Why Mentoring Matters: Foley’s Michelle Nuñez

Prior to law school, my interactions with attorneys were limited and my interactions with non-trial attorneys were nonexistent. I grew up in a small rural town in Florida. After high school I went to MIT where I was surrounded by engineers and scientists.

After graduating from high school, I went straight to law school. I was – and still am – the only attorney in my family, and my summer internships and first job as an associate after law school were my first experiences in a professional environment. When I started my legal career as a Regulatory Attorney at a large Boston law firm in 2007, I didn’t know what to expect and needed a lot of guidance.

While I had official permanent mentors, the lawyers I would consider my most important influences and mentors were not part of an official program, but rather colleagues who made every effort to make themselves available to me. I was able to turn to her with all the questions I was too intimidated to ask the more experienced attorneys–from locating an EDGAR file to navigating the firm’s unspoken politics to sick days.

These relationships were critical to my personal and professional development as a young associate, and throughout my career I have sought to provide the same informal mentoring role to my younger colleagues. My mentoring relationships grew organically at first as I tended to mentor the same people from project to project and provided a way for them to come to me with their own questions.

I joined Foley in 2015 as a Senior Associate, and after a year I sat down to rate my career and job satisfaction. Up to this point, my focus had been on demonstrating my professional value and content skills, and I was receiving positive feedback on my career path.

But I realized that my current career path was too inward focused and something was missing. I decided to spend more time nurturing relationships with associates, including those outside of my practice group, and exploring ways I could be a resource as they develop their own careers.

I spent more time with Associates every day, met with Junior Associates for coffee and drinks, got to know them personally and finally they came to me for advice. My job satisfaction has increased enormously.

A good mentor can be trusted

In almost every office there is at least one person dealing in gossip who cannot be trusted to remain confidential. If you want to be an effective mentor, don’t be that person. And if you’re looking for a mentor, look for someone with the opposite reputation.

Over the years I’ve learned that the most effective mentoring relationships are those where everyone can be open and honest with the other. Trust and discretion are essential.

Personally, I have benefited the most from mentoring relationships where I can be open about my weaknesses and insecurities without fear that it will hinder my career. When I was given leadership responsibilities for client teams early in my career, it was immensely helpful to be able to acknowledge to someone other than the partner supervising me that I felt inadequate and to receive the encouragement and practical guidance I needed to get into to be successful in these new roles. I strive to be someone who can honestly and openly discuss an issue with a co-worker.

While I naturally have professional and fiduciary responsibilities in certain limited situations, being someone who provides psychological security and can be trusted with a colleague’s vulnerabilities is essential to building a relationship conducive to effective mentoring. If someone I look after cannot be trusted to keep confidentialities and help them solve a problem without making things worse, I will not be an effective mentor.

For example, I have occasionally mentored employees who have had to work for partners who, for one reason or another, have found them challenging. Part of the mentoring process is giving them space to openly discuss how they feel someone is being unreasonable or unnecessarily difficult without worrying that venting or talking about an interaction will affect their relationship or could damage their reputation with this partner.

Likewise, I will not help you if I am not honest and transparent about the reality of a situation, even a difficult one. If my mentee is contributing to a difficult relationship, they need to know about it and give them the opportunity to adjust their own behavior or attitude.

Good mentors see you as more than just a lawyer

Don’t underestimate the importance of getting to know your mentee personally. Taking care of them and respecting them as people — not just as attorneys — can help build the confidence needed to provide more useful advice. Our personal lives influence our work, so ask your mentee about their weekend plans, find out the name of their significant other (or children), and learn about their likes and dislikes.

Everyone brings their own unique perspectives and experiences to a situation, and being able to understand the motivations, biases, and worldviews of not just yourself but those you interact with can make a world of difference. As a mentor, I try to understand how my mentee views a particular issue and see if there are other perspectives that need to be considered or additional information I can provide to help them make a more informed decision or to change his interpretation of the problem at hand.

Being successful in a law firm requires both traditional academic intelligence and, sometimes more importantly, emotional intelligence. Managing multiple demands from multiple stakeholders, often with very different personalities, while trying to make a living outside of work can be challenging.

Having positive mentors throughout my career has been critical to my professional success, and serving as a formal and informal mentor to my colleagues has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my professional life.

As the legal industry evolves, strong mentorships and relationships will continue to be critical to successful legal practice, and I will continue to encourage my colleagues to seek meaningful mentor-mentee relationships throughout their careers.

This article does not necessarily represent the opinion of the Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

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Information about the author

Michelle EP Nuñez is a Corporate Partner at Foley & Lardner LLP in Boston. She advises private funds, investment advisors and institutional investors on legal and regulatory matters in the United States.

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