Working Smart: Create a Mentor Network

Working Smart: Create a Mentor Network

by Valerie Fontaine
Special to
April 4, 2011

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, to be a successful lawyer, you must have the basics in place: quality education, practice experience and a strong work ethic. But, to boost your career advancement, it behooves you to have a mentoring network. In addition, to get further ahead, you need a sponsor.


When it comes to mentoring, more is better. Strive to work with a number of mentors, both inside and outside your firm, with a variety of backgrounds and strengths. This 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 in your career.

Mentors can advise and coach you, offer support, show you the ropes, introduce you to important contacts, and help you navigate the political terrain. It's natural to gravitate to people "like us," but such a mentor-protégé pairing may be limiting. Likewise, modeling yourself after a single trusted mentor may result in your adopting skills and attitudes that served your mentor well in the past, but don't work as well in today's ever-changing legal and business environment. A variety of role models will allow you to consider multiple styles and behaviors that may work better as circumstances change.

Furthermore, having a number of mentors within your current place of employment minimizes the risk of hitching your cart to the wrong star. You don't want to be left adrift if your chosen mentor leaves the firm, falls out of favor politically within the firm, suffers a health problem, loses a major client, or is involved with an area of practice that declines for any reason. Protégés of a mentor whose status diminishes within the organization may be tarred with the same brush. In such a situation, it's wise to have other mentors to call upon to help you get your career back on track.

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. Then, go out and find mentors who can fill in your gaps, and whose gaps you can fill.


To start, take part in your firm's formal mentoring program, if one exists. Participate, both as a mentor and as protégé, in any other programs offered by bar associations and professional organizations as well. Some colleges and law schools offer programs that provide alumni-mentors for students. Once you connect with the formal mentoring programs available to you, begin building your more extensive informal mentoring network. Look to your colleagues at all levels of seniority and former classmates and professors from law school, graduate, and undergraduate schools.

Not all of your mentors need to be lawyers. You can include in your network professionals in other types of businesses, social contacts and so forth, to add various types of backgrounds and areas of expertise. Look for mentors amongst men and women of all ages and ethnicities, because you may benefit from a point of view that is very different from your own. Furthermore, do not be limited by geography; while it is nice to meet over breakfast or lunch, the telephone and email can keep you in touch with long-distance mentors.

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 mentoring. As you move up in your career, you face bigger challenges, and a sounding board and wise counsel always will be extremely valuable. 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 -- especially when they know they can call on you in the future, should a need arise.

In building your mentor network, the critical element is that there's 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.


Mentors and sponsors are not the same and you need both. According to "Why Men Still Get More Promotions than Women," published in the September 2010 Harvard Business Review, mentoring isn't enough. Accelerated career advancement is more likely to result from active sponsorship than the more passive mentoring.

Mentors spend one-on-one time to help you polish skills. They offer "psychosocial" support for personal and professional development, including advice and coaching. Sponsors notice those skills and advocate for your progress, either by recommending you for plum opportunities or for promotion. They take it further by openly campaigning for protégés' career advancement, often putting their own reputations on the line. Having a sponsor actively lobby for you can be instrumental, for example, during partnership consideration.

You can actively seek out mentorship at varying levels of seniority relative to you, and offer reciprocal value in return. Sponsors, on the other hand, usually discover you. They will be at a higher level than you occupy within your firm, and must command sufficient power and influence to weigh in on your behalf. It's possible that one of your current mentors is potential sponsor material, and a well-placed comment is all that's necessary to gain that person's sponsorship. You can't know whether a mentor might be willing to provide further assistance unless you ask. Discuss your career plans and what you bring to the table, and ask if they can connect you with any opportunities.

Beyond your current mentor network, you can help matters along by putting yourself in situations to be noticed by those in influential positions. Find opportunities to introduce yourself, get to know the powers-that-be informally, and share strategic information about your accomplishments and goals. To gain visibility, consider volunteering on projects with potential sponsors. If you do a good job, you'll get on their radar screen. Let the rapport grow naturally.

Remember, it's not only knowing the right people, it's who knows you and is willing to advocate for you that really accelerates careers. Ideally, your network of mentors will help you become the kind of person a sponsor will notice.

Read other articles in the "Working Smart" series:

  1. Working Smart: Resolve to Work Smarter, Not Harder, This Year
  2. Working Smart: Finding Your Niche
  3. Working Smart: Promote Yourself
  4. Working Smart: Managing Perceptions and Your Reputation
  5. Working Smart: Boosting Your Business Acumen
  6. Working Smart: Playing Well With Others
  7. Working Smart: Create a Mentor Network
  8. Working Smart: It's All About a 'Me File'
  9. Working Smart: Early Steps to Take for a Better End-of-Year Review