General counsels do it all. Their primary role is serving as a company’s attorney and source of legal advice, but in order to do this role, and do it well, a GC must be involved in all aspects of an organization. From running the gauntlet of regulatory enforcement to overseeing the marketing communications to negotiating strategic business transactions, the list of responsibilities within the direct scope of being a GC is exhaustive. It’s a rewarding job, but it’s also incredibly difficult and demanding. And on top of that, GCs are often called to stretch themselves to handle employment matters, real estate matters, even acting as a therapist, coach, and support system to business leaders, and a host of other things that are often well outside their direct expertise.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my tenure as a General Counsel in both tech and financial services, which has led me to thinking about the mentors I’ve had over the years – and seasons of my career where I’ve desperately needed a mentor and struggled to find one. The things I learned from my mentors were pivotal to my growth as I transitioned from one role to the next. I can’t thank them enough, but I also recognize that I’m one of the lucky ones. Mentorship isn’t something the legal sector prioritizes, especially for women and people of color who are or want to become general counsels. True, law firms and other large organizations often have women’s initiatives and BIPOC advocacy groups, but I have yet to come across a group specifically devoted to legal mentoring of folks who are striving to step or have already made the leap into the in-house world.
The reason why so many lawyers chose to leave their companies — and sometimes the industry entirely — is in part due to a lack of training and mentorship. So many firms and corporate legal departments talk about how law schools fail to prepare attorneys for the ‘real world’ of practice, yet the solution (mentorship) is right there in front of them and they can’t see it. Traditionally, lawyers were trained through apprenticeships and not a formal legal education. And the debate has been raging for some time about how to bring back that tradition.
One of my goals is to provide more mentorship opportunities to the attorneys in my network, since I believe my work as a battle-tested GC could help others in and striving to be in this role. If you’d also like to get involved, here are some tips that can help prepare you to be a great mentor.
Set clear expectations
This is relevant for both you and your mentee. It’s important that you first consider the kind of commitment you can — and are able to — make. Mentoring is a time commitment. It could take away from your own professional goals and also blur the lines of your own work-life balance unless you clearly set expectations. Once you’ve established expectations for yourself, communicate those to your mentee so you can begin establishing boundaries.
It’s also important you try to understand what your mentee hopes to get out of your relationship. Ask them questions. Figure out their professional development goals. You both must be on the same page so everyone knows what to expect from the relationship. And it’s absolutely okay if your pairing is not a fit! The goal is to find a mentor-mentee relationship that both parties are getting something out of.
Make it personal
There is a human side to mentorship that a lot of people fail to achieve. This isn’t a “transactional” relationship, i.e., your mentee thinks that you can help them make the next step and you simply connect them with your network in order to do so. Your mentee should see you as a genuine support system, not just as another colleague. If you both get to know each other on a more personal basis, you can both be more transparent, honest, and open-minded with one another. This is often how you can challenge your mentee to push themselves out of their comfort zone, and how they can also help you in becoming a more effective mentor.
Show, don’t tell
Part of mentorship is providing your mentee with the skills, resources, and know-how to better do their job, but it’s also about helping them establish and carve out their ideal career path. Telling them what to do isn’t going to help them make any progress. Instead, show them what they need to do to improve, provide them with the necessary tools to help them get there, and then give them tasks or milestones that will demonstrate they’ve been able to successfully accomplish their goals on their own. Helping a mentee develop a self-advocacy mindset within their own career can teach you new things about what you want to achieve next as well!
Mentorship is meant to be a long-term relationship. It’s going to take time to establish your relationship and help your mentee gain the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve their goals. Figure out what you bring to the table as a mentor and run with it! If you want to participate in mentorship but don’t have a great idea of where to start, your local Bar Association or professional networking organization will likely have the resources to get you connected with someone who needs mentoring to make that leap into a GC role. And you don’t have to be a GC yourself to help someone find the right mentor or opportunity – the leadership skills and industry knowledge that any lawyer has could be a great fit for helping someone into the coveted GC seat.