Paralegals as Mentors
by Vicki Parker
Even if you have only been in the work force for a short time, it is likely that you have heard the management buzz word "mentor". Large corporations hire trainees, and tenured managers "mentor" or groom them for a particular function within an organization. Law firms seek out and hire associates who are mentored by partners within the firm for a particular field of law. But mentoring is far from limited to corporations and law firms. Nor is it restricted to a single facet of an organization. Mentoring involves the influential presence of the mentor’s experience and knowledge over an individual’s entire development process. That is to say, professionally, emotionally, mentally, and so on. It includes the development of self-confidence, professional savvy, business wit, as well as exposure to the political subtleties associated with a particular job. It gives significant depth to the concept of "showing someone the ropes."
However, it is sad to say, the art of mentoring may be nearing its professional extinction. We frequently hear of the great mentors of philosophy, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, etc. We even hear of the great political mentors of past presidents. But in the common work place, where are the mentors? In the technological transformation of our society, mentorship risks being swept under the rug. It further appears that the service industry lacks its luster. The busy life we all live now makes it improbable that anyone would find the time to mentor or, to be mentored. The pressure to succeed or maintain job security in an age of high labor turnover at all levels, makes it taboo to spend time mentoring someone who could potentially do our job following a reduction-in-force or someone who could potentially do it better than ourselves thereby threatening our financial security.
So what’s the point? And, where do paralegals pose in this portrait of professional development? The point is this! It is time for a good old fashioned revival. It is time to rekindle the mentor’s flame -- to restore the integrity and personalization that American businesses once prided themselves in. It is time to re-prioritize our investments. The human pay-off is worth a great deal more in the long run than short-term dollars and cents. In fact, the long run profit is the kind that guarantees subsistence.
Are You a Mentor or a Mentee?
In lieu of this need for commitment to professional development, paralegals fall into two simple categories -- those who should serve as mentors, and those who are subject to mentoring. It is no longer logical to assume that even the brightest and most ambitious will be singled out for mentorship. Frankly, attorneys are among the least likely to spend otherwise billable time with paralegals in a mentor capacity. Unlike associates who are most often recruited, paralegals often come to their employer’s vis a vis unsolicited contact. Thus, a law firm’s commitment to the professional development of a paralegal is often non-existent. Quite the contrary, firm’s expect the paralegal to bring with him or her all the requisite skills associated with the logistics of the job, plus political savvy, plus an intrinsic sense of the organization, plus self-confidence and the list goes on. It is anticipated that an associate will be on a curve. It is therefore imperative that paralegals take both the personal and professional responsibility of networking and building relationships critical to the development of the profession and to the individuals who make up the profession.
Knowing which category you fall into, mentor or "mentee," well depends on your knowledge and experience within a particular field, but is also based upon your exposure and knowledge of the intrinsics of an organization or law firm. Do you understand the management structure of the firm or business? Are you familiar with the political as well as the non-political protocol? Do you have well-developed presentation skills, written and verbal? Have you consistently performed your job with professionalism and competence? Do people seek you out for advice and instruction? If so, there is a strong possibility you are ready to move into the ranks of mentor. If not, you have much to gain by seeking out a mentor.
Seeking Out a Mentor?
Finding a mentor does not have to be an act of chance. And finding someone to be your mentor is not as hard as it at first may seem. Once you join a law firm or organization, do not be afraid to ask questions. Check the roster for professional designations. Ask how long your counterparts have been in the business and in the firm. Find out who shares your area(s) of expertise. You are usually looking for a senior paralegal and one who has supervisory responsibilities, or certainly one who has built a rapport built of mutual respect with the partners and firm administrators. Avoid seeking the confidence of paralegals whose rapport with firm management is built on mysterious ground.
Once you have settled on a target individual or two, gradually begin a rapport with them. Perhaps at first, share something personal with them, but avoid the appearance of sacrificing professionalism. Commit any personal comments they make to memory and remember to mention them again. For example, "I remember last time we chatted your son was studying for the SAT. How did he do?" Second, be sure to seek professional advice from them. Keep it light the first few times. Ask if they know of a similar case? Ask if they’ve ever had any experience with a particular expert witness? Your inquiry doesn’t necessarily have to be legitimate as long as it’s sincere. This rapport will help you determine if the mentor relationship is worth pursuing further. If so, it is time to conduct an interview.
