*by Maitland Shaheen
In 2017, Level designed and launched the Blazing Trails Mentorship Program, a unique initiative aimed at helping law students connect and engage with daring legal professionals who have blazed trails and defined their own metrics of success.
In the final installment of our 2018-19 Mentorship blog post series (see parts one and two), we caught up with a few of our incredible mentors to hear their thoughts on mentorship, carving out a legal career, navigating a changing job market as a young lawyer, and their experiences with the program. Want to learn more about our mentors, including their backgrounds, expertise and current positions? Click here!
What approach should mentors take when building a mentorship relationship?
That will depend on what kind of relationship it is. Is there already a formal relationship (senior to junior associate, lawyer to articling student, professor to student, etc.)? Is there a formal framework within which you’re working (e.g. the Level program)? If so, those relationships and programs will likely have a structure you can use to develop a relationship.
In a more informal context, you will need to think about what the boundaries of that relationship are and the goals that both of you have. Mentorship has the connotation of learning going in one direction, but that does not have to be the case. You may develop a more reciprocal relationship where your student teaches you some new skill and you teach them something. It may be that your mentee has a specific goal like finding a job, or developing a resume, or pursuing some new field. But also think about what your goals are - do you want to simply help with the project or skill, or are you looking for someone to connect with on a longer-term basis?
It can be tempting to information dump rather than developing a relationship. There may be other constraints like location, form of communication, etc. But it’s important to establish a meaningful dialogue where both of you can be honest about your expectations and boundaries and whether or not those are being met and respected or not.
What expectations and attitudes should mentees have when approaching a mentorship relationship?
First, don’t do it unless you want to commit. I’ve spoken to another mentor who expressed frustration over the lack of commitment of their mentees. Different situations will have varying commitment levels, but at this point, you’re expected to have some time management skills. If mentoring is important to you, scale something else back. The worst thing you can do is not commit and not communicate. Ghosting is popular and easy, but I can tell you, I deeply regret the few times I have overcommitted and failed to be honest about it. In some cases, the stakes are low, but in some cases, you’re taking up space when someone else could participate.
Second, as much as mentorship is usually tailored to you, remember that there are meaningful ways in which you can contribute. Be respectful, say thank you, write a follow up note, send an update on the job, email a story about how you used a piece of advice with success. Simple things help your mentor to know you are listening and receiving value from the relationship.
Third, come prepared. At first it may be difficult to know how to prepare, but spend some time thinking about your goals and what you really want. Prepare a list of questions you have. Spend some time thinking deeply about your values, and how this will align with them. Be open and honest about your level of commitment, your expectations, and your goals. Set realistic goals - as a mentor, I may be able to introduce you to individuals in my network, help you craft a resume, review a job application, set up a practice interview, give you some feedback, talk you through a rejection notice, etc. But “get a job” is not a well-framed goal, even if I can hire you myself. Use the SMART framework and outline the work that you will do to make your goals a reality. Also, know that if this is a one-off call, or a situation where I will not supervise your work, it is unreasonable to expect a reference. Asking for something unrealistic may come off as rude, unprofessional, or a lack of judgment.
Fourth, put your best foot forward. If you ask a senior partner out to a coffee, do not come late. Do not expect them to pay if you asked for their time (although they may take mercy on you as a student). If they offer you something, be audible with your gratitude. Dress professionally. Treat every interaction like an interview, unless you know for certain otherwise. If you aren’t sure, ask ahead of time.
Fifth, keep track of follow up tasks. There are so many times people have asked me to do something, and then they have failed to follow up. If you ask me to review your resume, draft one and send it along. If you ask for a connection, follow up! A lot of times, I introduce people and then that person comes back and says the individual never followed up with them. If you can’t immediately follow up, make your availability clear - I am in the middle of a moot right now, would it be alright if I connect with you at the beginning of January? Then set yourself a reminder and follow through.
Tell us about your experience mentoring our student participants.
I love my mentees. They bring vibrancy and earnestness to our discussions. Each of them has quite a list of accomplishments to their names, and I remind them of that.
Our most important topic has been integrity, articulating and staying true to your values. Law school can be like a powerful river, and without an anchor, it will take you along haphazardly rather than you setting out the ways in which you want to use it to get to your destination.
I have enjoyed connecting with them and I really look forward to staying in touch and hearing about who they become going forward.
What made you decide to act as a mentor to law students?
I think it’s something that’s really important for students, especially those who are interested in social justice advocacy, to have individuals that they can talk to about getting involved in these careers, because in law school there isn’t often a direct path provided to students on how to engage in social justice work. It’s important for students to be able to find people who are able to help them navigate that path, and get on that path towards the type of work they want to do.
