The Unexpected Influence of Mentorship – Leading As Lawyers

But if you use [mentorship] relationships to unselfishly engage in reflection and related professional and personal growth, you will experience positive change and growth, even if you cannot immediately see it in yourself.

Will Salisbury

University of Tennessee College of Law, Class of 2022

As someone about to graduate, I never expected to write a blog article for The University of Tennessee College of Law. In fact, I wasn’t planning on putting these words to paper at all, until I was prompted to do so during a weekly mentoring meeting. My mentor had earlier suggested that I share some of what I had learned in law school about leadership in a blog post.  But I was unsure of what I had to say and kept putting off the task of thinking through my ideas.

In that recent weekly meeting, however, I came to know what I needed to write. I was talking with my mentor about how impactful our mentor-mentee relationship had been and how grateful I was that we had started that relationship two years prior. “Will!” my mentor exclaimed, “That’s what you need to write about!” And so, after some further prompting, I am taking the opportunity to explain how unexpected mentorship can positively impact all aspects of a person’s life.

The spring semester of my 1L year, I was struggling. Between a full course load, mock trial, and looking for clerkships in another state, I was spent. I couldn’t get anyone to return my phone calls for positions, and I wanted to work at the Securities and Exchange Commission. This set of circumstances led me to contact Professor Joan Heminway, a business law professor at the UT College of Law, for a one-time meeting. 

Law professors are busy, engaged people with responsibilities for teaching, scholarship, and service. Professor Heminway very easily could have given me my advice that day and then turned me away. Instead, recognizing my struggle, she suggested that we make our one-time meeting into a weekly occurrence. For two years, we have continued our weekly meetings, and there are a variety of things that I have learned from our ongoing mentor-mentee relationship. I summarize a few of the lessons I have learned below.

(1) Ongoing reflection facilitates change.

I can tell you that I am not the same person I was two years ago. My relationships, my outlook, my maturity, and my mindset have all changed from when I was a 1L. Every meeting that we had together, I was analyzing who I was, the problems I was having, where I wanted to be, and how I wanted to get there. I learned to look at the positives of the situation, rather than looking at only the negatives. By having an outside person make comments, critiques, and criticisms, I was able to go much farther with my reflections than I would have had alone. But none of this would have been possible until I undertook reflection not only in the presence of my mentor, but also by myself. To change for the better, I had to identify where I wanted to be.

(2) Mentorship should be balanced with professional and personal growth.

You cannot place the burden of your change entirely on your mentor. This may seem self-explanatory, but you cannot rely on a mentor to make the change that you want to see in yourself. Complaining about your problems will not remove those problems for your life. Professional growth can only be accomplished by honing your self-evaluation and problem-solving skills. Personal growth can only be accomplished by necessitating change in your life. These changes can only be accomplished by the individual mentee; your mentors cannot effectuate that change for you.  Effectuating change can only come from within, and mentors can help you identify changes necessary to the encouragement of that growth.

(3) Others see your growth.

A person is steeped in their own circumstances. As a result, it is very hard for that person to see their own personal growth. I compare it to going to the gym. When you go to the gym trying to lose weight, you take a picture on the very first day to help document your journey. That way, in a couple of months, when you take another picture, you can see your progress—how you look in comparison to that first day. Otherwise, the changes are unlikely to be fully seen. It is the same with personal growth. If you don’t feel like you’ve changed, that is completely okay. While it may be hard for you to see, others can see it (and may even point it out to you). Regardless, one day, you will understand that the lessons that you have learned and how they have shaped you in the person you are today.

(4) Don’t be selfish.

Everyone has their own issues, stressors, problems, tragedies, and entire lives that are separate from your own. As a society, it is very easy for us to get wrapped up into our own problems (especially through the difficulties of law school) and look to people for what they can do to help us. As others pour into you, don’t make it all about you. Professionals who mentor you are people too.  Just as mentors pour into you, you should do your best to pour into them. Talk about hobbies, movies, family, friends, and make it so that your goal is to find out more about them. Wisdom can come from all different types of places, and the more you act unselfishly, the more it makes people want to work with you. By talking to others and forming those deeper relationships, you end up helping yourself.

(5) Different seasons, different mentorship.

Mentors don’t have to (and often don’t) last forever and that’s okay. By changing geographic locations, employers, and people that surround you, you will naturally be drawn to other people and meet other people who will eventually become your mentors. Those people will bring different life experiences, different circumstances, and different wisdom to you. It is up to you to determine who your mentors will be and what you will get from each mentorship. But don’t forget the mentors who got you where you are! Those people shaped the person and professional that you have become, and as you get different mentors, going back to talk to prior mentors can be rewarding.

As I think about these different kinds of lessons that I have learned throughout my time at the UT College of Law, I have come to understand that I could not have gotten to where I am today without my mentors. They have pushed me to be better—to strive for more—and have given me countless pieces of advice. I encourage everyone to find someone who can be a mentor to them and to always be on the lookout for opportunities to connect with people who will push them to be more. You can never fully anticipate what you will gain when you enter into mentoring relationships. But if you use those relationships to unselfishly engage in reflection and related professional and personal growth, you will experience positive change and growth, even if you cannot immediately see it in yourself.

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