I consider myself one of the lucky ones; I was “forced” to find a mentor. After just three years in the mortgage industry, and only five years as a practicing lawyer, I was plunged into the abyss of corporate “counseling.” My predecessor, who had taught me everything I knew, embarked upon a new journey, leaving me to fill the void. This was no small feat. And although I knew a lot, I certainly didn’t know everything. I couldn’t.
One colleague recommended leadership training, to aid in the development of my management skills. Another colleague recommended a mentor, to aid in the development of everything else. The leadership training was a no-brainer. The company was aware that I had never managed employees, and I was fully capable of admitting that I needed some management help.
The mentor, on the other hand, was less straightforward. The company had promoted me because of my knowledge, expecting me to be the person with the answers. If I agreed to retain a mentor, it would reveal that I did not have all the answers. Personally speaking, this was a tough call.
In that moment, I had two options: I could reject the offer, pretending that I was fully capable of tackling this job by myself. Or, I could accept the help, humbly conceding that I needed some “counseling” in order to effectively counsel. Accepting the offer and taking on a mentor was one of the best career decisions I have ever made. I cannot highlight enough the importance of having a mentor. And while you might think this advice doesn’t apply to you – that you don’t need a mentor because you have been practicing law for years – I can assure you that no matter your season of life, a mentor can be one of the most valuable investments you will ever make.
Benefits of Being Mentored
I’ll be honest. Sometimes, I just don’t know where to start. To my continued amazement, every day is different. I have come to learn that the manifestation of novel conundrums is inevitable. Knowing that I have someone to help in those times of confusion gives me the confidence I need to effectively and competently guide my client.
Confidence is crucial for every lawyer. But we must not mistakenly understand confidence to mean that we should know everything. On the contrary, confidence is understanding that even though we might not have the right answer immediately, we know we will respond in the correct and appropriate way. Keeping this in mind, I never lack confidence. I know that I will be able to competently counsel because – even if I don’t know the answer – my mentor is only a phone call away.
In addition to the confidence my mentor instills in me, the depth of my knowledge has grown immensely since the start of our mentorship. Some of my knowledge has developed with experience, but much of it has come through conversations with my mentor. Over time, my mentor has consistently taught me how to think critically, instead of just handing me the solution. Now, when I call my mentor, I have subconsciously grown into the habit of trying to answer the question first. I no longer ask for the answer, but I propose my theories and request feedback. To my mentor’s credit, my ability to reason and figure things out on my own is rapidly improving.
Even if you are considered an expert in your field, you can never have too much knowledge. As California attorney Jill Switzer notes, “What I’ve learned over my many years is that there is always something to be learned, that if even you come away with only a single new nugget of advice or single new nugget of information, that’s more than you had before.”1
Aside from the sheer knowledge I have gained through this mentorship, having a mentor has been freeing. In a past column, I wrote about work-life balance and the importance of evaluating items on your “ship” at work. If you truly want to achieve “work-life balance,” you must take an inventory of the items on your ship and determine whether something can be thrown overboard.2 From a purely cognitive perspective, my mentor allows me to throw items overboard that occupy too much space inside my head, freeing up brain space and allowing me to slow down and breathe. Things like worry, pressure, and fear quickly diminish. And from a practical perspective, my mentor allows me to prioritize things and pass on questions when I simply lack time to deal with them.
I had been thrown into the water, and instead of letting me sink, she threw me a life preserver.
When a customer is at the closing table, expecting to sign papers and get the keys to their new home, the last thing I want is to cause a delay because I don’t know the answer to a closing question. I can remember one occasion where this exact scenario was happening. It felt like everyone in the company was waiting for an answer, and I did not have it. I immediately contacted my mentor, but instead of giving me the quick response I needed, my mentor responded with, “Learning opportunity: What do you think?”
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Now I am fully aware that my mentor was not plotting to sabotage a closing; he was simply trying to help me grow in my knowledge. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to “grow” in that moment, so I politely explained the urgency, and I got the quick answer I needed. I got the item off my ship. Having a mentor has truly lightened the load.
Learning Law, Learning Lawyering
Finally, and quite possibly of pivotal importance, my mentor has given me something I never expected: insight. Starting out, I assumed my mentor would answer questions here and there. I truly never anticipated the extent to which my mentor would teach me what it means to be a good corporate counsel and how to take the steps necessary to solidify my role in the company. Through sharing personal experiences and challenging me with thought-provoking inquiries, I have discovered the distinction between a lawyer who just answers questions and a well-rounded in-house counsel who can skillfully navigate the complex issues facing a mortgage company in a niche industry that is constantly changing.
In the past year, my company has undergone significant change, including the addition of our largest branch location so far and a major shift in executive leadership. Without my mentor’s steady insight, the challenges I faced may have been overpowering, rather than just slightly overwhelming. Instead, because of conversations with my mentor, both amid the change and over the past several years, I felt secure, privy to clarity, and confident of the path I had to take.
I know that I will be able to competently counsel because – even if I don’t know the answer – my mentor is only a phone call away.
