I just finished reading a memoir by one of my favorite writers, Dani Shapiro. Her book, Hourglass, is an exploration of relationships and how people interact and treat each other over the span of time. She is a wonderful writer, and I highly recommend her books to you.
Hourglass explores what individuals need on the road to satisfaction, and it includes the following quote, “Be who you needed when you were younger.”
In my own writing and in many of my remarks to young lawyers and law firm leaders, I often say, “You cannot be who you cannot see.” It makes the case for the value of effective mentors, but, somehow, I prefer the more impactful, “Be who you needed when you were younger.”
“Be who you needed when you were younger” conveys a responsibility. It conveys an opportunity lost. It conveys what should be our mission as senior lawyers.
Of all of the things that I believe is critically wrong in large law firm practice today, the failure to mentor is at the top of the list. It is fundamentally unsound as a business practice. It is hurtful. It makes no sense.
Recently I had a conversation with a young lawyer who has no mentor and is struggling in a big firm. He is smart and competent, and he would not have been hired if that was not the case. But, advancing in unfamiliar territory requires more than being smart and competent. What is needed is a guide. It is the responsibility of the law firm to provide him with an effective mentor who has an interest in his career and his development as a lawyer.
If that was not the case, why did the firm hire him? Was he hired so others could watch him struggle alone and fail — as if it is some kind of a spectator sport? How does that make sense, and what is the message that such a failure of leadership sends?
I also encouraged this young lawyer to make this failure an issue with management. Politely and respectfully, but with a strong voice. What does he have to lose? Because, in fact, he will lose and lose big if he has no mentor. He never will know what could have been.
In my third book, Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers, I write about the importance of effective mentoring for women lawyers. However, that concept is not gender specific and applies to all young lawyers. More recently, I discuss the critical importance of mentoring in my new book, What Millennial Lawyers Want.
So much more is owed to the young people we embrace in our businesses. So much more than a pay check. So much more than a brief time to get a ticket punched and move on. So much more than suffering the disappointment of promises squandered.
So much more is expected of real leaders.
So, I ask all lawyers in positions of leadership to be who you needed when you were younger. It is the least that you can do.