5 lessons on mentorship in a legal career


There’s a lot of buzz around the word ‘mentorship’, especially in the legal fraternity. Law students believe that they need mentors to shine in their careers and young lawyers feel that if they don’t have mentors, then they are not going to excel in their careers.

Most of us are always looking for that one special mentor who will give us a leg up in our careers.

But the truth is mentorship doesn’t happen just like that.

Here are five lessons about mentorship that I learnt from my mentors over my legal career of 12 years and legal education of 5 years prior to that.

1. A mentor can change your life with the smallest action

Good mentors don’t have grand gestures, only grand impact.

This story is from the time I wasn’t even a law student. I was in class XI, preparing for competitive exams for medical colleges, while nurturing a desire to study law. Bogged down by the pressure, I declared to my father that I do not want to be a doctor, but a lawyer.

Middle class Bengali household didn’t understand a legal career. We never had one in our family. Everybody thought lawyers work in courts, sit outside court premises waiting for clients and earn peanuts.

I had recently discovered national law schools and tried to explain that it was not such a grim prospect. But in the absence of widespread use of Google, I found it tough to explain the bright prospects of a legal career to my father.

Just to give you a perspective, this was the year 2003.

It so happened that my father had a colleague whose son went to the National University of Juridical Sciences. My father decided to talk to his colleague and got a first-hand understanding of an education at a national law school. Convinced, he supported me in pursuing my dreams.

However, I didn’t want to take up expensive coaching for law entrance exams. I was already spending a lot on availing extra tuitions for my classroom subjects. So I decided to self-study for law entrance.

I used to study from Universal’s Guide to LLB entrance and solve questions papers of the NLS entrance exam. But there was one problem. I didn’t know if my answers were correct.

Here, my father’s colleague’s son helped me immensely. With our fathers as the conduit, he would look over my answers and then provide his remarks. In his words, it was a small gesture ‘cos it didn’t take up much of his time. For me, it was a huge favour.

I went on to clear the NUJS entrance even before I finished my Class XII Boards.

He was one of my earliest mentors, who taught me that even the smallest help can change someone’s life.

2. A mentor may not always hold your hands

I have shared on many platforms how clueless I was about litigation when I joined the disputes team of Khaitan & Co. I didn’t have the basic idea about the practical sides of the profession, despite studying and scoring well in my semester exams in subjects like CPC, Evidence, CrPC and the likes.

In addition, I was reporting to three bosses at the same time. It was baptism by fire for me on all accounts.

I distinctly remembered how my heart sank when I was told that no one would sit me down and teach me. It was simply not possible, given the work load of my bosses.

“You will have to follow and learn on the way,” they said.

And learn I did.

From morning till afternoon, I trailed them in the courtrooms. In the evenings, I attended client meetings and conferences with senior counsel. I witnessed my bosses juggling client demands, insane work hours, late nights on weekends, networking, brainstorming on legal points, drafting, briefing and everything else that goes with a disputes career.

I just needed to be a sponge to absorb all that was happening around me. I needed to fall, bruise myself, get up and then run again. I was praised in public and protected against client tirades but admonished in private if wrong. I picked up valuable skills in time management, client service and importance of continuous learning from them.

And yet, none of them had any special ‘chats’ with me.

None of them lectured me.

They were just there.

Don’t confuse holding hands with mentorship.

3. Mentorship can come from unexpected sources

I do not believe that only successful, senior lawyers can be good mentors.

Anyone who adds value and knowledge to your life, is a mentor worth appreciating.

In those initial days of my first job as a disputes lawyer, I was overwhelmed and scared. I knew nothing of what was going around me and was scared to ask my bosses.

My team’s assistants and court clerks came to my rescue. I still remember my first lesson on paperbook by one of the court clerks. He was an elderly man and told me not to worry.

“You will learn all this in no time,” he assured me.

They took me to the filing counters, registry departments, court fee counters and let me observe how a case is filed.

They introduced me to the administration sections and court masters so that I could learn how certified copy of orders are obtained.

They were as much part of the team as I was.

Late nights, weekends, holidays – we worked together, side by side and met deadlines. I learnt the valuable lesson that no work is beneath me.

I photocopied, paginated by hand and stitched paperbooks if they were busy. They always had my back in the courtrooms, informing me of the board, or requesting another lawyer to take a passover if I was occupied elsewhere.  They packed all the relevant files and books before a hearing and never left me looking for something while a hearing was on.

I can safely say that all my knowledge of procedural law came from my interactions with my court clerks.

Later when I joined an in-house role, the one person who helped me settle down, provided me with all necessary info and always made my life easier was the team assistant. Whenever, wherever I needed anything, she provided to me. She even coached me on interpersonal skills.

So you see, mentorship in a legal career comes from all the people we surround ourselves with.

4. A true boss is not someone who bosses

The biggest mentors in our professional lives are undoubtedly the people who supervise us. It is rightly said that a great boss has the power to change your life. Here are ten of the lessons mine taught me over the years –

(a) Be mindful of the person in front of you. Awareness of his non-verbal cues will lead to better negotiation outcome.

(b) Always give more than you receive.

(c) Networking is nothing but helping someone with what they need with what you have.

(d) Be a champion of your team members and colleagues. Praising someone never brings down your own worth.

(e) Insecurity breeds false conflicts. If you are confident of your own value, the world will value you.

(f) Always, always be intellectually honest.  

(g) Train others in everything that you know. You will be a successful leader when your mentee/colleague surpasses you.

(h) Drafting pleadings is like writing a story. Ensure that it holds the attention of the reader (the judge in this case).

(i) An effective briefing happens when you give the most important point in the first ten seconds.

(j) Be authentic in your communication. Discover your personal style of communication and stick to it. Trying to shout when you are not an aggressive person or be demure and low-key when you are an assertive person won’t help you achieve results.

5. It’s tough to mentor when you are responsible for another’s actions

This is a lesson learnt from my experience of being a team leader.

A team leader is responsible for the entire team, especially of the actions of the team members. That is when you discover that it is tough being a boss.

All the expectations you had of your boss are now expected of you. You have to mentor, teach and lead by example, while being empathetic, patient and a good listener.

You cannot scream at your junior for making silly mistakes without worrying how it will impact your relationship.

You cannot express your frustration at delay in assignment delivery without framing your words carefully.

Of course you can, but then you will be termed as ‘insensitive’ and a ‘horrible boss’.

It is very easy to mentor a third person, whose actions do not impact you. But it is extremely difficult to mentor someone and then lead by example when your reputation is also at stake.

It is not my place to comment on how I have been as a boss, but I can say that effective leadership is a skill that can be learnt by anyone over time.

And being a good leader and a true mentor is a combination that will earn you respect, provide you immense satisfaction and impact lives in ways you would have never imagined.

I wish that all of you who are seeking mentorship today, grow into individuals who give the same back to society.

Start by mentoring another person today. It could be your teenage nephew confused about career choices, or the first-year student who met you in the library the other day, or the junior-most lawyer in your chamber. It could also be your office associate struggling to integrate technology into their daily work life or your client who is facing a crisis.

Remember, mentorship is only a grand word. It comprises of small actions which combine to big impact.

The more you give it, the more you will receive.

Start small today.

An example of a small gesture of mentorship is the articles written by a young law graduate giving some excellent tips on acing law firm internships from her personal experience. She approached me and requested for publication on this website and I happily obliged. Read them here (part 1) and here (part 2).

Here is a great article on tips for both mentors and mentees. This might help you as you seek or provide mentorship.

Let me know in the comments if you found this article helpful.

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