How to Be a Great Mentee

The Bencher—January/February 2019

By Tania N. Valdez, Esquire

Mentoring relationships are critical for advancing your career, providing perspective, modeling what is possible to achieve, learning professional development, and building confidence. While networking with peers is also beneficial, your peers may not have the most useful advice because they are experiencing the same difficulties you are. Furthermore, competitiveness sometimes exists among people at similar points in their careers. On the other hand, a mentor is someone who has successfully made it through the struggles you’re experiencing and who shouldn’t feel conflicted about helping you out.

Mentors play important roles at different stages of your career. For example, my first law-related mentor was a college professor who made me realize that I, as a woman of color who had never met a lawyer in my life, could dare to dream of going to law school. Later I was mentored by an older law student who helped me figure out how to survive my 1L classes. Other mentors have supported me through various career changes.

How do we best perform our role as mentees? Over the past few years, I’ve taught and mentored numerous students and young attorneys in my positions as a clinical instructor and intern supervisor. Here are a few tips based on characteristics I’ve noticed in my most successful mentees:

Keep an open mind.

An important aspect of being a great mentee is keeping an open mind about the advice you receive. I recall someone long ago advising me to attend as many networking events as possible. I’m sure I nodded and mumbled a lukewarm “sure” while mentally writing off the advice. At the time I thought of networking as a dreaded activity that involved hanging around the appetizers feeling anxious until finally getting up the guts to inflict awkward small talk on someone. In retrospect, not only did my mentor give sound advice, but I also missed an opportunity to get guidance on how to network effectively. I could have asked any number of questions that would have made me feel more confident to try networking: Why do you think networking is important?”

“Can you tell me about a time when meeting someone at an event worked out well for you?”

“What questions do you ask people to get conversation flowing?”

“How do I choose someone to talk to?”

Now, several years later, I fully realize that networking is simply relationship-building, and I preach its merits to law students and new lawyers frequently. Although I often see the dread creep up on their faces, I am always impressed with the ones who ask follow-up questions rather than changing the subject. Stepping out of your comfort zone will help you grow.

Put in the effort to build the relationship.

Remember that the mentee largely drives the mentoring relationship. Your mentor is likely to be a busy person, given that he or she has attained some level of success. It’s also safe to assume that someone who is willing to mentor one person is also mentoring others. Be proactive in reaching out to set up meetings. Don’t be afraid to follow up (respectfully) if you haven’t heard back for a while. While it’s of course imperative to respect your mentor’s busy schedule, don’t be shy about politely asking for help. Let your mentor tell you “no” if he or she is too busy; don’t be the one to assume that your mentor won’t have time to help you.

If you have a specific ask, state it clearly.

Let your mentor know if you have a time-sensitive request related to matters such as resume guidance, a pressing job hunt, or how to get off on the right foot in your new job. Sending a general “can we meet soon?” request is likely okay at various points in the relationship, but your mentor is more likely to respond timely if he or she knows of an impending deadline and will likely have better advice if he or she can think about your question in advance.

Follow through.

Although you are your own person and certainly are not required to be your mentor’s “mini-me,” make sure to take your mentor up on offers for assistance. If what your mentor suggests does not interest you, or you decide later not to follow through, simply let your mentor know that you appreciate the advice but that you have decided
to go a different route.

Share your successes.

The most rewarding part of mentoring is seeing that the time and effort yields positive results. Report back about the outcome of what you discussed with your mentor. If you took your mentor’s advice to call a colleague, let your mentor know how it went. Even if your effort wasn’t fruitful, your mentor will appreciate knowing that you took his or her advice. If your effort was fruitful, your mentor can revel in your success with you! Either way, you will have shown that you take your mentor’s time and effort seriously, and they will be more likely to help you again in the future.

Pay it forward.

As you develop in your own pursuits, there may be ways for you to help your mentor. One way to support your mentor’s career is to nominate him or her for an award, whether it is specific to mentorship, community involvement, or work. Paying it forward by passing on to your own mentees the advice you’ve received is also a way to honor the people who have helped you along the way. In other words, once you’ve reached the next level, don’t pull up the ladder behind you. 

What if I don’t have a mentor?

There are a plethora of structured ways to find mentors. For example, your Inn of Court, law school, or local bar association may have a mentoring program. However, it would be a mistake to think that you can only get a mentor through a formal mentoring program or to assume that there will officially be a “mentor-mentee” label on the relationship.

Personally, the majority of lasting mentoring relationships I’ve had—whether as the mentor or mentee—have developed organically by connecting with people through work or social events. Find a senior colleague at your internship or workplace that you can take to coffee or ask for advice on a specific project and go from there. Volunteer at legal nights and talk to the more experienced attorneys you admire. Go to networking events and strike up conversations. If you’re on the shy side, ask your friends if they know of attorneys who practice areas of law you’re interested in and ask them to make an introduction. And most importantly, when identifying mentors, make sure they like what they do! An ideal mentor will inspire you to make moves.

Tania N. Valdez, Esquire is a civil rights attorney at Killmer, Lane & Newman, LLP in Denver, Colorado. She previously worked in federal courts and as a clinical instructor at UC Berkeley Law. She is a Barrister member of the Justice Sonia Sotomayor American Inn of Court.

© 2019 Tania N. Valdez, Esquire. This article was originally published in the January/February 2019 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the written consent of the American Inns of Court.