The value of mentorship in the legal profession

May 1st, 2017

By Michelle Beatson

Historically articles in the legal profession were for a period of two years in the very practical environment of a legal practice. A junior legal professional had the advantage of understanding the formal procedures and unwritten rules of the professional organisation in which he or she found themselves, and learnt to fit into the organisational culture, values and norms.  With the guidance of a senior mentor and feedback, the less experienced attorney had access to knowledge, experience and wisdom and as a result began to master new management and leadership skills and could reach their potential over a period of time in this environment

As life’s tempo quickened, experienced attorneys had less time to spend on teaching, supervising and mentoring. Schools for Legal Practice came into being to fill the gap and, as brilliant as this innovation was, nothing could fully replace the one-on-one practical mentoring on a daily basis in a legal firm.

The advantages of a mentoring programme as developed by the Law Society of South Africa’s Legal Education and Development Department are vast. The less experienced junior attorney gains improved confidence when being in a one-on-one mentoring relationship with a senior mentor, where they feel comfortable to ask ‘silly’ questions without embarrassment and improved confidence leads to improved performance. The junior professional ultimately feels valued and appreciated and with continuous feedback from an objective teacher will become an asset to the company. Once he or she reaches senior status and a higher potential he or she should have no reluctance in becoming a mentor to a junior professional.

Although senior mentors may feel strapped for time and less inclined to open themselves up to mentoring, this process does not necessarily have to be time consuming, as, with today’s technology a simple WhatsApp or telephone call can be utilised by the mentee to obtain an immediate reply or solution to a practical problem, which he or she may experience in the course of his or her practice.

Although legal knowledge can be obtained through study and research, the mastering of management, leadership and communication skills can only be attained through time and proper mentoring and are of paramount importance in the running of a successful legal practice.

The legal profession is constantly changing. Through his or her mentoring, the legal mentor is placed in an advantageous position of having to reflect on their own experience and legal expertise. The best way to learn and expand one’s own capabilities and ultimately broaden one’s own outlook is to teach.

By being involved as either a mentor or mentee in a structured environment where specific time is allocated to achieving specific goals professional individuals are placed in a position where they are able to systematically track their own development, their own achievements and their own results: The most time efficient manner and least costly way of transferring practical skills.

Only one instance is more effective in becoming a legal practitioner on a practical level than actually hearing, seeing and watching your principal in a legal firm conduct their practice, and that is being mentored in a structured mentorship programme, by a more experienced legal practitioner who is prepared to empower you by acting as a sound board and adviser.

Consider becoming a student of your own life by becoming either a mentor or a mentee.

Michelle Beatson BLC LLB (UP) is an attorney at Lanser & Williams in Bela-Bela.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2017 (May) DR 26.