Mentoring in the Legal Profession – Taking Up the Challenge

“The expert in anything was once a beginner” – Helen Hays.

Do we remember this once we are on the other side, and do we give a hand to those who still need to catch up? Do we need a role model? Do we teach by example?

There is so much information on mentoring available today, and it goes so far to offer so many different definitions of mentoring. Originating in ancient Greece, it is far from something new, but its meaning and relevance are being emphasized more and more. Mentoring in any profession is more important than we are ready to acknowledge, but in the legal profession, it seems to be a challenge per se. More so due to general perception, very present in Balkan countries that we do not need advice or someone telling us how things should be done, since we “know it all” already. Multiply that with a lawyer and you will get a tough nut to crack. However, I feel that new generations out there are more eager to learn and have less of this attitude.

Truth is that no law school prepares you for practicing law. And practicing law is not easy!

At first, you know nothing, and knowing something seems to be in the far future. But having someone to lead you in the quest is priceless. Having guidance on how to properly do the research, where to look for the answers, what to pay attention to, how to structure your drafts, all seemingly meaningless questions, are in fact an important base for further growth. Also, it is not just specific knowledge that beginners are eager to consult someone about, but relationships with clients, dress code, company/office culture, courtroom behavior, building confidence, and many other questions we have as novices at work. Further to that, there are all those moral and ethical musts or dilemmas that we face in practice and the challenge of how to deal with such.

So many young professionals go through long working hours without proper guidance or support, and not to mention feedback or appreciation. It is often said that no question is stupid, yet many are afraid to ask a question because of the fear of the perception that they will be deemed unintelligent. So, we learn by observing, not questioning or critical thinking, and we adopt the behavior without proper understanding thereof. When asked for guidance, many senior level lawyers will tell you to “Google it” or “research it” when just a slight push in the right direction would be so much more beneficial than losing hours in uncertainty and degrading your self-confidence in the process. We often forget that we have been in the same place and that teaching something the same way we were taught does not make it right.

Incorrect perception that one who has not had a mentor cannot perform the role, can be a challenge too. But mentoring is not taught, it is your own will to reach out to someone who is in the same place you once were and offer what you needed at that time. There are certain skills that mentors should have, but those can be learned and developed. Many law firms or law offices do not have any mentoring programs or structures in place, and the challenge seems to be two-fold where neither mentors devote time and energy to teach nor mentees have the confidence to ask. The benefits of mentoring, however, are countless for both sides,

“When one teaches, two learn.” – Robert Heinlein.

As a result of mentorship, not only does the mentee thrive in its success, but the personal satisfaction of seeing your mentee succeed is enormous, if you choose to see it that way. Therefore, the right, or should I say the “fair approach” for a mentor should be to try to answer numerous questions, or at least provide the guidance on how to obtain answers, but most importantly provide a general comfort that someone believes in you and wants you to succeed. Mentors should put their ego aside and share their knowledge as well as their own failures with their mentees. Honesty gives you credit and shows that mistakes are made, and it is important to learn from them. At the same time, knowledge should be shared and not kept for yourself jealously out of fear that your mentee might outgrow you.

Challenges and learning do not end once you are no longer a “Rookie”. There are new challenges faced in every career stage, when growing from junior or associate level to a more senior level or a partner in a law firm, not to mention challenges of starting your own law office. Although there is a general moral obligation to reach out and help younger colleagues, not many lawyers are eager to devote their billable hours to such voluntary tasks.

The challenge is even greater if we take into consideration cultural differences. There is a huge interest in United States and the European countries, in developing good mentoring programs, be it at universities, companies, law firms or other organizations. Is the perception of mentoring different in Balkan countries, or do we still not recognize the importance of it? Would it not be great if young professionals starting their law practice had a choice to, once members of the Bar Association, choose their mentor amongst established colleagues?

 

Personal synopsis

Lajla Hastor is co-founder and CEO at Association lava project, an NGO with the main goal of mentoring, coaching and offering students and young professionals a platform for learning, aspiring, visioning and achieving. She holds a Bachelor’s degree at law from the University of Sarajevo and a Master’s degree in European and International Business Law from the University of Vienna. Her extensive legal knowledge and expertise has been gained by working at Wolf Theiss, Sarajevo. She also holds a certificate in Project Management from Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies. She devotes her time to continuous learning and development. Lajla can be reached at lajla.hastor@hotmail.com.