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When Your Mentor is Not Into You

Vivia Chen

February 16, 2011

Hand A first-year associate at a big firm posed this question in New York Law Journal:

I've met only once with the partner who is assigned to be my mentor. We had a long lunch, about six months ago. What should I do next -- wait for my mentor to contact me or should I contact him?

Career counselor Linda Laufer's answer in NYLJ: "Your assigned mentor can be a valuable resource. Do not read too much into your lack of contact with him. Take the first step and see where it leads."

Sure, it doesn't hurt to make another effort. But if your mentor is elusive, why knock yourself out? From what I've seen, assigned mentors often have neither the interest nor the talent to help associates navigate their careers. Personally, I've never expected more than a free lunch from the designated mentors in my past.

But there seems to be a mentor mania these days--the belief that your career will be doomed without some sort of guru by your side. The notion is that you won't get the choice assignments or develop (or inherit) key clients unless there's someone to watch over you.

My view: Nice if it happens, but don't depend on it. Frankly, getting a good mentor is as elusive as finding true love.

"For the most part, formal mentoring programs don't work," says Orrick partner Patricia Gillette. That's particularly true for women, she adds. "Women don't necessarily get aligned with the strongest partners," says Gillette. "They are frequently assigned to female partners who have no business." In most instances, she adds, firms mean well, believing that women will find more affinity with another woman.

But Gillette also says that women--more than men--buy into the mentor fallacy: "I actually think women have focused way too much on mentors." Not having a mentor, she explains, "has become an excuse for a lot of women," says Gillette. "Women will say, 'I can't be successful because I have no role models, and men are not good role models.'" The problem, she says, is that associates get so fixated on the concept of the ideal mentor that they fail "to forge their own careers," and become their own advocates.

All this reminds me of the proverbial Cinderella complex. But instead of waiting for Prince Charming to come to the rescue, women (and probably some men too) are looking for that special mentor to save the day. And dare I say that most of us probably expect The One to be male?

It's far wiser, I think, to cast a wider net and seek out a variety of people as mentors. In fact, let's dispense with the concept of mentor altogether, and just call them revolving advisers or sounding boards.

Revolving advisers/sounding boards seem pedestrian, I know. But aren't reduced expectations exactly what we need?

 Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at [email protected].

Photo:  Andres Rodriguez / Fotolia.com


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If you can find the right mentor or mentors even then it can only be a good thing. But too many people are pretending to be mentors and to understand areas they do not grasp due to a lack of real life experience. It`s too often about making an easy buck. But it`s someone else life and business at risk. Not a buck.

We need realistic expectations about mentoring. You and Pat are right, women - and men - need to shape their own careers without depending on one "right" mentor. But mentors are still important.

It's good to have a variety of mentors, advisors, confidantes, etc., at different points in your career who can help in different ways. A mentor who has some clout and acts as your "champion" is extremely valuable, especially as you move toward partnership and leadership. Having a champion doesn't guarantee success, but can give you a powerful advantage. And the research is pretty clear that more men than women have champions.

Champions cannot be assigned. They must believe you deserve the time, effort and risk they will invest in you - and you have to earn that. I offer some suggestions for how to do that in a recent newsletter, available at http://idaabbott.com/news/news31.html.

As for the associate in your opening example, mentoring is not a one-way effort. He/she needs to be an engaged, active participant in the relationship. This associate can start by showing some initiative, dropping by to see the mentor or calling him to ask for another lunch, not waiting for the mentor to keep taking the lead.

As always Linda, you are on the money. I could not agree more regarding the elusive nature of a mentor . In my 20+ years of practice, I have never had an official mentor. I have, however, benefited greatly from capable attorneys from whom who I could learn something here and something there. The key is not to be shy, and not to think that you will be deemed to be a dim bulb if there is something that you do not know. This applies to gaining insight into both substantive practice, and career management.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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