I just got off the phone with a law student crawling toward the end of her third year. Smart girl, deeply passionate, and very ambitious. She reached out to me out of the middle of nowhere back in my law days and we began a correspondence. She’s one of about 5-6 students I spend time talking with about their careers. Nothing brings me greater satisfaction than dispensing suspect knowledge to innocents.
I suppose my desire to pass along advice stems from a sense of obligation. I think my life, and my career, would be far less interesting if a few mentors hadn’t made an impact at the right moment, and that good deed deserves replication. Let’s explore.
The Problem With Authority
I have a hard time working for people I don’t admire. I suppose it’s a measure of insolence, but it’s really derived from a deeply seeded impatience (frickin’ Millenials). If I only get one go at this world, I want to make the most of it, which means working for people who will help me understand myself and the way of things. This lead to some pretty interesting outcomes for my early high school jobs.
There was the time I was denied a $.25 per hour raise at Longs Drugs (after 6 months on the job) and told the manager. I gave my two weeks notice immediately. In the intervening time I put together a tutoring business and started earning far more for far less work. I thanked him for helping me forward with my career. It was sarcastic and proud, but I was 15 and very much full of myself (without much call for it).
When I first started up law school and I taught Kaplan on the side. I had taught for the LSAT for the last two years of college and had acquired some measure of a reputation as a good teacher in the Bay Area. I ran experimental classes out of Berkeley and designed alternate curriculum that got favorable results. I remember being a month into teaching out in Virgina when the manager pulled me aside and asked why I was off curriculum. I told her my way was better, and the test scores in Berkeley proved it. She informed me that wasn’t how things were done ’round ‘ere. I informed her that she could criticize my ability to teach the LSAT when she could beat my score. I walked out and told her not to bother paying me. I relish the memory, even as I’m embarrassed by it.
I was more mature by the time I hit a law firm, but the old impatience still remained. I started the video game group as a first year and I pushed boundaries pretty consistently. I’m fairly certain I had learned the lessons of hte past, but I don’t think my early efforts would have been nearly as successful without a pair of mentors that really shaped the way I viewed the practice of law and career growth. They were both senior advisors at my firm (Sheppard Mullin) and had led storied careers in the entertainment industry – founded firms, headed legal departments for major movie studios, and made a bit of scratch along the way. I truly and greatly admired both of them.
The Importance of a Mentor
Lawyering isn’t a career for the impatient. It takes you 9 years between the first step in your career and your last step, but nothing really happens in between. You just grind, acquiring experience that can be leverage later (at a higher billable rate). I found the practice of law interesting, but the idea that my entire future might follow such a clearly defined path really ghastly. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite know what to do with that particular thought process.
Enter the mentors.
I think more than anything I valued the perspective. I had a great many thoughts on the practice of law (having been there a full 3 months, which seemed sufficient to pass a verdict on the subject with great authority), but they helped me recognize my inexperience for what it was. These were people who had achieved things I wanted to achieve and their opinions became important to me. Their time was valuable and they were generous with it. I’m not sure why they took an interest, but I listened very carefully to the things they had to say.
I can comfortably say that every major decision I made while at the firm benefited from their advice. Sometimes they would suggest caution, more often they suggested grabbing the thing by the horns and wrestling it to the ground. They had faith in my abilities, which seemed to fill some deeply held insecurity on my part. More importantly, they were able to see the system for what it was and help me understand the way to use it to my benefit in the future. They taught me the importance of understanding the law and client development (something attorneys don’t get thrown into until much later generally). When I made brash moves, they chuckled and nodded knowingly. I made mistakes, but they helped me learn from them.
Ultimately, when it came time to leave the firm, they knew why. I cannot put a price on that understanding. My own mother still thinks I’m crazy.
Securing A Mentor
I’m having a hard time writing this section. Honestly? I just go up to people who have done interesting things and ask them to tell me about it. I wish I could claim some super secret method, but it’s pretty simple. Most people never gather up the courage to ask for advice from people they admire. They figure their concerns aren’t worth the person’s time. They’re probably right, but if a person doesn’t want to talk to me, they can tell me so and I’ll leave them be. But if they’re inclined to dispense advice, I want to make sure I gave them the opportunity. Most people seem willing, if you ask.
I remember my big “power” play. I was a few months into my time at the firm. I had already spent some time chatting with both of my would-be mentors, but I wanted to find some way to build upon those conversations. So I invited them and their wives to dinner at my house. I was a bit shocked when they accepted. My wife cooked dinner and we pulled out our china for the first (and only) time. I knew I couldn’t really impress these folks, but I hoped they’d at least figure I couldn’t be all bad given how stellar my wife is (smart, sweet, quirky – the trifecta).
The dinner was the key. They spent a long time talking about their history, which I found very interesting. On an aside, one mentioned it wasn’t uncommon for an associate to invite a partner to dinner when they started the practice of law. It was viewed as a courtesy, a part of camaraderie between professionals. I realized I had done something right in their eyes.
A few other associates who heard thought I was a bit crazy. The advisors made them nervous.
Becoming A Mentor
I acquired a wealth of knowledge on the practice of law from my mentors. Much of this information is common sense, but it’s ignored to a shocking degree. Things like the importance of a network, of integrity in one’s dealings, or in the value of a personal reputation. There are countless nuances to each of these things, but they’re easy to see if you concentrate on the core principles. Their perspective allowed me to move beyond the mindset of the typical associate (GRIND MONKEY GRIND) and explore broader possibilities. They helped shape me into the person I would become, both personally and professionally.
I received the benefit of a person’s time and guidance. They stood nothing to gain other than my thanks, but they contributed nonetheless. I cannot repay that debt to them, but I can offer to pass the information along to other people. To be open to helping the aspiring with the goal of helping them rather than myself.
I owe and I intend to repay.
JM: This rings true on so many levels. I also hung out socially with my assigned advisor when I was a summer associate at my law firm. Today, I don’t even think of her as a mentor, but rather one of my closest friends to this day. We still meet for dinners, even though she no longer lives here, and we share experiences and ideas, life commentary, and this wonderful, unbreakable friendship.
I would second the advice to just walk up to your intended mentor and start talking. Granted, Shawn is a natural at this. We were introduced by a friend of mine from law school who had become a senior associate at his firm. And he was very enthusiastic about keeping a conversation going. If you’re good at this in your regular life in meeting people, it will serve you well in soliciting a mentor.
I’ve mentored frequently throughout my career. It is indeed highly rewarding to give back. I’m currently mentoring a couple of people. One was assigned to me as an IGDA Scholar, but the rest just flat out asked me. I didn’t turn any of them down. If you are asked, just do it, you’ll be very happy for it. Don’t worry about your other obligations, you’ll find they’re less important than helping these bright, energetic people who gravitated toward you because they’re on the same wavelength. The only word of caution I have is that if a mentee suggests that you call her your manatee, just politely chuckle. It’s a joke.
SF: I still remember that dinner Jamil. I spent more on it than any prior business development dinner previously (a bit beyond proscribed guidelines). When they asked me why, I said “He runs GDC. I’ll pay if you won’t.” I don’t think they knew what GDC was, but it sounded important when I said it. They covered it.