Are You My Mentor? A Reflection on 20 Years of Participation in the American Inns of Court

The Bencher—January/February 2022

By Elizabeth S. Fenton, Esquire

Almost 20 years ago, I published an article in this very publication about how lawyers new to the practice could, and should, mentor their more experienced counterparts. A third-year associate in a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, litigation boutique at the time and a new member of the Temple American Inn of Court, I wrote about ways in which junior lawyers like me could help senior lawyers in their practices. Mentoring did not need to be a one-way street. In fact, the most rewarding mentoring relationships involved sharing of ideas, networks, and advice. I still believe that.

Since then, I worked as an associate and non-equity partner at a large international law firm, then as a shareholder in a mid-sized firm, and now as an equity partner in an Am Law 200 national law firm, Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP. In these roles, I participated in formal mentoring programs as both a mentor and mentee, served as a member of recruiting committees, and designed and implemented associate evaluation/career development programs.

Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned about mentoring in those two decades and why I attribute having great mentors—of many types—as key to whatever success and satisfaction I’ve found as an attorney in private practice. Now, as a member of the mentoring committee of the Richard S. Rodney American Inn of Court in Wilmington, Delaware, I work to apply some of these lessons to our Inn’s mentoring efforts.

Formal mentoring programs aren’t the only option.

Many legal employers, bar associations, and law schools have formal mentoring programs in which mentors are matched with mentees. For first-generation lawyers, members of groups that have historically been underrepresented in the profession, and new lawyers, these programs are vital. As a first-generation lawyer and a woman, I benefited greatly from having formal, assigned mentors in my early years of practice. However, there are limits to how well some of these formal mentoring programs succeed in their mission. First, the expectations for mentors and mentees often are not articulated or, if they are, they are too general. Second, the mentor and mentee may not be well-matched, and therefore the relationship is not rewarding for either member. Accordingly, while there will always be a place for formal programs, they should not be the only model.

Your mentor does not need to look like you.

When I was a young lawyer (and I was a very young lawyer once—I graduated from law school at age 24), I mistakenly assumed that my mentors would need to “look like me.” Mostly, that meant they would need to be women. And as I matured as a person and a lawyer, I wanted to know more women litigators who were also parents. What I learned is that to succeed as a lawyer you should not limit yourself to developing relationships with lawyers who look like you. As a corollary to that notion, I also learned that I needed to look to all kinds of lawyers (and people) to figure out what would work best for me in my career.

Some of my mentors have modeled the way for me in my personal life, as a parent, spouse, and daughter. Some have modeled the way for me in showing me where I wanted to focus my practice. (And some of those were the same ones who encouraged me to take the Delaware bar 12 years after graduating from law school, as a parent of two children, and a partner in a law firm, so that I could transition my practice from products liability and financial services litigation to corporate litigation.) Some have modeled the way for me in how to develop a practice and a professional reputation. There was not only one mentor from whom I learned. In other words, establish a personal board of directors assembled of people you admire.

Your best mentors may not have a JD.

Some of the people who have contributed the most to my development as a lawyer were not lawyers. I worked hard to have great relationships with the legal assistants, secretaries, paralegals, receptionists, and what many often refer to as “staff” in the law firm world. As a new lawyer, I relied on the advice and suggestions of staff to fill me in on the preferences of the partners for whom I worked, to keep me from making rookie mistakes, and to put things in perspective on the hard days. One of the secretaries who taught me the most—by example as much as anything—recently retired. She posted about her retirement on social media, and I commented, “Generations of lawyers have been molded by your smarts, good sense, and compassion.” I meant it.

Sponsors are important, too.

At a certain point in my career (when I was aiming to become a partner), I realized the importance of sponsorship, as opposed to mentorship. A sponsor is, in my view, sort of like an uber-mentor. A sponsor will advocate for you and spend political capital on you. To advance in most employment settings, you must have a sponsor. A sponsor is someone who wants to help you and who probably has concrete reasons to help you (such as your work is valuable to a key client, you have specialized knowledge valuable to the sponsor’s practice, or you have a key client relationship that the sponsor wants to keep in the firm). A sponsor is not someone assigned to help you. Don’t assume that someone will act as your sponsor; sometimes you have to ask for sponsorship, and sometimes you even have to put it very plainly as to why their sponsorship of you is in both of your interests.

Keep in touch. Or don’t.

It’s okay to move on from a mentor-mentee relationship that is not working. This goes both ways. As a mentee, I found it obvious when a mentor and I did not click or when we reached the natural end of what we accomplished together. I will always think fondly of the mentors who have helped me along the way, but with whom I have lost touch.

Likewise, as a mentor, I used to get frustrated (and take it far too personally) when I perceived that a mentee did not take my advice (or, in one memorable case, did the exact opposite of what I suggested). It’s okay to transition away from a mentoring relationship that is not working. Unless it is a formal assignment, where you have to take some kind of concrete action, you can usually just let it go.

Technology: friend or enemy?

The ease of communication in this day and age makes maintaining the mentoring relationship easier than ever in certain ways. In addition, it enables you to have access to a network of mentors across the globe. That said, there is value in sitting across the table from your mentor or mentee. I look forward to the day, hopefully soon, when we can resume those kinds of meetings and bump elbows, shake hands, give each other hugs, or even be socially distant so we can continue to grow professionally and personally.

The American Inns of Court Movement is a leader and innovator in mentoring.

If you’re a reader of The Bencher, I probably don’t need to say this, but I will anyway. Since 1997, I’ve been a member of three different American Inns of Court (the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Temple, and Richard S. Rodney). We organically mentor each other all the time in our small groups, which are comprised of law students, associates, counsel, partners, and judges. Working together in these small groups, we share ideas, correct each other’s mistakes, model professionalism, and encourage each other in myriad ways.

In our regular meetings and our joint meetings with other Inns, we grow our networks, learn, and practice leadership. We should be proud of this aspect of our mission and own the unique way in which the movement improves the profession. As many Inns, including my own, begin to adopt more formal mentoring programs, we should build on this success and use the lessons we have learned to adapt to the many changes and challenges our profession faces as we navigate our way into a post-pandemic future.

Elizabeth S. Fenton, Esquire, is a partner in Ballard Spahr LLP in Wilmington, Delaware. She is a member of the Richard S. Rodney American Inn of Court.

© 2022 Elizabeth S. Fenton, Esquire. This article was originally published in the January/February 2022 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.