How can I get a mentor in my law firm when I don’t get on with the partners?

THE DILEMMA
“I don’t get on particularly famously with any of the partners in my team and I’m concerned I haven’t got a mentor or a patron within the firm. Is this going to hold me back and what can I do?”


Richard Shoylekov: Group general counsel, Ferguson

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It’s a shame you don’t get on that well with any of the partners in your team. Work can be like that. You might also have to deal with clients that you don’t get on that well with. But maybe the work is really interesting and it is great experience for you. And it could allow you to build your skills in dealing with difficult people – or perhaps they are just different.

It’s great that you would like a mentor or patron but it is sometimes a privilege to have such support.

“It’s great that you would like a mentor or patron but it is sometimes a privilege to have such support”

Could you move to a different team? Would that give you exposure to new work and new styles of working?

If you ask for a transfer, it doesn’t need to be done in a way that sound negative –  in effect, you are simply looking to learn new things from new people to broaden your skills.

But if your heart is set on the kind of work you are doing now I can understand how you feel your situation might hold you back.

I would also ask: Do other people in your team feel the same way? Is this about the partners or is it about the way you respond to the partners? And what is that telling you about who you like to work with and how you like to work?


Christine Cordon: General counsel, Secret Escapes

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That depends on what your concerns are. A mentor is a great way to help navigate some of the softer or more complex issues you could be facing, such as how to deal with tricky working relationships, how to create career opportunities for yourself and how to better communicate with managers. If you are unsure of how you might advance your career, then a mentor within your firm would be helpful.

You haven’t said that you have already tried to find a mentor in the firm, so my advice would be to give this a go. Ask your HR team whether the firm offers a formal mentoring programme. If not, do not be dismayed, press ahead nonetheless. Have a think about what it is specifically you would like to develop. Is it relationship building with senior members of your team? Look for a senior person in a different part of the firm or department. Is it creating wider career opportunities within the firm? Look for someone who runs the graduate recruitment programme, or a pro bono group or something else external which builds credibility for the firm. Is it technical excellence? Look for someone you respect within your own department.

Once you know what you’re looking to achieve, find that someone you want to be like. Ask the person outright if they are happy to be your mentor. Be clear about the amount of time and topics you would like to cover. Take the lead and do all of the preparation for each meeting.

“Once you know what you’re looking to achieve, find that someone you want to be like. Ask the person outright if they are happy to be your mentor. Be clear about the amount of time and topics you would like to cover”

A mentor at your firm is only one way to develop skills, however. If you cannot find anyone at your firm, look externally.

Most of the good mentors I’ve had were senior people who just impart a bit of wisdom and common sense. That’s not specific to your particular organisation and you may find someone with insight from another business is as helpful. Again, look on LinkedIn or ask friends at other firms if they can recommend anyone or make an intro.

Finally, I started this answer with a ‘that depends’ because, honestly, if you’re feeling a little out of your depth or want more recognition within the team, it’s hard work that is going to get you there. Give it some time, put the hours in, show willing, and within a few months you might find you’re feeling much better.

I found it took me to around 2-3 PQE to find my feet and feel confident in my role. I’m almost certain you’ll get there yourself and that not having a mentor will not hold you back.


Elaine Hutton, European general counsel, Shiseido

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The bad news is that the lack of a sponsor could adversely impact your partnership prospects – it’s rare to get promoted or attain partnership on the back of technical skills alone, no matter how excellent.

Of course, the good news is that you show sufficient insight to recognise this as an obstacle, and therefore you can do something about it.

If you’re relatively junior, you could consider moving to a different firm that offers a better cultural fit. Otherwise, you need to cultivate stronger relationships within your firm – have you asked for feedback or sought out a mentor? Hiring a career coach could help you with this – maybe your firm would contribute to the cost but, if not, make the investment yourself. Lastly, money talks – cultivate relations with clients.


Geraldine Elliot, Partner, RPC

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The short answer is no, it shouldn’t hold you back. But you must address the issue and work with the people at your firm to help deal with the problem.

But first, why do I say it shouldn’t hold you back? Well, to qualify that, it depends on the kind of reward culture at your firm. If it’s purely meritocratic and you’re rewarded on the basis of performance not time served and that’s applied fairly and consistently, then it shouldn’t be an issue – if you’re delivering. In my experience, if truly meritocratic principles are adopted throughout the firm, then any individual who has the ability to perform well and thrive will be able to do so irrespective of any local issues.

Similarly, your firm must be committed to inclusion and diversity. I don’t mean that just in the traditional sense – ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, social background and so on, although of course all of those are vital, too – but more that every member of the team is appropriately valued and given the opportunity to perform to the best of their ability.

Of course, having a mentor can be extremely valuable. We run a programme at RPC that pairs people with mentors outside their practice area. They benefit from broader exposure to other disciplines and it also gives people the chance to raise their profile within the firm. But what I’ve found from my experience in the Commercial Disputes group where I work is that you absolutely have to ensure you match people to the right mentors – personality fit is key. By having a scheme which gives people access to a broader pool from which to select mentors means you get the optimum mentoring relationship.

If there is an issue, it’s important to identify it – and look to remedy it – as soon as possible. It’s partly why moving away from a traditional annual appraisal model to one focused on more regular dialogue is so valuable. In an industry where the strength of a business is founded on its people and on personal relationships – internal and external – it’s absolutely vital that you have the structures in place to ensure you get the very best out of everyone and that no one is sidelined by any kind of local individual personality clash.

But if you do find yourself in an organisation which does not value your performance, where your career is being stymied, and where you’re not getting the support you need, then it’s probably time to move.


The views expressed here are personal ones and do not ­necessarily reflect those of the panel’s organisations. If you’re a lawyer who wants to put a question to our panel of experts, email richard.simmons@centaurmedia.com

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