Questions to Ask Yourself Before Agreeing to Be a Mentee or a Mentor

The Bencher—January/February 2022

By Judge David W. Lannetti and Jennifer L. Eaton, Esquire

The potential value and benefits of a mentor-mentee relationship are well established. Even so, the nature of these relationships vary for many reasons. Some resemble apprenticeships, while others are more akin to pen pals, with infinite other possibilities in between. Regardless of the type of mentorship relationship you are looking to create, both parties will benefit from some simple planning at the outset. This advance planning provides the opportunity to think about the goals, time commitment, and overall effort that make the most sense for the mentorship endeavor. Further, the success of the relationship depends on a common understanding of each person’s perspective.

From the viewpoint of both mentee and mentor, the answers to a few key questions at the outset of the relationship can properly set the foundation for the mentorship dynamic. First, what do I want to get out of the mentorship relationship? And second, how will I be able to measure whether the mentorship relationship is successful? These first two questions present the perfect opportunity for each party to visualize the beginning, middle, and possible culmination of the mentorship endeavor even before it begins.

As is the case with any goal-setting process, these questions also require significant reflection to assess your current situation and visualize where you can realistically end up. This will enable you to focus on your own personal expectations, which you can then share with your mentor/mentee counterpart. And each party needs to define success, whether it is a measurable step toward a tangible goal, or the accomplishment of a joint project, or simply satisfaction or fellowship. Third, in what form and how often do I plan to connect with my mentor/mentee? Establishing a schedule and communication routine can serve as a friendly reminder to connect while keeping each other accountable.

From the perspective of the mentee, the process of picking a mentor can be challenging and perhaps intimidating, but keeping a good mentor and making the most out of a mentorship relationship can prove even more challenging. To this point, it is important to understand your individual professional goals before approaching a potential mentor, as most mentees are looking for a mentor who represents, at least in part, who they want to become. A career path is a natural compass for the mentorship relationship. Once you define your anticipated career path and professional goals, you should be able to better understand how your mentor can help you traverse the trail. Of course, you may be seeking a mentor because you are unsure how to get from point A to point B; if that is the case, make sure you enter the relationship with appropriate questions to ask your mentor as you explore the possibilities. If you are uncertain about your desired career path, be sure to disclose to your mentor your uncertainty, as well as which potential paths you are considering.

From the perspective of the mentor, a key consideration is how to make the mentorship effort a productive use of time. We all have a finite amount of time to do work, spend time with friends and family, and engage in other activities we enjoy. Evaluating how mentoring fits into your commitments is an important pre-mentorship consideration. If you don’t have the required time to devote to a particular mentorship relationship, don’t take it on right now. Understand your constraints and the expectations of your mentee. Additionally, you need to evaluate whether you have the necessary skills that your mentee needs to support his or her professional goals. To provide the proper professional guidance to your mentee, you need to be able to visualize the necessary stepping stones—often invisible to your mentee—that will enable him or her to attain his or her goals. Mentee needs also vary; some mentees are looking for cheerleaders, others for sounding boards, and others for expertise and guidance. Listen to your potential mentee and decide if you have the appropriate skills to help. And if you decide that you do, jump in and enjoy the experience.

In summary, there are several questions that both mentees and mentors should ask themselves in anticipation of starting a mentorship relationship:

  • What am I looking to get out of the mentorship relationship?
  • How will I measure success within the mentorship relationship?
  • In what form and how often do I want to connect with a mentor?

A mentee should also consider two additional questions before seeking a mentor:

  • What are my professional goals?
  • How can a mentor help me reach my goals?
  • And a mentor should consider two different questions before agreeing to take on a mentee:
  • Do I have adequate time to be the mentor that this mentee needs?
  • How can I help a mentee reach his or her professional goals?

All in all, mentorship relationships should be productive and enjoyable for all parties involved. They can be incredibly rewarding, assisting mentees to successfully traverse the trails of the legal profession while affording mentors the opportunity to give back to those who want to follow in their footsteps while enjoying the success of others. Take time to think about the mentorship in advance and then make time to get the most out of your experience.

Judge David W. Lannetti is a circuit court judge in Norfolk, Virginia (Virginia’s 4th Judicial Circuit). Jennifer L. Eaton, Esquire, is a civil litigator who is currently taking a leave of absence from private practice to serve as a judicial law clerk on the newly expanded Court of Appeals of Virginia. Lannetti is a past president, and both he and Eaton are current Executive Committee members of the James Kent American Inn of Court in Norfolk. The views advanced in this article are those of the authors alone and should not be mistaken for the official views of the Norfolk Circuit Court or the Court of Appeals of Virginia.

© 2022 Judge David W. Lannetti and Jennifer L. Eaton, 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.