If you are still convinced that you don’t need a mentor, I encourage you to loosen the stronghold and release the desire to control. Ultimately, the refusal to ask for help or to delegate is an indicator that a person wants to be in control. Even if you are a seasoned veteran, there is absolutely no harm in considering another view. You are still the decision-maker. If you don’t like the advice, you don’t have to take it. I can recount several times when I chose not to follow my mentor’s advice. In the end, you know the client and you have the final say. But asking for help and being open-minded can never hurt. And, I assure you, the benefits you will receive are tenfold.
Finding a Mentor
Throughout my life and career, I’ve had many different mentors, including my first manager, who was brilliant and beyond influential. But I chose to focus this article on my experience with one mentor, Brian Levy, who stepped in at a turning point in my life. I had basically landed my dream job, but I was also lacking in experience. It was a make-or-break moment, and he truly came to my rescue.
I often think back to that moment when my colleague first introduced me to Brian. Admittedly, I felt as though I was being criticized. Were people disappointed in my work? Did I take too long to complete tasks? Was I too young? At the time, I certainly didn’t feel like one of the lucky ones. In hindsight, I know my colleague was being compassionate. To a certain degree, I had been thrown into the water, and instead of letting me sink, she threw me a life preserver. I am grateful that she did, and I am equally grateful that I did not become defensive and let the voices of insecurity and doubt take over. Instead, I let down the shield, opening the door for my mentor to step in and help me become the lawyer I am today.
I truly never anticipated the extent to which my mentor would teach me what it means to be a good corporate counsel and how to take the steps necessary to solidify my role in the company.
And while I consider myself one of the lucky ones for being compelled to find a mentor, I also recognize that working in house presented a unique, not-so-lucky, challenge. I would need to retain outside counsel, which came at an expense to my company. I am thankful my company was willing to invest in me and continues to empower that relationship.
If you work in house and are not so fortunate, you can still find mentors through networking and other avenues, obviously keeping in mind the duty to preserve client confidentiality. If you work at a law firm, you are likely surrounded by other lawyers who can help.
If your firm has no mentorship program, I encourage you to start one, or simply ask for help. Most people are flattered to be asked for help. And if you inadvertently meet someone who is not, then consider yourself one of the lucky ones to have figured it out early and find someone else. There is no shortage of qualified, intelligent, motivational, and inspiring mentors in the professional world; all you need to do is find the one who is willing to help you take your career, your critical thinking, and your confidence to the next level.
Need a Mentor? Want to Mentor? Sign Up for the State Bar’s Mentorship Program
The State Bar’s Ready.Set.Practice. mentoring program needs mentors and mentees for 2019. Sign up today – and make a difference in the practice of law in Wisconsin
Ready.Set.Practice. is a volunteer mentoring program matching new lawyers with experienced mentors who can assist them with law practice management, effective client representation, and career development.
If you are a lawyer looking for guidance in learning a new practice area, or an experienced lawyer interested in sharing your knowledge with a colleague, this program is for you. Remember, mentoring isn’t just for new lawyers. It can be helpful at any point in your career when you are:
undergoing a significant transition
assuming new responsibilities
entering a new role, including becoming a partner or a senior manager
How the Program Works. Mentors and mentees who sign up for the year-long program, running from January to December 2019, will watch a short webinar training and receive a handbook. Mentors and mentees are asked to meet at least once each month and complete 10 activities together using suggestions provided in the handbook.
For more information and to sign up, visit wisbar.org/readysetpractice. Questions? Contact Michelle Sherbinow, State Bar member services coordinator, (800) 728-7788 ext. 6184, (608) 250-6184.
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How do you nurture creativity in yourself and others?
I’ve never identified myself as “creative,” but in recent years, I’ve found something that has truly helped to nurture my creativity: turning off the noise. Although it’s not always easy, I have begun to prioritize solitude and I now aim to spend time alone, at least once a week, journaling and in prayer. When I put my thoughts down on paper and surrender my burdens to something greater than myself, everything comes into focus. I can think more clearly and visualize ideas that I hadn’t thought of in the past. Without this quiet time, my thoughts become jumbled and I feel overwhelmed.
I often encourage my colleagues to disconnect as well, in whichever way works best for them. I remind them it’s not selfish to cultivate one’s well-being, and in the end, the intentional isolation will benefit their relationships and their work. Solitude is refreshing and can invigorate the mind, soul, and body.
Our culture is demanding, but nonstop work leads to exhaustion and burnout and to dull, predictable thinking. I have found that the best way to foster creativity is to break free from the nonstop work and schedule that much-needed silent time alone. For someone who used to withdraw from anything deemed to require “creative juices,” I’m surprised at how natural it has become to get those creative juices flowing, and all because of the time I spend alone each week, with the noise turned off.
Stephanie Ziebell, Waterstone Mortgage Corporation, Pewaukee.
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2 ”Is Life Balance Off? Lighten the Load,” 5 Wis. Law. 41 (May 2017).