Much is said and written now about the importance of mentors, but when I started as a lawyer in 1981 (an “articled clerk”, as we were called) the term had hardly been heard in the corridors of even the biggest law firms.  That did not stop us from developing working relationships with senior lawyers that had many of the characteristics of the mentor/mentee relationships we are all supposed to seek now.

I was fortunate to learn in the early stages of my career from three very different mentors, with three very different characters.  I won’t give them their real names to avoid embarrassment, though one of them died a few years ago.  All three of these lawyers had three things in common: (1) they were always courteous and polite, including with the “other side”; (2) they saw their mission as being to solve problems and achieve results; and (3) they always had time, however busy and important they were, to help younger lawyers do well.  Perhaps that’s why I gravitated towards them.

“Tom” was a man who had seen everything and came from that breed of lawyers that does not believe in specialisation.  He made it his business to understand all that he was hearing from the other lawyers in the firm, and to do his own research into whether he agreed with them, whatever their area of specialism.  Although he was a corporate lawyer, he could win arguments with the tax lawyers.  Not surprisingly, he had very deep relationships with his clients, as he could advise them with authority on an impressive range of legal subjects.

“Dick” was a person with extraordinary powers of concentration and attention to detail.  No typo would get past him, but he also had the awareness and imagination to pick up the obvious (and sometimes, less than obvious) thing that had been missed in the drafting.  His deep legal knowledge enabled him to be incredibly innovative and to develop what have become market standard solutions in some of the most unprecedented situations, often involving seemingly intractable conflicts between US practice and UK practice.

“Harry” was the lawyer most determined in pursuit of his clients’ aims I have ever come across.  Someone who would not take no for an answer, he would keep trying any method he could conceive of to get results.  Even where he was on dubious legal ground, he would sometimes get what his client wanted just by the force of his personality.  He always had a very clear idea of commercial objectives, and often the first meeting on a new matter with him was entirely about that subject rather than about the law.

A single mentor may be less valuable than learning from diverse models of lawyering; the best lawyers have that chameleon-like quality that enables them to apply different working styles to suit the situation and the client.

I was fortunate enough to work with Dick and Harry (not Tom, who had retired by then) right up until I became a partner and beyond.  I continued to learn from them, and even now I sometimes find myself asking “what would Dick have done?” or ”how would Harry have got this to happen?”  Of course all these people had their faults, but I feel I learned from their good points, not their bad ones.

Associates today working in big law firms would do well to find the Toms, Dicks and Harrys in their law firms and to study what makes them successful.  My experience is that for most of us success comes when we are able to assimilate and develop the good things we learn from senior people.  A single mentor may be less valuable than learning from diverse models of lawyering; the best lawyers have that chameleon-like quality that enables them to apply different working styles to suit the situation and the client.

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