What to look for in a mentor

In thinking about the great legal mentors that I've had during my career, I realized that there is no single recipe for what makes one. Finding outstanding mentors is dependent on aspects of both the mentor and mentee: their respective abilities, personalities, and aspirations, as well as — perhaps most importantly — where they are in their careers. In this article, I've tried to tease out those characteristics that defined the two mentors that guided me early in my legal career.

Those two great legal mentors were Michael Shaheen Jr. and United States Court of Appeals Judge Paul H. Roney. Both of these remarkable lawyers have been well recognized as outstanding mentors. Both, unfortunately, are no longer with us.

Roney's role as a U.S. Circuit Judge is well understood. He was regarded as a thoughtful jurist, and clerking for him was highly sought after, in part, because of his avuncular and guiding nature. 

Shaheen was best known among lawyers and public servants involved in fighting public corruption. He served as the founding director of the United States Department of Justice's Office of Professional Responsibility — the DOJ's internal watchdog.

Shaheen was characterized as one who "fearlessly investigated and uncovered abuses and misdeeds by the powerful and the less powerful alike, regardless of politics or position." Shaheen served in his senior DOJ post for 22 years, under eight attorneys general — every so often making national news for bringing down major government figures engaged in wrongdoing.

Shaheen's consummate integrity focused me on the need to be constantly vigilant in watching for, and fighting against, cronyism and corruption, which risks infecting all organizations. Because of Shaheen's guidance, I've sought to expose misdeeds both public and private and now conduct academic research on freedom-of-information laws — the single best tool kit for public oversight of government actors' otherwise often opaque behavior.

The most important common characteristic of these two mentors was humility. Neither ever said he was an expert in anything, because the argument from authority is not a way to teach or lead. Quite the contrary, such behavior shuts down discussion and debate.

Indeed, both of these mentors routinely asked me to discuss with them my views on the law, particularly when they initially thought differently.  One such incident is instructive. While I was clerking, the judge asked me to discuss with him a bench memo that I wrote. His first sentence to me, importantly, was "I think I disagree with you, but I don't want you to change your view just to agree with me." He didn't have to tell me twice, but this disclaimer is the most crucial statement a great legal mentor can make. Roney taught me the importance of speaking truth to power. He encouraged it. All good public servants do.

At the end of the discussion, while many of our differences remained, we both appreciated better the nuances of the issues and the opposing views. Of course, this reflects a sense of mutual respect; my then status did not cause the judge to be dismissive of my views.

Perhaps one reason that both Judge Roney and Mike Shaheen considered my views so thoroughly, and those of their other employees — as well, was because these great legal mentors were not insecure about their credentials and abilities. Sometimes supervisors rightly or wrongly view themselves as having outpaced their backgrounds. This can be dangerous.

The second common trait held by these mentors is that they both respected individuality. My job was to provide legal analysis. Within that overarching paradigm, they both allowed me to express myself using my style and scholarly approach.

When hiring young lawyers with ample abilities reflected in significant credentials, legal mentors do well to allow those years of study and training to present themselves in an organic fashion. Otherwise, the mentor is not respecting all that went into the mentee arriving at his current position. Of course, mentors must provide guidance by reviewing the mentees work, discussing alternative ways to look at issues, and giving direction — as both Roney and Shaheen did masterfully. But a light touch goes a long way, because great legal mentors don't seek to demonstrate an hierarchical relationship. Rather, they seek to work collaboratively.

Third, both legal mentors didn't view my success as a threat to theirs. If a mentor is constantly looking for his next job, he likely won't focus on a mentee's growth. You'll observe this when you see a would-be mentor employing proclamations such as "under my watch" and "during my leadership." Opportunistic supervisors look to exaggerate their successes by employing these phrases even when they cannot show a casual connection between their actions and the described accomplishments. 

Relatedly, if a would-be mentor seeks to claim full credit for the work of an underling, that's a very bad sign. When I drafted a report with Shaheen, he not only insured that my name was listed on it, he had me present the conclusions. Similarly, when I drafted a bench memo to Judge Roney explaining why one party's description of a series of cases was wrong, he said in open court "my clerk disagrees with your interpretation of the cases." That's rather remarkable given the specific role of a law clerk.

Indeed, this attitude pays itself forward.  For example, when I was in court as a Department of Justice attorney, a judge asked me a question that the government agency council working with me was better able to answer. I offered the court that I could check with the agency attorney or have her answer directly. The judge said "it's your case; run it as you please." I had the agency counsel respond. Notwithstanding the judge's initial seeming ambivalence, she applauded my decision as the right one — bemoaning how Justice attorneys often didn't allow her attorneys to speak when she was once an agency's chief lawyer. 

One might conclude that working for someone who isn't climbing the professional ladder is the way to avoid the problems I describe. Perhaps that's one way. The other is to find a mentor whose primary focus isn't himself. Unfortunately, there are plenty of narcissists out there, but many folks aren't, as well. Find one of the latter if you can.

I've had other great mentors throughout my legal career. Judge Morris Arnold and Professor Tom Sullivan are two who represent the very best of legal academia — excelling in producing outstanding teaching, research, and service to the legal community.  I may write about them and other of my mentors in future articles. For now, I fondly remember Judge Roney and Mike Shaheen.

Robert Steinbuch is a Professor of Law at University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Bowen School of Law and Fulbright Scholar.

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