Ms. JD

Finding a Safe Harbor Mentor

Ed. Note: The following article, by April A. Christine, comes to Ms. JD from the Los Angeles Lawyer.

barristers tips BY APRIL A. CHRISTINE

Los Angeles Lawyer March 2009

 Finding a Safe Harbor Mentor 

A PERFECT STORM OCCURRED in October 1991 when three storms combined into one off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts. The combined storm created waves 10 stories high and winds of 120 miles an hour, whipping the sea to heights that only a few witnessed and fewer survived. While the perfect storm, as memorialized in a book and recounted in cinema, was a historic event, it can be compared to events that happen in everyday lives in the workplace. When opposing counsel appear inflexible, clients overly demanding, supervisors watching and evaluating every move, and colleagues circling like vultures waiting for the untutored to stumble and fail, the legal profession can seem like the perfect storm. To stave off the potential devastation of a perfect legal storm, it is important to find a mentor who can act as a safe harbor, assisting in navigating through the politically stormy waters of the legal profession.

A safe harbor mentor serves as a trusted counselor or teacher—someone to whom the protégé can ask questions, seek guidance, bounce ideas, and discuss issues one would not normally discuss with a supervisor. Providing a safe harbor, however, is not to be confused with harboring misconduct. Mutual trust in a safe harbor relationship is essential. A safe harbor mentor should also not be put in an advocacy or mediator role between the protégé and his or her supervisor. Instead, a safe harbor mentor guides the mentee in making sound professional decisions.

A mentor can be assigned, but a safe harbor relationship is more likely developed with time and familiarity. Whether the mentor is a former employer or more experienced colleague, effective mentors often counsel and guide behind the scenes. Mentors who formally contribute to the administrative performance process may not be able to function as a true safe harbor because the dual function of mentor and evaluator may defeat the purpose of a safe harbor. A mentor also need not be publicly identified and may be in a better position to facilitate introductions likely to lead to networking and other professional opportunities by functioning behind the scenes.

 Building Desirable Protégé Traits 

Supporting a protégé’s professional endeavors reflects on the mentor as well as the mentee. Therefore, it behooves the protégé to build traits that make one attractive to a prospective mentor. First, a desirable mentee is responsive, prompt, and organized. It is true that first impressions are lasting. There is nothing more frustrating or off-putting than calling a protégé and not receiving a response, or receiving a delayed response with no plausible excuse. A desirable protégé is also one who is self-motivated, disciplined, and willing to take action. While a protégé is not obligated to act on the mentor’s advice, demonstrating that the advice had a meaningful impact on the protégé’s decision encourages the mentor to continue providing a safe harbor.

A desirable protégé has a strong work ethic and demonstrates internal motivation, which can come from developing a benchmark of productivity. This benchmark creates a buffer in a cutthroat competitive environment. Insecure competitors build themselves up by tearing others down, but this type of competition is limiting because one only rises as high as the other falls. Keeping an internal benchmark allows the protégé to rise as high as his or her capability dictates.

A desirable protégé knows how to maintain inner peace and employs a strategy for dealing with stress, which is part of the legal profession. It is easy to bury stress in negative relievers such as excessive alcohol consumption and abuse of drugs (prescription or otherwise). Legal implications aside, abusing alcohol and other drugs places one’s law practice at risk because it negatively affects professional performance and can discourage a potential safe harbor mentor.

A Safe Harbor Relationship

Most likely it will be incumbent on the protégé to recognize someone who can fulfill the need for a mentor. It is important to choose a mentor that the protégé knows and to whom the mentee feels comfortable expressing thoughts and fears, because open and candid communication is a key factor in developing a safe harbor relationship. Holding back information can inhibit a mentor from providing effective guidance.

Another factor in developing an effective safe harbor relationship is confidentiality. A safe harbor is effective if both parties are confident that conversations will remain confidential. Maintaining confidentiality allows for candid dialogue and allows the mentor to freely disclose professional and personal information without fear that confidences will be disseminated.

A third factor in developing a safe harbor relationship is keeping in contact with the mentor. This often means initiating contact and suggesting meetings. This allows the mentor to guide the protégé’s professional development and speak knowledgeably about the mentee to others. While there may be other important factors in developing a safe harbor relationship, the key is being flexible and adaptable and allowing the relationship to grow naturally. For the mentee who shows trustworthiness and respect, the benefits in developing a successful safe harbor relationship are immeasurable. ■

 April A. Christine is an assistant U.S. attorney for the Central District of California, where she prosecutes gang-related violent federal crimes. She is vice president of the Barristers. The views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author, and do not in any way represent the views of the U.S. Department of Justice or the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

To view an original copy article as it appeared in print click here.

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