going forward, she’ll have a mentor in me.

So, what made her mentor-able? There is plenty of information out there on what not to do. Here are some thoughts on what prospective mentees might consider to enhance the likelihood that they’ll be someone’s mentee:

  1. My schedule governed.

This young lawyer asked to meet but she made herself easily and readily available when my schedule permitted. She didn’t give me an assorted block of dates/times with all sorts of explanations about what she was doing or where she’d be that I could care less about. I don’t know what, if any, machinations or contortions she had to go through to be available when I was, but she made herself available without drama or confusion.

  1. It was convenient.

The weather is bitterly cold. I have a ton of things I need to get done. I asked if she’d mind meeting at a coffee shop near my office. She immediately volunteered to not only meet at my office but also to bring the coffee. Fabulous! She made it easy and convenient for me to meet with her.

  1. She demonstrated appreciation for my time.

She didn’t show up too early and she wasn’t late. She demonstrated enough of the social conventions to show that she had social skills while still getting to the point of the meeting.

  1. She was prepared.

Boy, was she ever! This young woman had clearly given a great deal of thought to a) her own career ambitions; b) things that work in her favor and those that work against it; and, c) why she wanted to meet with me. She answered my questions succinctly but thoroughly. In a first meeting, I, as a prospective mentor, was gratified to be able to engage in a much more sophisticated discussion than I had expected. When I asked her what she wanted of me, she was prepared with reasonable ideas.

  1. She listened.

Have you ever met with someone who asked you questions and then kept trying to answer them for you? Or someone who allows you to answer, only to respond with, “But . . .” and further information that ought to have been provided upfront? This young lawyer listened, asked logical and intelligent follow-up questions, and listened again. She didn’t challenge my statements (I have siblings to do that) nor did she simply parrot what she thought I might want to hear (my Facebook feed is a far more satisfying echo chamber). I talked. She listened. We both asked questions. She listened to the answers.

It could so easily have been just the opposite. Some do’s and don’ts:

  • Don’t waste a mentor’s time.

Your dog may think that there is nothing better than to hang around with you and that may be right. But give your mentor a chance to reach that conclusion on his or her own. Be respectful of your mentor’s time and the other demands upon it.

  • Communicate effectively.

Tell your mentor ALL the relevant facts, not just those that you think make you look good. Organize your thoughts so that when speaking with your mentor, you are clear, logical, coherent, and concise.

  • Be realistic.

Mentors are limited by the raw material they are given: You. If you failed to take law school seriously so that your grades suffered, or you have made social/political/practical blunders or moral or ethical mistakes, a mentor can advise you as how to make the best of the situation. But no one can erase them or absolve you of responsibility. Have realistic expectations about what mentors can be expected to do.

  • Don’t disregard or dismiss advice.

Even my closest friends would tell anyone who asked that my judgement and advice can, on occasion be flawed. But if you are going to disagree with your mentor’s advice, or frequently dismiss it, you may have chosen the wrong mentor. That’s not to say that you must always follow your mentor’s advice. Occasionally you can agree to disagree. Constant or perpetual disagreement is another thing entirely.

  • Give and take.

As a law student or young lawyer, you benefit from your mentor’s experience, perspectives, insights, knowledge, contacts, and connections. Your mentor probably hasn’t any expectation of receiving anything in return for his or her investment of time and energy in your career satisfaction and success beyond an occasional verbal thanks. That, however, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider ways to give as well as receive. That giving can be the sharing of information your mentor needs to know. It can also be volunteering to perform tasks that will assist your mentor’s work. Or it can be paying it forward and, in turn, helping someone else whom your mentor would appreciate seeing benefit from your assistance.

Mentors: What do you think? What makes someone a good mentee? What are your guidelines when you’re deciding whether to mentor someone? Tell us some of your success (and horror) stories!