Biglaw, In-House Counsel, Partner Issues

Inside Straight: Don’t Be A Mentor!

I am not a mentor!

Never have been. Never will be. Don’t care to be.

I’m a lawyer. I’m a co-worker. In some cases, I may be a friend. But I’m not a mentor; I have no time for that crap.

When I was clerking (for the Honorable Dorothy W. Nelson of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit), my judge was (and remains) a delight. She was a warm, engaging person who treated everyone as an equal. She was living proof that you don’t have to give up on human kindness just because you’ve become powerful. She taught, by example, many lessons about work-life balance and the meaning of humanity.

But a mentor? They hadn’t invented the word “mentor” (at least with its current connotation) back in 1983. I don’t think Judge Nelson gave the idea a moment’s thought….

When I started work at Steinhart & Falconer in San Francisco in 1984, Neil Falconer wasn’t a mentor. He was a pain in the neck. He’d ask you to report on the results of your legal research, and you’d break into a sweat after 15 minutes of his questioning. You honestly believed that you’d read those cases and thought carefully about their implications; it quickly became clear that you hadn’t understood a thing. Many associates dreaded the thought of working for him; he was too smart and too demanding.

There was no way that guy was a mentor. All he did was teach me everything that mattered about being a lawyer. A “mentor”? He’d have had no use for that stuff.

From the time I arrived at Jones Day in Cleveland in 1989, until the time I moved on in 2009, I wasn’t a mentor. Summer associates occasionally asked about possible topics for their law review notes; if I had any stray thoughts kicking around that I’d never have time to write about, I might offer them up. Why not? I wasn’t going to use those ideas for anything. I sure wasn’t mentoring anyone.

When junior people wrote bad drafts of briefs, I’d sit down and explain what they’d done wrong and how they could improve things in the future. I wasn’t mentoring; I was mainly trying to make my life easier the next time around.

If I needed help with an article, I’d ask (competent) junior people to co-author things with me. That was just to get the work done; there was nothing charitable about it. (I confess that I’d always give my co-authors full co-authorship credit on the authors’ by-line. But that choice was driven by my sense of fundamental fairness; if you’d contributed significantly to the finished product, we shouldn’t relegate your name to a footnote thanking you for “research assistance.”)

If opportunities came up to let junior folks write articles, or give talks, or teach classes, or play a serious role in a piece of litigation, I’d naturally pass on those chances to people who seemed, to my eye, to deserve them. That’s minimal payback for the many chores those folks helped me with over the course of the decades.

If someone needed a recommendation, I’d provide an honest one. That’s neither mentoring nor helping people out; it’s just speaking the truth.

Being a “mentor”? Not for me.

“Mentoring” strikes me as analogous to “networking.” “Networking” means sucking up to people to curry undeserved favors. I don’t believe in it at all. I don’t object to joining a few organizations and then working with others to help those organizations achieve their goals. That’s okay. It’s just “networking” that I don’t like.

So, too, with “mentoring.” Mentoring means that you go out of your way to help people. Bah, humbug! Who’s got time for that? Surely “mentoring” isn’t just working with colleagues in a way that makes sense. That’s just doing your job; it’s not mentoring.

So I was more than a little surprised several years ago when Richard Cordray — the guy who President Obama just nominated to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, after Elizabeth Warren was sent packing — wrote in a book review (page 5 of the pdf) about the “accumulated advice that [I’d] shared over the years” and said that I’d never spoken to him in a “high-handed way.” If anything like that ever happened, it was purely by accident. If that [then]-young pup wrote run-on sentences, I told him so. And I never minced words about it. Trust me.

And why is Sean Costello now saying in public (fourth photo in the “gallery”) that I was his “mentor”? I deny it; I was not his mentor. We just worked together on a few cases. If he made mistakes, I told him what they were. If he did something right, I told him so. And, because he was competent, I asked him to co-author an article or two with me. I sure didn’t mentor the guy.

I know the people who are mentors. I don’t like them. They walk around telling you about all the young lawyers they trained, and they regale you with stories about the many people who would be nothing if not for the mentor’s sage guidance. Then you ask the young lawyers about the mentor, and the young lawyers say: “He’s a disaster! You walk into his office, and he hands you a note to return a phone call. It turns out he just let our client’s default be taken, and he wants you to make the embarrassing phone call asking for relief.”

Don’t be a mentor!

Just be a decent human being who respects the feelings of others, and work collegially with people to achieve your common goals. That’s plenty. That’s really all there was before they invented the concept of “mentoring,” and it’s really all there’ll ever be.


Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law (affiliate link). You can reach him by email at inhouse@abovethelaw.com.

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