Written by Judge M. Jacqueline Regis, Hennepin County District Court
Ownership of an effective mentoring strategy belongs to the mentee. A definition of mentoring is “to act as a mentor”; a mentor is defined as “a wise and trusted counselor or teacher.” These definitions focus on the role of the mentor. Any mentoring relationship of course necessarily requires a party to serve in the role of teacher and counselor. The reality, however, is that a thoughtful mentoring plan is a key component to one’s career development. This is particularly true in the legal profession. Taking ownership of the professional one aspires to be and of the development of each step toward achieving that goal may in the end make the difference of a lifetime. This is not an endeavor that can be delegated to others. Good mentors contribute to a mentee’s development process. A mentee, however, must own his or her mentoring development.
The traditional approach of the employer-sponsored mentorship of pairing a new professional with a more seasoned one has worked for many in the workforce. In many cases, however, such an approach does not always yield meaningful results. This is understandable because a single mentor is not likely to have expertise in every area a mentee needs to develop, and no third party can truly appreciate all the developmental needs of a mentee. It is incumbent upon each graduate entering the workforce to take early responsibility for every aspect of career planning. An employer-imposed mentoring relationship certainly has its place and value, and should be utilized where it is made available. However, relying solely on an employer-sponsored mentorship for all meaningful career development is not always likely to lead to the results sought, and may not even be appropriate in certain practice areas. The question becomes then: what are the steps a recent graduate can take to assume ownership of his or her mentoring strategy?
One graduate started the process by thinking through how she wished to use her legal training and the kind of practice she wanted to pursue. She understood that trying to map out each step in her career path was not possible nor advisable. She, however, spent time to evaluate and understand her key strengths and interests as well as her growth opportunities. She wrote an honest assessment of the skills she believed she needed to develop, relying on her own insights and on feedback she had received over the years from various sources, including her professors, her employers, and even her parents and friends. She then made a list of five different areas where she believed she needed support, including counseling on her overall career strategy. It was only after going through this process that she carefully selected five professionals who had particular expertise in each area she identified and were willing to be her mentor. In selecting her mentors, her goal was to identify people with skills she wished to acquire and experts in areas she sought to expand her knowledge base.
Once she identified the skill sets her prospective mentors must have to meet her needs, the task of approaching prospective mentors who possessed the required profile and soliciting their assistance was not necessarily difficult or daunting. During law school, to the extent her schedule allowed, she participated in bar association activities, in various clinics, school programs, and community programs. She had even mentored others in their decision to transition from undergraduate to graduate school. Her engagement in these activities, including her willingness to serve as a mentor where appropriate, naturally offered her access to circles where she could find potential mentors. She knew that potential mentors may come from many different circles including co-workers, professors, bar association activities participants, members of the judiciary, friends, and acquaintances. Prospective mentors can also come from referrals from professors, colleagues, friends, and acquaintances. She knew that generally many members of the profession, if they have availability, are generous with their time and very willing when asked to support the advancement of new members of the profession through mentoring where appropriate. Those who do not have time due to other commitments or have no interest in mentoring will simply say no. It did not take her very long to devise a strategy to approach prospective mentors within her familiar circles and to find five professionals willing to serve as her mentors.
She met with each of the mentors on her panel on a regular schedule that she worked out with each of them. She not only received important support to develop skills necessary to become the professional she aspired to be, she also began to build solid relationships, which became the foundation of her long-term professional network. As her career developed and her mentoring relationships strengthened, she periodically examined, reviewed, and updated her initial evaluation of her strengths, interests and opportunities for growth, and she made changes where necessary to the career goals she sought to fulfill through her mentoring strategy. This review process included periodic assessment of each mentoring relationship and whether a particular relationship has fulfilled its purpose, should be modified, strengthened, or discontinued all together. Part of her strategy to continue to develop and nurture her professional network was also her willingness to serve herself as a mentor to others where appropriate and to continue her involvement in bar associations and other community programs where her expertise could be used effectively.
Regardless of the practice area one chooses to enter, a new graduate seeking to practice law faces the daunting task of simultaneously developing expertise in many different substantive and procedural areas. A 2012 article provides an overview of the many different areas a recent graduate endeavoring to practice law must master. No single mentor can offer the support a mentee needs in every area. For this reason, a good mentoring strategy like the example given above should include a panel of mentors with diverse expertise to meet the needs of the mentee.
Building a fulfilling career requires committed sustained work and effort in various different areas. A thoughtful and flexible mentoring strategy to develop indispensable skill sets should be near the top of the list of priorities to achieving the goal of building a solid career.
 Mentor, Merriam-Webster Dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mentor (last visited Feb. 13, 2018); Mentor, American Heritage Dictionary, https://www.ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=mentor (last visited Feb. 13, 2018).
 Kathleen Balthrop Havener, Lifeguarding Lawyers, 29 GPSolo 18, 20 (2012) (“[L]ooking out over an ocean teeming with brand new ‘Nemo’ lawyers, I can’t help but think they’re heading into shark-infested waters. Who will look after them? Review their work? Talk with them about how to actually accomplish the thousands of tasks you need to know to really practice law? Whom does one serve and with what? Where does one apply to be a notary and what’s the point? How does one decide what is appropriate to plead in a complaint and what is not? How do you avoid becoming an incurable workaholic or an abuser of a more damaging substance?”).
 Another author has made a similar recommendation. See Prischilla Claman, Forget Mentors: Employ a Personal Board of Directors, HARV. BUS. REV. (Oct. 20, 2010), https://hbr.org/2010/10/forget-mentors-employ-a-person.