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The Symbiosis of Mentoring and the Importance of Questioning Assumptions

Charles Harper

If you are reading this, then chances are you are a mentor.  Whether or not you participate in a formal mentoring program like the one-on-one mentoring program for all new lawyers at Quarles, you likely have people in your life who look to you for guidance or as an example.  Mentors routinely recognize the importance of giving back to their organization and community by helping to develop the next generation.  But as mentors we often overlook another important direct beneficiary of our mentoring:  ourselves.

January is national mentoring month, and we recently completed the annual mentor program training at Quarles.  Every year during this training, I am reminded that mentoring can be as much as about the improvement of the mentor as the mentee.  We help ourselves by taking the time to help others.  Sure, we collect the emotional capital of helping another and improving our organization.  But we also sharpen our focus or even shift our perspective when crafting answers to our mentees’ inquiries.  With each question and answer there is an opportunity for both the mentor and mentee to learn.  A mentor’s review of best practices to guide the mentee serves as a reminder to follow, and sometimes to re-evaluate, those practices.

Our mentees’ challenges provide reminders of the decisions that we made as we move through our careers.  Facing these decisions anew through the eyes of the mentee’s questions, a good mentor reflects on how she answered those questions in her own career and considers alternatives based on her later experience.  And the mentor also gains insight for those challenges yet to come in her career.  Both mentor and mentee learn from the mentor’s experience and reflection.  In this way the mentor advises the mentee and herself.

As mentors we also learn from the new perspectives of our mentees, who may have very different backgrounds from our own.  The fresh takes of our mentees give us new opportunities for personal and professional growth.

Precedent is important to lawyers.  The practice of law is filled with opportunities, and in some cases obligations, to do things as they have been done before.  Often times, there are important reasons why we do things the way they’ve always been done.  But sometimes we do things only because it’s the way it’s always been done.  We don’t question the practice and ask if there’s a better way to do it.  This is why we say that there are no silly questions when mentoring.  Neither mentor nor mentee should ever be satisfied with the answer “that’s just the way it’s done.”  Questioning assumptions helps us become more efficient, more knowledgeable, and more effective in our practice.

So, we should ask ourselves if we know the reason we’re giving the answer we’re giving when guiding less experienced colleagues.  If the answer is no, then we should ask ourselves why not?  By answering both these questions, we are being effective mentors, helping both our mentees and ourselves.