Diary of a busy practitioner, juggling work and family somewhere in England
In my last blog I asked for feedback on mentoring. I’ve had a bit (and am grateful), but not much. When I asked on Twitter where people met their partners for a blog on office romances, I had 533 votes. When I asked whether people had positive or poor experiences of formal mentoring, I had 41 votes with a relatively even split. Maybe no one cares enough to even read a blog on mentoring. I hope I am wrong, because even if mentoring schemes are rubbish, the same can not be said for mentoring in general.
Going back to basics, a mentor is surely someone who has trodden the same path you want to tread, or at least a similar one, and can help lead you forward. Someone with wisdom and experience that you don’t have yet. This can be useful for everyone, but may be particularly important to you if you are from a background that makes that path more challenging - compared with others’ backgrounds.
It is so important for people to see what they can achieve by seeing what other people like them have already achieved, or at least being shown the right path.
In Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming, she talks a lot about being made to feel different - 'other', as she puts it - because of the colour of her skin. In 2009 she visited the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson school in Islington. The school was high achieving despite having a large number of refugee and otherwise disadvantaged pupils. In 2011 she took a group of the school’s pupils to the University of Oxford, and in 2012 she invited a group of them to the White House. A study later showed that the school’s results improved dramatically as a result of the relationship.
As she put it, kids invest more when they are being invested in. She also quietly ran a mentoring and leadership program for teens, matching girls from potentially challenging backgrounds with women such as Jill Biden and senior White House staff. The program was rigid in some ways - with monthly meetings and formal sessions on some topics - but informal in others, with chatting on all topics encouraged and real friendships developing over the course of the program.
I was involved in a really poor scheme at my old secondary school a few years ago. I was paired up with a high achieving Year 11 student, and I met with her once a term. That’s three times. In a classroom where the other mentees were also having their meetings. And we had to fill in a form to record what we had discussed. She was driven and knew exactly where she was driving to. However, as a young Black girl hoping to go into the law she will no doubt have had some struggles to come. I think she could have had a better mentor than me, but it was also the wrong time.
You probably already have a mentor, even if you don’t know it. Who is the person you can phone and say 'I’ve messed up'? That is your mentor. My own Mr Miyagi is the retired licenced conveyancer who trained me. I know I can phone him at home at any time and he will offer me practical, empathetic and sound advice. At the beginning of the pandemic my own padawan qualified and went to work in another department, but from her bedroom. I really try to make an effort to check in with her, give her time, and ensure she knows that she can ask me any stupid questions she likes, as often as she likes. What if, by putting this type of relationship on a more formal footing, we can help more people to have more people they can turn to for advice?
In my firm I think it would be a really positive step to introduce a question on our appraisal forms to ask staff if they would like a mentor. Looking back over my career so far, it would have been useful to have a mentor as a trainee, as a newly qualified solicitor, as a returner from maternity leave twice, and as someone who wanted to forge a path to partnership. New partners could surely benefit from mentoring, and even new equity partners ('what are they!' I hear you cry - a subject for another day.)
When I returned from each maternity leave, in my mind I didn’t have a problem with confidence but my stomach told a different story. For a full week each time, I raced to the toilets in Debenhams on the high street every lunchtime. Maybe, in hindsight, it would have been useful to have someone who had felt the same intense feelings of heartbreak at being 30 miles away from their reason-for-being that I could have talked to without feeling silly or unprofessional. As explored above, to feel understood, to feel empathy, to see a way forward (either with defined goals or not) is even more important if you are a minority in your firm or industry.
I strongly feel that the role of mentor is an important one. I would suggest that a mentoring program should allow the mentee to choose the mentor, subject of course to the mentor willingly giving up the time to do it. It should be a friendship, with genuine care on the part of the mentor. It should not be a form filling or box ticking exercise. The parties should be able to set their own structure and goals. The relationship should be one to be proud of, with opportunities for celebrating goals being reached by both the firm and the pair themselves. It requires confidence on the part of mentors to accept that they have something to offer, and put themselves forward. It requires confidence on the part of the mentee to accept the support and not feel it could be perceived as a weakness.
If you don’t have time for formal mentoring, be honest and don’t do it. But in the words of another great mentor, Yoda, we should always pass on what we have learned. Going back to my previous blog about women (not) building up other women, be proud to be the one that does. Offer support and friendship at times of transition for colleagues. And if you aren’t even managing that at the moment (we have all been quite busy) then at the very least be proud of the path that you have forged, because maybe you are showing someone the way without even knowing.
*Some facts and identities have been altered in the above article