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A Good Mentor

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Mentor and MenteeWritten by Kate Da Costa, Senior Associate, Doogue + George Defence Lawyers

Having managed to complete a law degree without ever having the intention or desire to be a lawyer, early one March morning some years ago, I found myself in a job interview for a position as a first year criminal lawyer. The prospective employer was a suburban sole practitioner. He only practised crime. And he was very busy.

Fortuitously, and amazingly to me, I got the job. And so my life as a criminal lawyer began. I didn’t realise then that I was one of many young lawyers who had, and would continue to pass through the office; that I had stumbled across a lawyer who was as good at understanding and mentoring young lawyers as he was at criminal defence.

Who is and What is a Good Mentor

The legal profession can be taxing, and the practice of criminal law has its own unique challenges. Support and guidance from an experienced practitioner is essential in the early years of practice.

I was fortunate that my first mentor in law was my first principal. But a mentor can be anyone; someone who engenders respect, and whose advice is wise. The mentor/mentee relationship can be formal or informal, inside your workplace or external to it. A mentor can choose you, be chosen for you, or chosen by you.

In a career, a mentor will inspire, teach and nurture.

Qualities of a Good Mentor

The qualities of a good mentor depend to a certain extent on the nature of the mentee. It is ultimately a relationship that should enrich both parties. Generally, a good mentor:

  • Is a teacher and communicator;
  • Has knowledge and compassion;
  • Has a willingness, to share information and skills because they genuinely want others to benefit from the wisdom of their experience;
  • Will adjust their communication style to the personality style of the mentee;
  • Will ask questions about the mentee’s thoughts and experiences, and listen, rather than simply instruct;
  • Is able to provide guidance and deliver feedback in a way that is constructive, kind and direct;
  • Does not criticise harshly or unconstructively;
  • Does not seek to hide their own mistakes, and is not ashamed to use them as teaching opportunities;
  • Will provide the mentee with challenges that foster professional development and a feeling of accomplishment; and
  • Is committed to helping their mentee find success, and empowers the mentee to develop their own strengths and style.

Mentoring Programs

In recent years, the importance of mentors in the legal profession has been recognised with the establishment of mentoring programs to provide young lawyers with the opportunity to learn from an experienced practitioner.

Law Institute of Victoria

The Law Institute of Victoria’ (LIV) Mentoring Program links young members of the legal profession with an experienced role model to provide guidance and support. The program provides various categories of mentees and mentors, and is available for law students, new lawyers, lawyers returning to work and barristers.

The LIV program also offers Judicial mentoring, linking law graduates and junior lawyers with a member of the judiciary to discuss their experiences within the legal profession, as well as their future careers in law. The program runs across different jurisdictions and in regional areas.

Victorian Women Lawyers

Through their Professional Mentoring Program, Victorian Women Lawyers (VWL) provides an opportunity for female lawyers to engage with a more senior practitioner in a formal mentor/mentee relationship. Mentors have a diverse range of experience and practice and are paired with their mentees by VWLs based on their professional and personal interests. The purpose of the program is to allow for female lawyers to develop their legal and professional skills with the guidance of an established lawyer.

Women in Crime

The practice of criminal law for women has unique challenges and stressors. Women in Crime (WIC) is an association established in 2014 with a stated aim to connect and support female criminal lawyers. The first WIC Mentorship Program has recently commenced, linking a mentor with a small group of mentees. The program allows the mentees to connect with their mentor, as well as with each other, in a flexible, informal and supportive way.

The Importance of Mentors

A good mentor, in whatever form they take, can leave a significant and enduring impression.

My first mentor set me on my career path and continued to provide his quiet support long after I left his employ.
I realise now that much of his advice was ahead of its time, as it was designed to maintain well-being and longevity in criminal practice: don’t look at the photos; don’t work past 5.30pm; don’t take the files home.

No doubt I learned more about people; listening, empathising, managing expectations, managing challenging behaviours, and the art of giving advice, than I learned about case law. And in that busy environment, I saw the many and great pressures of combining the practice of criminal law with running a business.

And in hindsight, I understand and appreciate how fortunate I was to have found my kind mentor by chance; because his office happened to be close to where I was living at the time, and I thought a job there might be rather convenient.

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