There's some truth to the saying that it's not what you know, but who you know. There's even more truth to the saying that it's not who you know, but who knows you. It's a given that you must have the basics in place: education, experience, and hard work. But, to boost your career advancement, it behooves you to have a mentoring network. Where one powerful mentor can provide many benefits, a network of mentors can provide even more. Mentors can advise and coach you, offer support, show you the ropes, introduce you to important contacts, and advocate for your advancement. Having a number of mentors, with a variety of backgrounds and strengths, increases your chances of being able to call upon the right person in the right place at the right time to help you move ahead.
The ideal is to create a network of mentors where you also mentor others in the group; you are both a mentor and protégé at the same time. This network should be a dynamic web of contacts with a variety of expertise and experience, all of whom are willing and able to share their knowledge and abilities. The contacts should be of various levels of seniority; even the most senior attorney may be able to benefit from the fresh viewpoint of a more junior person. Determine what information and assistance you need from others, and what you have to share. As your needs change over the course of your career, your network of mentors should grow accordingly. While you may outgrow your specific need for a particular mentor, you never outgrow the need for mentors. As you move up in your career, you face bigger challenges, and a sounding board and wise counsel always will be extremely valuable.
One of the benefits of a mentoring network is that you will benefit from a diversity of viewpoints, backgrounds, and experiences. It is natural to gravitate to people "like us", but such a mentor-protégé pairing may be limiting. Modeling yourself after a single trusted mentor may result in your adopting skills and attitudes that served your mentor well in the past, but do not work as well in this ever-changing business environment. A variety of role models will allow you to consider multiple styles and behaviors that may work better as circumstances change.
So, where do you find these mentors? Take part in your firm's formal mentoring program, if one exists, and participate-both as a mentor and protégé-in any other programs offered by bar associations and professional organizations as well. Some colleges and law schools offer programs which provide alumni-mentors for students. Use these to begin building your more extensive mentoring network. Look to your colleagues at all levels of seniority, former classmates (law school, graduate, and undergraduate), professionals in other types of businesses, social contacts, and so forth, to add various types of backgrounds. Don't be afraid to ask someone for his or her advice. Generally, people like being seen as experts and are more than happy to share information. Do not be limited by geography; while it is nice to meet over breakfast or lunch, the telephone and e-mail can keep you in touch.
In building your mentor network, the critical element is that there is mutual respect and honest communication, with a willingness to create a relationship of reciprocal sharing of information and support. Remember that this is an ongoing process. Everyone you meet could be a potential future mentor or protégé.