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Why Mentoring Matters: WilmerHale’s Kirk J. Nahra

May 11, 2022, 8:00 AM

I wonder if I should have started mentoring earlier in my career. When I got active in formal mentoring programs, I was already a quite senior (meaning old) partner and (not irrelevantly) my kids were in high school or college and lots of the hard parenting stuff had been concluded. But I had been through those parenting years and was watching them go through college and professional choices and learning to be adults.

Mentoring isn’t the same, but there are some similarities, and it also can be both rewarding and challenging.

I got involved in formal mentoring programs roughly at the time I started part-time teaching. Today, I’m involved in about eight different mentoring groups, where my mentees range from first-generation college students as part of the Georgetown Scholars Program to a variety of law students, new lawyers, and non-lawyer professionals in privacy and security.

Each experience is different. Some mentees are very proactive and have a good sense of themselves and I am simply a resource for random questions or career brainstorming.

Others can benefit from more extensive engagement, whether they know it or not. Sometimes I am just an easy ear for whatever they want to talk about.

Get Involved at Any Level

I encourage my peers, both younger and my age, to get involved in these programs, at any level you like. Pick your spots, where your interests and your skill set align. It may be high school kids. College students are great mentees—but they must be willing to participate.

Find potential mentees through programs where they must initiate their own participation. Not all the pairings will work out—my “success” rate is good, but definitely not 100%. You must be prepared for the possibility that it may not work in a particular situation—the mentee may change professional fields, may lose interest, or just may move on for whatever reason.

I’ve tried to spend a lot of time mentoring both outside and inside of my firm, where for the first time in my career I have the good fortune to be responsible for a wonderful team of young lawyers. It’s a small group, but they have been eager to learn, both about substance of the law and about developing a legal career (along with much more interesting topics like restaurant advice).

Outside of the firm, I participate in formal career programs, single situation calls with people who reach out or sat in one of my guest lectures, or through many of the diversity initiatives that I work with where I can help mentor in mission-driven organizations.

I may not always be the first choice for mentees or organization leadership in some of these diversity programs, but I have thoroughly enjoyed participating, including as a mentor for Women in Security and Privacy, the International Association of Privacy Professionals’ diversity events (partnering with Perkins Coie’s Dominique Shelton Leipzig, Baker McKenzie’s Stephen Reynolds, and others), and the Share the Mic in Cyber group. I am looking forward to working with Talya Parker’s Black Girls in Cyber and I’ve also recently joined the Legal Mentor Network.

Mentors: Reach Out and Be Available

A few of my lessons learned—yours may be different.

First, I understand time is a limited commodity for everyone, especially busy lawyers. With that said, I have tried not to formalize my relationships with my mentees (meaning not always insisting on having a call once a month on Tuesday at 4:00). We have patterns, but my goal is to be available and interested.

I also am often the one who reaches out. I realize that it may make more sense for the mentee to initiate contact, but I find that there often is a reluctance, shyness, or hesitation. A simple “how are you” note often leads to something more.

Be available—nothing is going to cut off a mentoring relationship faster than saying: “I can’t talk now, how about two weeks from Thursday.”

Know your audience. The college student who needs to talk through options on a major is different from the young lawyer looking to switch firms for the first time.

I want to be encouraging and supportive and non-critical. I want to make it easy for a mentee to talk to me and comforting for them to seek me out for anything they need. (This isn’t necessarily all that different from many core parenting skills.)

Mentees: Ask Me Anything

My advice for mentees: Please don’t be shy. We sign up to help because we want to help. It’s not a bother, and I am pretty sure you aren’t calling too much. I’ve answered questions ranging from what to wear to a job interview to whether to make a move to a new job, and everything in between.

If you just want to talk, or have lunch or grab a cup of coffee, that’s great. It doesn’t have to be a big thing (although don’t shy away on the big things either).

It’s sort of like a lawyer-client relationship in a company—the lawyers need to build relationships with clients on small things, so that they are comfortable asking about the big things. Let your mentor be helpful to you, on anything you need, even if it’s really nothing at all.

I’ve been fortunate in my life and my career. I’ve been through enough, in a variety of areas, that I can be helpful to those who can benefit from my advice and friendship. There certainly are other ways to pay it forward, and mentoring may not work for everyone, but it’s a great thing to do.

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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Kirk J. Nahra is a partner with WilmerHale in Washington, D.C., where he co-chairs the Cybersecurity and Privacy Practice. He teaches health-care privacy and security law and information privacy law at the Washington College of Law at American University.

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