Having a great mentor can be a great way to accelerate your career. They can be a great source of independent personal counsel, practical guidance, connections and suggestions. But with so many junior lawyers around, and with senior lawyers being so time poor, how do you find one? Here are three ways to find a great commercial law mentor outside your own firm.
1. Check out your state’s Law Society mentoring programs
Many law societies and legal industry bodies around Australia offer structured specific mentoring services for junior lawyers (anywhere from people completing PLT through to admitted lawyers with up to five years of legal practice).
The biggest advantage is that they provide a safe, confidential intermediary. You don’t need to approach anyone direct. All you need to do is complete their forms (usually asking you about your career aspirations, areas of interest and availability) and they will try to find a mentor for you.
Another advantage of these programs is their formal structure. Mentors and mentees are usually required to commit to regular meetings before signing up. This consistency is critical, because a successful mentoring relationship cannot thrive without regular contact.
These programs are great for junior lawyers and inexpensive (typically around $50 for administration costs). These programs will often only accept new mentees once per year, so check their sites for details.
2. Attend events related to your area of interest
It’s a cliché, but career progression in the legal industry often comes down to who you know.
One way to create relationships is to find organisations in your areas of interest and attend events. They could be specific networking events (which can be difficult at the best of times), or just seminars and talks related to a topic with the chance to mingle and chat afterwards.
If you start attending events run by the same organisation regularly, you will start to notice familiar faces (and they will notice you). Conversations will become easier.
Start by thinking about what types of work interests you the most. For example, if you’re interested in construction law, start attending events run by the Society of Construction Law Australia and think about joining as a member. If you are a general commercial lawyer, look at the Commercial Law Association of Australia or perhaps the business law committees of your local law society. If you are an in-house lawyer, think about ACC.
The more you attend these events, and the more regularly you start having conversations with the same people, the greater your chances of finding a mentor.
For example, it’s probably not a great idea to ask someone at an event whether they could be your mentor.
However, if you are able to build up some rapport and you are able to grab their contact details, you might be able to send a follow-up email to say how much you enjoyed meeting them, and to let them know that you’re looking for a mentor.
The worst that can happen is that they don’t reply or say that they can’t help. Conversely, there’s every chance that they might be able to steer you in the direction of someone who can help, or perhaps even offer to mentor themselves. You won’t know until you’ve asked the question.
3. Aim small, not big
People sometimes think that the best mentors come from the biggest and most prestigious law firms. (Some legal career services, such as InsideSherpa, charge substantial fees for access to the insights of top-tier lawyers.)
What many people tend to forget is that smaller firms can be a great source of mentors. Often, the principals will have broader commercial law experience and be more willing to share their time with you. Plus, if a ‘big firm’ background is important to you, many principals in smaller firms will have worked in bigger firms before they decided to start or join a small practice.
Small law firms can offer benefits that bigger firms may not, such as good work-life balance and more hands-on work for matters. A small law firm mentor may be fully across the realities of commercial legal practice in both small and big firms, and be able to provide more balanced and objective counsel.
One of the best ways you can expand your thinking (and therefore progress your career) is by exposing yourself to different perspectives and experiences. Pairing yourself with a mentor with a different but still complementary background can be a great way of achieving this.
You can approach this in two ways. First, you can tap into your existing network of friends, family and professionals and ask if there are any great lawyers from small law firms they could recommend that you can speak to.
Alternatively, you could send an email to principals in small commercial law firms in your area. Yes, this is potentially more daunting. But again, the worst that can happen is that they ignore you and/or say ‘no’. However if you present well, there’s every chance they will at least hear you out.
Most senior lawyers will be open to giving you advice if you can demonstrate your interest and potential, and you’re clear about what you want and why. This is one of the ways in which the law remains a true ‘profession’.
Provided you approach the task in an intelligent and structured way, you might be surprised at what you can achieve. And, if you’re successful in finding a mentor who can help accelerate your career, the exercise can be well and truly worth the effort.