My first inclination about how significant a role mentors would play in my career came early on. When you join Latham, whether as a summer associate or an experienced lateral hire, you are assigned a mentor to help guide your career.
For my class of summer associates, our mentors bet us that we would all pass the bar; we bet that we would fail. The losers would have to buy dinner for the group.
When we all passed, our mentors chose an upscale restaurant for the celebratory meal, ringing up a wildly expensive bill that the first year associates had to pay—call it benevolent hazing. But our mentors had won the bet, and I learned very early on that one of the most meaningful acts a mentor can perform is expressing confidence in their mentees.
I needed that confidence. I grew up on a farm in Iowa—truly, the middle of nowhere. The prospect of moving to Los Angeles after law school felt daunting. What if I didn’t belong? What if I chose the wrong practice? What if I couldn’t keep up with my peers?
Looking back, I would diagnose myself with a classic case of imposter syndrome. Thankfully, my mentors invested the time to train me as a young associate, helping me realize how drawn I was to transactional practices so that I could choose to focus on real estate law.
My Mentors Helped Me Over My Imposter Syndrome
Early on in my career, a fourth-year associate at the firm took me under her wing. She answered what must have been thousands of questions I asked, then told me to ask more—both of her and of the partners.
She taught me that every question asked is another investment in yourself, and will ultimately benefit both you and the firm by making you a better lawyer. Learning to reach out to a partner without thinking that I was a burden helped me gain the confidence I lacked.
One of those partners, David Meckler, pushed me to believe in myself and my work, which really influenced my career trajectory. When I was an associate, Dave encouraged me to serve on Latham’s Associates Committee—an experience that highlighted for me the firm’s commitment to including associates in leadership positions. (I now serve on the committee as a partner.)
At Latham, associates enjoy equal representation on the committee that reviews performance, decides bonuses, and recommends promotions. Such associate leadership is unusual among big law firms, which can feel like black boxes to newcomers.
The committee showed me how much Latham trusts associates and cares about the perspectives they bring to the table. And as a member of the committee, I made connections with partners outside of my office and practice, colleagues with whom I wouldn’t otherwise have crossed paths on a day-to-day basis. Those connections proved valuable for advancing my career.
During my first year as a partner, I still struggled with nerves, especially when I would tackle the “scary” parts of deals solo, or need to negotiate with other lawyers. To help put me at ease, Dave tried to send me a video of a bird taking flight—leaving the nest for the first time—to boost my confidence. But he had copied the wrong link, so I watched a video of a bird dramatically crashing.
We both laughed about it. The mix-up still had the intended effect, and I’ll re-watch the video from time to time to put myself at ease.
My mentors proved instrumental in my career, and because of them I’ve been able to overcome my imposter syndrome.
Their guidance and support are what I now try to emulate as I take on my own mentees. My mentors have modeled for me how to be a good mentor.
Being a Mentor Allows Your Own Personal Growth, Too
While taking on mentorship can seem daunting, especially for mid-level associates who may view the exercise as adding to their workload, the venture is more than worthwhile. By being approachable, you’re training junior associates—a practice that will pay dividends in the long run.
The interpersonal connections you develop from mentoring hold so much value as well. You never know who may be secretly battling with issues of confidence, or who may need to hear some words of affirmation. Offering that support not only strengthens the resolve of your mentee, but reinforces your own self-confidence when you know you’re guiding someone along the right path.
And the relationship goes both ways; my mentees constantly teach me new features in technology, and their eagerness for the job often renews my enthusiasm in my own work. To see someone light up when they conduct their first conference call on a complex joint venture reminds me why I love this practice, and why I invest in lifting up the next generation of legal talent.
A few years ago, one of my mentees moved to Singapore, and we held a bon voyage dinner for her at the home of Dave, my own mentor. A senior partner remarked on how well we had built our practice, commenting that the camaraderie among everyone, from partners to associates, felt palpably different than other get-togethers he attended.
Looking around the room, I thought back to buying my mentors’ dinner the night I passed the bar, and realized that after all this time, they had passed the baton.
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
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Hilary Shalla Strong is a partner, local chair of the Orange County Corporate Department, and a member of the associates committee at Latham & Watkins. She has also held a number of firm leadership roles including the global chair of the Mentoring Program.