It is essentially useless to select a mentor if your choice has no knowledge of the mentor relationship and further, no desire to serve in that capacity. The interview will serve both purposes and has no hidden agenda. Honesty is usually the best policy. Simply tell your confidant that you have come to trust his or her expertise and guidance and that you have appreciated the morsels they have shared. Tell them you need a mentor figure because you are serious about your career and your success as a professional. Avoid any dialogue concerning their job or wanting to do their job. Ask them if they have a few moments here and there to spend some time helping you learn your way around unfamiliar territory concerning your job. Seldom should you get a negative response. Any "real" professional understands his or her value to the organization as an employee and as a mentor.
Serving the Mentor Role?
Surely you remember your first day on a new job! What’s more, you probably remember your first day as a paralegal on a new job. Who do you remember with the most admiration and respect? Who did you seek out for advice or assistance? The answer should be unanimous. Those who were cordial, showed a sincere interest in you and welcoming you, and those who exemplified a sound degree of professionalism. They were well on their way to mentordom.
Playing the role of mentor involves a significant degree of care -- care about the outcome of an individual and care about the outcome of your profession. It is a prerequisite for any positive and lasting results. If you cannot maintain a genuine spirit of care about a mentee, it is best to refuse the role. Fostering professional development takes time and energy, yes, but it also takes desire. Don’t do an eager employee the injustice of mentoring him or her with a resentful or a reluctant attitude. It will only undermine the premise of mentoring, and likely lower the confidence level of the mentee causing potentially irreparable harm.
Undergirded with genuinosity, the task of mentorship takes many forms, each equally in importance as follows:
The Role of Building Professional Competence
>Provide key data to the mentee which will assist in building professional skills. Share professional articles and information. Recommend methods of handling projects.
>Don’t lock your file cabinet, so to speak. Maintain an open door policy. You have more to gain by sharing information, than by hoarding it. Recommend other sources of expertise if necessary.
>Avoid getting drawn into interpersonal conflict, but render objective, professional advice generic to conflict resolution. Give examples of how you handled a similar conflict.
>Without breaching confidentiality, allow the mentee to see how you handle professional tasks. Allow him or her to come in your office when you are on the phone or dictating a letter.
>Carbon copy your mentee on correspondence or pleadings which will help develop his/her skills.
The Role of Developing Political Sensitivities
>Tip the mentee off about strong relational ties within a firm, as well as significant exterior or client relationships without appearing oppositional in tone.
>Ensure he or she knows the management structure from the top down and the ensuing chain of command.
>Advise the mentee about the best way to get something done in the firm or the best way to initiate change.
The Role of Building Self-Esteem
>Build confidence by complimenting and not criticizing. Necessary criticisms should take the form of shared articles or variations on methodology and NEVER personal attacks.
>Exude personal confidence, but not at the risk of being overbearing. Genuine confidence can be quite contagious, while dominant behavior runs counter to building professional skill levels.
>Offer congratulations for even minor achievements. Mention hanging a degree on the wall. Inquire about recent activities. Appear interested.
The Role of Cultivating Individual Expression
>Let the mentee know it is all right to proffer a better idea or make a suggestion. Reinforce him or her when the idea is shot down.
>Encourage the mentee to actively join professional and civic organizations.
>Emphasize his or her strongest communicative skills. Give examples of how the mentee may use communication skills to his or her professional advantage.
The Element of Humanity
>Do not allow professionalism to smother personalism. Forge a precedent of short, but sincere gestures of humanism into each work day.
Additionally, don’t forget that there are many valuable mentors outside the firm or organization. Join local professional organizations and get involved -- run for office or take or chair a committee. Don’t limit yourself to paralegal associations. Many types of civic activities are also professional skill builders. Consider your local Chamber of Commerce, for example.
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