One of the most important things you can do as an aspiring public interest lawyer is to find mentors to help you along the way. But finding a mentor is easier said than done. How do you find a mentor? And perhaps equally as important, how do you find a good mentor?
There are different kinds of mentors and you should try to find at least one of each. There are mentors who are at an advanced stage in their career and who can help you make the connections you need to succeed. These are rainmaker mentors. There are also mentors who are just a few years ahead of you in their careers who can provide a more personal kind of mentorship. These are confidant mentors. Each of these mentors fulfills a different role in your professional development.
Rainmaker mentors are important to have because they can open doors for you. They are likely to have a wide network of connections, and if they believe in you, they can give you access to their network. The rainmaker mentor can also provide advice, but it tends to be the 10,000 foot kind. It has been a while since they were in your shoes. They are going to be much better at dispensing advice about the overall trajectory of your career than about a particular fellowship that may not have existed when they were applying, or about a clerkship for a judge that was not even on the bench when they clerked.
They also tend to be in high demand and might only have limited time to spend mentoring you. You might also feel constrained about how honest to be with them about the decisions you are grappling with and life challenges you are facing. After all, you may want to come to them for recommendations down the road, which is not exactly conducive to transparency in your conversations with them.
A good rainmaker mentor is someone who believes in you and is willing to put their weight behind you. A well-known mentor who is ambivalent about you or who doesn’t know you exist isn’t worth much. I have a friend who worked for a high-profile politician before law school and he was very excited about getting her to write him a recommendation. He had left his job with her at this point, but he contacted her staff to ask if she could write a recommendation. Months passed. Finally, someone from her office called him back and explained that the politician didn’t feel like she knew him well enough to write him a recommendation. Not exactly a great mentor. You should invest in mentoring relationships where you have received signals that the other person is invested in mentoring you.
A confidant mentor fulfills a different role. They are likely to have more time to devote to you and you might feel you can talk with them about decisions that might seem too trivial to discuss with a rainmaker. But perhaps more importantly, they have a much more recent perspective on the decisions you are making, and can provide the kind of current, tailored advice that you are unlikely to get from a rainmaker. A good confidant mentor is someone willing to invest time in you, and who has relevant life and career experience you can draw from. Ideally, you would have several confidant mentors so you can get a variety of perspectives.
Often, our rainmaker mentors are chosen for us by whom we come into contact with at our law schools or summer internships, but we have a lot more control about who we choose as a confidant mentor. Emailing a V.I.P. out of the blue is unlikely to be effective, but many young lawyers will answer emails from people they don’t know looking for advice. I know I did. I remember what it felt like to be dependent on people sharing their knowledge and experience with me, and I want to help those coming after me. (That is also why I started this blog). So identify a few people who have the job you want, or who have taken a path you want to pursue, and then reach out.
I should address the elephant in the room, which is that certain people have a tougher time finding mentors. It is well known that people are much more likely to want to mentor people like them, and in a profession whose top echelon is still overly white and male, that means that lawyers from underrepresented and historically oppressed groups are going to have a tougher time finding mentors. This is one reason why representation is so important, and law schools and other institutions must commit to doing better.
For the purposes of this post, however, I’ll say this: don’t get discouraged if you don’t click with a mentor right away. You have to keep at it, so that one day you can be in a position to mentor others like you.