Be Mindful of Your Mentor

By: Peter M. Newton

It has been said-wrongly-that for every problem there is a simple answer. "Mentors for all" may be one such answer.

The call for mentoring is heard everywhere today-in meetings of university faculties, corporate board rooms, and law firm retreats. Each young person should have one and older people should provide them.

In law firms, lists of associates are assembled and assigned to partners who are required, like cows in a dairy farm, to enter their stalls and provide the goods.

But just as it is known that resentful cows make bad milk and less of it, obliging the middle-aged to serve as mentors to arbitrarily chosen protégés is not likely to set their generative juices flowing.

Genuine mentor relationships arise from mutual attraction, shared work and, at times, shared dreams. Mentor relationships are among the few most consequential relationships in adult lives, with effects that can shape entire careers. They cannot be mandated by a well-meaning law firm management committee or administration.

Research into mentor-protégé relations indicates that the highest levels of achievement-in various lines of endeavor-are typically reached only by those who, in the early phases of their careers, had mentors.

More than 50% of all Nobel laureates had at least one Nobel Prize winner as a mentor. Most of the others had mentors, too. In fact, two-thirds of the eminent grow up in contact with eminent adults in the field in which they will later excel.

While Hillary Clinton had William Bennett, Bill Clinton seems to have had only a memorial fantasy about Jack Kennedy. At the apogee of his career, this may account for the hollowness that one does not sense in her. Perhaps the lack of the spirit of a former mentor is part of his problem.

Mentoring has a long tradition. In Homer's Odyssey, the mentor was Athene, the Goddess of Wisdom, who appeared in the guise of an old villager named Mentor to help young Telemachus begin his journey into adulthood.

Today, the mentor is still usually an older person in the field that the protégé is entering. Typically, they have benefited from a mentor relationship and want to pass the gift along.

What the young adult needs goes beyond advice and opening doors-although these concrete gifts matter too. The mentor's role is to help the protégé form a dream-and bless it.

In the case of Telemachus, it was to search out the whereabouts of his long-missing father, Odysseus, and help him reclaim his kingdom.

The young attorney's dream may be to become a celebrated litigator, a mediator of Solomon-like judiciousness or a supreme court justice. Alternatively, the dream may be nascent or fragmented, requiring the mentor's help to give it usable shape.

The legal mentor behaves as if to say: 'Yes, you can become an outstanding lawyer. I see what is still latent but best in you and I know about the world in which you are trying to make your mark. Join me on some cases and I will help you learn how it is done. With hard work, some luck, and a little help from me, you will get there.'

As well as great potential benefits, there are also dangers to mentoring. While the relationship excites hope, it can also produce great disappointment. The protégé may come to resent their former dependence, and the mentor may feel unappreciated or betrayed. Where the relationship runs against the current of authority, violent rip tides may result. If it works too well, others may try to kill it.

Frederick the Great and Voltaire were each animated by the possibility of the joining of genius and power. As a young prince, Frederick wanted Voltaire to supply the genius for his amateur efforts at French poetry. Voltaire wanted Frederick's power to supply the myriad rewards warranted by his genius and required by his vanity.

Once Frederick became King, he began to resent his earlier dependence on Voltaire. "When one has sucked the orange, one throws away the skin," Frederick noted, as he attempted to discard his former mentor.

Later, when Voltaire had flagrantly betrayed his protégé's trust, exploited his office, and fled from the royal court in Berlin, Frederick had him arrested.

Released, exiled and estranged, Voltaire continued to receive drafts of Frederick's verses. "Does the man expect me," Voltaire groaned, "to go on washing his dirty linen forever?"

A richly successful mentor-protégé relationship can arouse explosive envy. One mentoring example caused a major stir in the US. Many years ago a chief executive and his protégé faced questions on their relationship.

By all accounts the female protégé, an MBA, was a gifted executive and a beautiful young woman. The chief executive brought her up through the ranks at a rate appropriate to her aptitude-but was neglectful of the feelings of others. After he made her vice president, the uproar within the firm was such that the board asked for her resignation. Before long they asked for his too.

Envious colleagues did not want to believe that their relationship was simply mentorial-although they insisted that no other tie bound them until after they both had left the firm. Controversy about their relationship follows them to this day.

This story reminds us of the fury that can be created by a cross-gender mentorial pair dreaming together among colleagues who may be, by comparison, isolated, stuck and emotionally starved.

Mentors are the parents of our adulthood. Our need for them is developmental and in that sense resembles the need a child has for a mother or a father. It is difficult for a young person to negotiate optimally the career and family demands of the adult years without one.

The promise and then the failure to provide appropriate mentoring to a young adult can result in an abiding sense of having been cheated, and later, an atrophied capacity for generativity.

The outcome of an unsuccessful mentor-protégé relationship can be disastrous. A successful middle-aged partner in a medium-sized law firm is known for his cynical preoccupation with the corruption and bad motives of others and prides himself on his capacity to trick and manipulate people, including colleagues.

His associates and most of his peers feel sed and treated dishonestly but are afraid to confront him. He is the sort of enemy one does not want, for one senses that the war will last a lifetime-indeed there are real casualties to which one can point.

What happened? Clearly there are personality problems here, but this is not the whole story. Twenty-five years earlier, when he was an associate, this man had formed a mentor relationship with a senior partner.
They quickly grew close, but the relationship ended in bitterness when the mentor took exclusive credit for a high-profile case the associate had brought in and successfully managed-without significant supervision. The associate protested, lost, and left the firm, outraged.

Now, many years later, the former protégé continues to carry a legacy of resentment that poisons his relations with others. He handles his cases shrewdly and protects his position with ferocity-but he has no protégés and it seems that when he retires the only legacy he will leave behind is relief.

Good mentors live on in our memories and imaginations long after their role has ended. They are an enduring source of strength and inspiration and, in time, we become somewhat like them.

In certain challenging professional circumstances, we are guided even decades later by remembering things the mentor did or said. We do not have to look for this guidance, the memories come to mind spontaneously. Since our mentors are usually significantly older, they may also help us age. We have had the opportunity to see how they contrived to grow old without losing their professional vitality.

Mentor-inspired behaviour is not divinely inspired and may not always work. But given the imponderables and high stakes that attorneys face, the sense of confidence that comes from working from the inside out can be invaluable.

Managers, however, need to be realistic about the feasibility of introducing mentoring 'systems'. Trying to create mentor relationships by administration may be like placing Gideon bibles in hotel rooms. It may do some good, but probably not much.

The best way to promote genuine mentor relationships is to make them voluntary and worth the mentor's while. The element of mutual interest is essential and substantive work is required to join the pair.

Circulate a description of cases with which partners could use the help of a junior colleague and let the associates identify privately ones of interest-then let the partner choose his or her protégé.

Avoid forcing associates and partners who are, as Samuel Johnson said of John Hawkins, 'unclubbable' into a relationship they do not want and cannot use.

Encourage the ambivalent to give it a try-others on both sides will take to it naturally and find their working lives enriched.

Dr. Peter Newton can be reached at (510) 521-3848 or at

This article is reprinted with permission from the May 13, 1999 edition of Legal Week. Copyright 1999.