Mentoring weekMentors, especially in the legal profession, are not always who you think they are. The following story may be illuminating to lawyers in search of a mentor.

The original “Mentor” was, in fact, an imposter. In Homer’s Odyssey, Athena, the goddess of wisdom and courage, disguised herself as another character (Mentor) and in that disguise, gave counsel to Telemachus. The actual “Mentor” was not up to the task of providing the counsel. Conversely, Telemachus did not realize he was getting advice straight from Athena.

The word “mentor” — like the word “genius” — has been overused and misused to the point of becoming practically meaningless. “Mentor” has devolved in current usage to include a teacher, buddy, role model, confidante, big brother, coach, or boss. While any of these may potentially be mentors (or geniuses, for that matter), none of those roles is that of a mentor.

  • A teacher is someone who imparts knowledge and helps you to learn core competency.
  • A coach is someone who acts as a trainer and helps you practice to hone skills.
  • A buddy is someone who shows you the ropes and helps you acclimate to the office.
  • A role model is someone who embodies the qualities you admire and whose example you want to follow.
  • A sponsor is someone who advocates for your advancement.

A mentor may also be one of the foregoing (or may be none of them). A mentor, at the most basic level, is a trusted advisor — a guru. But a true mentor is much more than that.

A mentor is someone who sees, understands, and accepts your calling, without trying to superimpose his own values or agenda. A mentor may identify with you in some respects, but must not see you as a reflection of himself. A mentor must be someone who has the unique ability to see what you specifically need to move ahead — what you do not know or are not able to see for yourself. Most of all, a mentor has to be willing to give you unsolicited advice that is reliable and truthful. This is rarer than you think.

The choice of a mentor is a complex one. A mentor does not have to be a role model. A mentor can be deeply flawed and set a bad example in many areas of his life. There are both kinds of mentors — the role models and the flawed.  Getting the most from a flawed mentor can be a challenge at first, but can be easier once you know how to manage him.

Not everything that a mentor says is right. You need to be able to separate truth from nonsense.

Not everything a mentor “is” is right, either. Not every mentor is a warm, all-around good citizen. Some mentors are cold and distant. Some mentors are abrasive or eccentric. Some mentors are dissolute and have addictions, such as food, alcohol, drugs, sex or gambling. They can be dysfunctional. They can be corrupt or unethical. But true mentors — even those with flaws — all have one thing in common: they tell you the things that you don’t know, that you absolutely need to know, and that no one else is telling you. In fact, when deciding who to adopt as a mentor, this point is one that you must not compromise.

Over time, you may actually need several mentors. One expectation of mentors in the legal profession is to bring about an understanding of how courts, lawyers, clients, financial advisors, investment bankers, capital markets, regulators, and, at times, academia, all work together to form the legal and economic system. Such an understanding is not conveyed in a couple of sound bites or texts, but is built tediously over months or years. In fact, the “technologies” (legal, financial, and strategic) evolve so fast, almost at an exponential rate, that the need for guidance is never ending.

One reason why you may need more than one mentor is that the kind of advice you need will change over the course of your career, as both you and the world around you change exponentially. To paraphrase the popular expression, the mentor you may need now or in the future is “not your mother’s mentor.” Quite possibly, your mentor may be younger.

A mentor does not need to be older than you. You can have a younger mentor. In fact, if you are old enough that your mentors are retired or dead, you may benefit from having a new mentor who is younger — maybe even a lot younger. A younger mentor and an older mentor might sometimes have different perspectives, yet the essential qualities of being a mentor do not depend on age.

A true mentor is hard to find, and may not at all be who you expect.

Stephanie Wickouski is an American bankruptcy lawyer and a partner in the New York office of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner. This article was based on her latest book, Mentor X – The Life-Changing Power of Extraordinary Mentors, released by Beard Books on 22 July 2019.