Is there a mentor that you’ve had who helped to shape your career in law?
I worked with Lorne Waldman for many years, and he is a trailblazer in many different ways. He is somebody who looks at the law as what it should be, and not necessarily as what it is. He takes very concrete steps to help create change in a meaningful way for vulnerable people. I worked with him for ten years, and he’s been a mentor to me and helped to develop me as an advocate.
Do you feel mentorship is beneficial for young lawyers entering the profession?
Mentorship is essential. Finding somebody who you trust and respect to help you navigate your first few years of practice is really important. First, it’s important to have somebody help you find a position that is a good fit for you. It's also important, once you are practicing, to have somebody you can speak with about ethical issues that might arise in your practice as a young lawyer or tricky substantive legal issues. Mentorship is also important to help you learn how to deal with the difficulties that are sometimes inherent in a social justice practice. For example, in my work, we deal with people who may have faced torture, persecution and other kinds of trauma. It's important to be able to talk to somebody about what that’s like, how you can try to manage dealing with those kinds of difficult issues day in and day out, and how you set up healthy boundaries. Essentially a mentor can help you with all areas of your practice.
Tell us about the important role mentorship has played in developing your career.
I would like to acknowledge the outstanding work of the Indigenous Bar Association to support Indigenous students and provide a space to build relationships. The Annual Indigenous Bar Association Fall Conference is a wonderful gathering of Indigenous lawyers, judges, academics and students and everyone is committed to supporting students and helping them to build their careers. As a student I had the opportunity to sit with some of the top minds in the country and share ideas in an informal and supportive atmosphere. Those conferences exposed me to new ideas and gave me access to role models who were changing the country. It was exciting and fun and it had a huge impact on my career. I would encourage all students to find their passion and go to the places where the people who are leading the way on the issues that matter to them are gathering.
How important is mentorship in navigating the current legal job market?
Mentorship is part of networking and helps to prepare new lawyers for the job market. One of the key benefits for new lawyers is the opportunity to discuss their interests and understand the options that are available to them in the world of law. The job market is about more than finding a job. It is about finding a place to advance your passion and begin the journey to having an impactful career.
Is there anything you can share about your experience with the program?
My experience with the Blazing Trails Mentorship Program has been a lot of fun. We have been able to focus our discussions on the broader themes of career impact, reputations and the value of networking. I enjoy the opportunity to ask students about their passions and the steps that they are taking to build their networks. When you share the power of connecting with people as a strategy for a successful career you can help students to realize that grades and achievements are only part of the equation – they need to connect and build networks with the people they want to work with in their careers. Most importantly, they need to find their passion and pursue it. Mentors can help by creating a space for mentees to reflect on what they want to get out of their careers. Passion matters and you can’t find your passion in a syllabus or a grade. It comes from the heart and mentors can help to gently nudge mentees to ask themselves the questions that matter most.
Does mentorship serve a purpose for young lawyers entering the profession?
Yes. If nothing else, mentorship can offer an objective perspective on some of the common stresses facing young lawyers – stresses that can, in the heat of things, feel overwhelming.
How do you approach the mentorship relationship?
The most important thing for me is to reject the assumption that mentorship is a one-way knowledge transfer. One of the great benefits for the mentor is the opportunity to learn from the mentees.
What has your role in Blazing Trails been like for you?
It’s been a really fantastic opportunity to connect with passionate, driven students. For me, there were two main benefits: first, just seeing and being around the talent and commitment of these students has been energizing and educational for me; second, the program has given me an opportunity to intentionally reflect on a number of subjects relevant to my day to day work on which I wouldn’t normally have the time to actively reflect.
If you had to give one piece of advice to new lawyers entering the profession, what would it be?
Be intentional about the choices you make and take control of your path; don’t just follow the path of least resistance because it is the easiest way to go.
We want to give a special thank you to Joy, Jacqueline, Jessie and Ian for sharing their insightful responses, and to all of our 2018-19 Blazing Trails mentors for their invaluable contributions to our student mentees!
Think you’ve got what it takes to be a future mentor? Reach out to our Program Manager at [email protected] to find out how you can get involved!
*Maitland Shaheen is a Level volunteer and recent graduate of the University of Ottawa, earning a joint honours BA in Communication and Political Science. An aspiring lawyer and future law student, she is passionate about human rights, feminism and justice.
**Note: responses have been edited for accuracy, length and clarity.