Why Mentoring is a Must

by admin 10. July 2013 09:21

BY LESLEE COHEN

This month’s Legal Balance theme is “mentors” so I will start there in this post. My take on mentors is that they are the single most important factor in determining your career path. That being said, I believe that the mentor-mentee relationship must occur organically, rather than being forced upon the participants through a formal program in most situations. 

My first mentor in a law firm setting was my first boss. As I mentioned in last month’s post, I graduated from NYU Law in 1992, during a recession. As a result, I was willing to take pretty much any position with any law firm, but I was extremely fortunate to have landed as the very first “first year” ever hired within the corporate/securities department of a boutique Wall Street firm called Hertzog, Calamari & Gleason. HCG was a spinoff of the great Cravath, Swaine & Moore and later merged into Winston & Strawn.

From day one, I was mentored by David Hertzog—not an easy process to endure (we referred to it as being “Zogged” back then). This sometimes meant spending eight hours learning to write the perfect client letter. Other times, it meant being handed a new statute to conquer and being called down to respond to rapid-fire questions regarding that statute the very next day—in the corner office and in front of a client, who was typically the CEO of a publicly traded company. Let’s just say I was a nervous wreck of a first-year associate most of the time. 

However, the experience turned me into the lawyer I am today. I am currently reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In,” and I have realized that so much of my self-confidence as a lawyer and my ability to "lean in" results directly from the training and mentorship I received more 20 years ago from David Hertzog. As tough as he was, David was warm, as well. Although he made me shake in my shoes, he expressed tremendous pride in my accomplishments, and his email congratulating me when my partner and I started our firm three years ago meant the world to me. 

My advice stemming from this experience, as well as the various other mentors I have been fortunate to have learned from throughout my career, is as follows:  

  1. Make sure you have a mentor as a very young lawyer. Hopefully this will happen organically as a result of performing assignments for a senior attorney with whom you just “click.”  If not, feel free to ask someone to mentor you, but do not be disappointed if the person is too busy to do so—this is very typical in today’s busy times. I have been asked this favor twice in my career, and I was extremely flattered and thrilled to help. If the person you ask turns out to be less helpful than you had hoped, ask someone else.  
  2. Do not be afraid of having a male mentor. I am all about helping women lawyers thrive, but when you work well with a man, and he is willing to mentor you, grab that offer and run with it.
  3. Look for different qualities to emulate in your different mentors. The perfect mentor when you are very young may teach you how to become a great lawyer, while the right mentor three years later may help you to navigate firm politics. The next mentor may model business development, and a later mentor may bring you into leadership roles. 
Leslee Cohen is a principal at Hershman Cohen LLC, a boutique corporate and securities law firm in Chicago that stands out from the crowd, combining big-firm experience with small-firm rates and relationships.  Leslee lives in Deerfield with her husband—the true love of her life—and her two amazing boys, ages 13 and 10.  She was a co-founder of the Coalition of Women’s Initiatives in Law and continues to serve on its board of directors, and she is very active in the Small Business Advocacy Council. Her interests outside of work and family include fashion and politics, and her passion is helping younger women rise to the top of their professions.

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Leslee Cohen | Life on the Lattice

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