Kristin Holland

Mentors Matter: You Don’t Have To Use the M-Word.

Even though it’s March, you don’t need to use the M-word to have a fruitful mentoring relationship with a trusted advisor.  In January I explained that mentors can be in disguise, in February I tried to help you find a trusted advisor, and now in March my advice is that your mentors don’t need to accept a formal M title to play the role.  Not everyone who mentors you needs to know that you think of them as a mentor.  I am not advocating that you lie about your intentions, I’m just suggesting that the relationship can be full of great advice for you and you can think of someone as your mentor without a formal anointing or title.

While that kind of ambiguity would be impossible to manage if you were dating (are you my boyfriend?) or trying to get a job (do I work here?), it’s perfectly fine where you are seeking insight and advice from someone you happen to admire or respect.  In fact, it’s often less pressure for all involved.  You can get the advice you need, but leave the formalization of the relationship out of the discussion.

Organic mentoring happens when you are open to it.  I attended a legal function recently and sat in open seating.  This gave me the opportunity to talk to lawyers I didn’t know.  On my left was a lawyer from another firm, and we introduced ourselves and chatted throughout the night.  We discussed our careers, in-house opportunities, partnership track, pressures on associates and found we knew some people in common.  I had never met her before, but it was really easy to talk with her and I was happy to give her my personal perspective on the changing nature of big firm practice and partnership.  I was interested in getting more involved with the organization hosting the event, and she knew someone on the planning committee.  We committed to follow up and are planning a lunch.  We work at competing firms but that was no impediment to an open, interesting and, I hope, mutually beneficial discussion.  I haven’t told her that she mentored me about the organization in which I hope to be more active.  I hope that I gave her some good information about being a partner in a big firm.  Was it mentoring?  I think so, although no one used that term.

I recently asked a woman I admire who has experience as a general counsel if she had noticed differences in the ways that women and men negotiate pay, knowing she was involved in pay decisions for her legal team on an annual basis.  She said that it was a really good question and that she had noticed differences.  Women are less likely to be self-promoters, and when they do promote themselves, don’t always do it effectively.  Sometimes they are too aggressive and that hurts negotiations, possibly more than if they are too timid or self-effacing.  Her advice to me on pay negotiations was simple:  explain why you should be paid what you are seeking with tangible accomplishments and references to market data (if possible).  She said that the people who can do that, while maintaining a calm and business-like demeanor, were the most likely to get a raise – mainly because they demonstrated that they deserved it and made it easy for her to take their case up the ladder.  She definitely mentored me with that advice.

If you want a more formal approach, you can try out other options.  I’m also involved as a mentor in the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity (  “The Leadership Council on Legal Diversity is an organization of more than 200 corporate chief legal officers and law firm managing partners—the leadership of the profession—who have dedicated themselves to creating a truly diverse U.S. legal profession.”  (  LCLD offers a formal mentoring program, including regional meetings and a comprehensive Mentoring Toolkit, with monthly topics for discussion (  These materials are great tools for a structured mentoring relationship.  If you are a 1L interested in becoming a mentee in this great program, check this link for registration dates for next year:  (  This program introduces two strangers – the mentor and mentee – who are many years apart in levels of experience.  I think that it helps if you are a IL to have a formal program to lean on.  I would have been too intimidated at that stage to have natural conversations with senior women lawyers, so this is a good framework to help a relationship like that get started.

I hope that these examples have inspired you to either seek advice where you sit, or reach out and apply to be formally assigned to a mentor, if that is more your speed.  Mentors matter and let March be your month for getting a great relationship started, even if you never use the “M” word to describe it.  By the way, the two women I mention above graciously consented to let me use our private discussions as examples in this article.  I greatly appreciate their permission, and their advice.

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