Recently, a good friend told me of a mentoring experience her daughter had at work. She’s a young lawyer in her first year at a big-city firm. When she returned from her post-articling break, she and some female colleagues were sat down for an informal meeting with some senior female lawyers. The first item on the agenda was a question: “so, what’s your debt?” As I was told this, I thought “now that’s direct.” But also important and thoughtful. The mentors were attempting to make a bridge and value the real-life situation of their newer colleagues who had come through eight years of schooling—many of them with debts ranging from the price of a new car to the price of a new condo. They listened to them narrate their tales of navigation—some had families to support, others had families that supported them—and then offered suggestions, advice, and resources based on their own experience and knowledge of handling the first years out of law school.
Uncritical and Critical Mentoring
I was impressed by this story of women who, with knowledge of how it was for them—what supports were there, and what was missing—had stepped up to help their sisters with their experience. I was also a little covetous of the guidance. I have no idea if this is a common thing amongst women lawyers, but if it is I’d say it’s a good model. I wished that I had that sort of aid and nourishment when I started my career—or even throughout it. I don’t think I even understood what mentoring was when I was new to the regular work world. I had supportive co-workers, and even occasionally some who went the extra mile or gave (mostly unsolicited) advice. In one job, one of my older colleagues was selected to pull me aside and advise me on how best to deal with the boss’s drinking problem. I don’t think you could call it a mentorship, but it was helpful. When I mentioned advice here, I said “mostly unsolicited” because for most of my life, I didn’t even know I could ask for career or work life guidance. And I still feel that way, despite my age (don’t ask), and having navigated through different aspects of my career. I mean, I think for most of my life I saw mentoring as an exercise of the privileged over their younger (or less privileged) selves. To be honest, I still think that is what uncritical mentoring is: a one-way street where people who possess knowledge and the means set themselves up as pseudo TED talkers with clever words and deeds that gratify themselves, instead of the listeners.
Learning From the Mentored
Over the past decade, I’ve taken to following the teachings and suggestions of the younger women in my life (and yeah, most are millennials). I don’t know if they could be called mentors outright, but they use the tools of critical mentoring. They are inventive, smart, and enthusiastic. They listen and provide a platform when possible. And they don’t assume that a query or a question means I am a complete dullard who needs to be schooled. They encourage intergenerational dialogue but don’t idol worship what an older person says just because they are older. Maybe it’s because many millennials see how tenuous work is, and how we all need to share resources, Or, perhaps it is because they understand power but are not interested in wielding it like a weapon. I get such constructive dialogue from younger people who have an interest in mutual benefit—even if that benefit isn’t readily quantifiable.