By Kristin Holland • May 06, 2014•Writers in Residence, Issues, Mentoring and Networking
A good mentor can help you excel at something you already love. What do you love to do now? Maybe you love a good puzzle. You like to find solutions. Maybe you like to counsel people and guide them to better choices. Perhaps you like to write or do in-depth research to see how others have approached issues and apply it to the situation at hand. You could be an entrepreneur at heart, finding great satisfaction in executing ideas in the marketplace, and using your law degree to help businesses grow. All of these activities are part of the practice of law.
A good mentor can help you develop what you love to do into a career path which uses your passion and your law degree. Sometimes it takes guidance from a mentor to sort through all the options. Sometimes you don't know options exist until a mentor suggests them.
Because Mother's Day was May 11 and because I feel like writing about animals, I'm going write about mentoring through the lens of a story about horses and my mom. As a little girl growing up in Kentucky, way before law school, I was in love with horses. My parents, especially my horse-loving mom, mentored my love by giving me a chocolate and white pinto pony for my sixth birthday. Brownie came with a red nylon Western bridle, red bareback pad, a set of brushes and no further instructions.
My mom and her horsey friend Bonna taught me how to care for Brownie, how to ride and how to get back up after falling off. They taught me how to post at the trot, use my legs and torso for balance instead of the reins and move around horses without getting injured, at least most of the time. My mom and I would ride together in those early days: me on Brownie and mom on Jinx, a spotted Saddlebred, who was a big fiery version of my pony. I followed along behind my mom aspiring to ride the big horse one day.
I read books on horsemanship from the library and joined 4-H when I turned nine. My mom and dad drove me to every 4-H meeting for many years. By the end of high school, I had won many ribbons at shows and was President of the 4-H club. To be able to take weekly riding lessons, I cleaned the stalls and groomed the lesson horses every day after school. My mom negotiated with the school bus driver to drop me off at the barn instead of at home, and she picked me up each night after my work was done. This allowed me to move ahead and excel at horse shows, winning more points than anyone else in my last show season, on a horse mom and I picked out from a Bargain Mart classified ad, rehabilitated and lovingly trained. But I wouldn’t have been able to do that without all my mentors. My mom, my dad, Bonna, my trainers, the volunteer leaders of the 4-H club, friends I met at the barn where I worked and the horses too – all were my mentors throughout those years. Without them, I probably would have remained a spectator, and I certainly wouldn’t have garnered the courage to saddle up Jinx and take him for a ride, which I eventually did do many times.
A good mentor will give you something to work with so that you can explore your passions. It likely won't be a pony, but your mentor will give you the gift of insight. It will be up to you how you use it. As you venture into new territory, your mentor can give you some adjustments. When you need guidance to grow, your mentor can point you to actions you can take to push through whatever barrier is holding you back. Your mentor should be on the bigger horse, doing more than you are currently ready to do, and being an example for you so that you can set your sights on something bigger. A mentor will also cheer you along, being a reference for you when you switch jobs or pointing you to job opportunities that she thinks are good for you even when you are not ready to make a change. Things may be more obvious to her than you, and you'll benefit by listening to her advice.
My professional mentors have given me the gifts of experiences with new types of cases, leadership opportunities in organizations and within my firm and encouragement to keep going through difficult times – both personal and professional. Their generosity has supported my career in countless ways and I would name check them all here, but they would be embarrassed. I have had abundant and consistent mentoring, only rarely labeled as such, but always a driving and sustaining force in my life as a lawyer.
No matter where you are in your journey, look for someone on the bigger horse. Then do what they do. If you are a law student, find a recent graduate or even someone in the class ahead of you and just ask them for advice. If you are an associate, find a junior partner or someone a few years ahead who is succeeding and sincerely seek to get to know them. Join organizations that give you leadership opportunities. Read books on developing business and honing your skills, especially those related to building better relationships with your co-workers and clients. If you want to work in an area of the law where you don’t yet have enough experience to get hired, volunteer to do the hard work related to that area or take on a case pro bono to build your skills and prove your dedication. If you feel really lonely or powerless, then look for someone to help and be a mentor to them. It's crazy how helping someone else can really be self-help too.
My mentors have helped me have good judgment, taught me skills I needed and encouraged me all along the way. I already loved horses, but my mentors actually allowed me to become a competent rider. I had a job as a lawyer, but my professional mentors have helped me become a skilled advocate. I hope that you find mentors like that too. And thanks mom. Happy Mother's Day.