Resources Articles Mentoring: Constructing a Personal Advisory Board

Mentoring: Constructing a Personal Advisory Board

Wisconsin Lawyer
October 2001

Lawyers At Every Stage Of Career Development Need To Learn From Other People In Order to Succeed. Here’s How To Proactively Develop Relationships With Knowledge Experts, Mentors, And Strategic Allies.

“As any good mountaineer will tell you, a successful ascent requires a good deal of preparation: choosing fellow climbers, ensuring team conditioning, assembling first-rate equipment, and having experienced guides.” (1)

The need to strategically plan your career never ends. From new lawyer to seasoned practitioner, to accomplish your long-and short-term objectives, you must plan ahead and design your current work so that it will pave the way to your goals. Guided professional development is an ongoing necessity for a successful legal career.

Every attorney needs a mentor. But the old model of mentoring, in which a senior attorney took on a protégé, is rarely a realistic option in today’s legal workplace. First of all, the demands on partners’ time make it all but impossible for them to devote themselves to this kind of relationship. Furthermore, the apprenticeship model was viable when all attorneys were white men. But the heterogeneity of the profession makes it more difficult for senior partners to see themselves reflected in the associates around them; and there is a paucity of models for women attorneys and attorneys of color.

Ironically, it is attorneys of color and women who most need and benefit from mentoring. The exclusion of women from informal networks and the devastating effects this can have on career success and satisfaction have been repeatedly documented. Women attorneys wanting to balance work and family need experienced colleagues who can share their time-tested strategies. An advocate is helpful when your efforts to care for your family are used as evidence that you lack professional commitment.

Furthermore, David A. Thomas compellingly argues that professionals of color need mentoring that is not just instructional, but also provides emotional support, builds confidence, and helps the protégé to effectively deal with the potential barriers to success posed by racial stereotypes. (2)

Mentoring Programs

Although many firms have formal mentoring programs, few are successful. Typically, mentees say they’ve had an occasional lunch with their mentor, but have never found the relationship to be helpful. Often, they perceive the mentor to be uninterested in their professional development.

To be fair, these relationships are “arranged marriages” in an association that, in reality, relies on good chemistry. That’s not to say that if your assigned mentor is willing to mentor you, it’s not worth a try. Sometimes supportive and productive relationships evolve out of firm-arranged mentoring alliances.

Even when mentoring programs are successful, they rarely address the needs of attorneys beyond the first year or two of practice. The new partner, the mid-career attorney, and the attorney considering retirement are not offered mentors to help them navigate these transitions.

Strategic Alliances

No one will ever care more about your career than you. When you take personal responsibility for your own professional development and success, you’re far more likely to feel in control of your career and to be able to steer the course with your whole life in mind.

Rather than wait for your firm or organization to offer a mentor, why not develop a number of strategic alliances with people who can provide mentoring across a wide variety of professional concerns? Clarify your goals and objectives for mentoring relationships and then identify a group of people who can assist you in accomplishing your goals. You might think of this group as your personal strategic advisory board. Each mentor can be chosen to fulfill specific goals.

Developing Alliances


The first step is to assess your learning needs. As part of your strategic career planning, regularly evaluate your skill repertoire and identify knowledge gaps.

Selecting potential mentors will depend largely on your assessment of these needs. Ask yourself, “What expertise do I need to develop in order to undertake this project? What skills do I need to acquire or improve in order to achieve my career goals for this year?” Don’t wait until evaluation time to hear what others think of your skills. Be proactive in clarifying your goals and the expertise you need to achieve them.


Once you’ve determined the kinds of knowledge you need to acquire, ask yourself, “Who would know something about this?” Identify potential mentors and establish relationships with them.

Your mentors, or strategic allies, or personal board of directors, serve as a kind of informal, customized personal knowledge resource to fill in your knowledge gaps. According to Robert Kelley’s research, successful people ask themselves, “What is the fastest route to get the information I need, and who are the people I need to go through to connect with the personal who has the best information?”

After identifying your knowledge gaps, look for mentors in a variety of places. Consider law school professors who possess the expertise you’re trying to develop. Maybe you’ve come across an in-house attorney who knows a great deal about the subject. Perhaps there’s a legal expert you’re aware of in a noncompeting firm. Contact your local or state bar association. For example, use State Bar of Wisconsin resources, including “Wisconsin Lawyer” authors, section representatives, and “Lawyer-to-Lawyer Directory” participants. In addition, look at the ABA’s Web site or search via Martindale-Hubbell. Ask successful attorneys to recommend people with particular expertise, or who have been helpful to them in some way.

Every situation presents you with possibilities for finding mentors. Listen to the contributions people make to meetings you attend; be attentive to who has special expertise in areas you want to develop, who you admire, and who has values similar to your own. Work on collaborative projects with people, both at work and in your community, and observe others’ skills. Get involved in your local or state bar association. Take note of good networkers whose success secrets you’d like to emulate. If you attend a program and are particularly interested in the speaker, try to approach her or him afterwards. Tell her you admire her work and would like to learn from her, or that you want to achieve what he has and would appreciate his advice.

If possible, get a feel for what it would be like to work with a potential mentor. You might volunteer to serve on a committee or request an assignment that will allow you to work with a potential mentor as a way to establish a working relationship.

Try to spot people who seem particularly disposed to invest in a mentoring relationship. When people express genuine interest in you and your career, take them up on it.


Younger associates and lawyers new to any firm or agency need a mentor within their firm or organization to help them learn about its culture. This mentor can provide tips on who is powerful, who the key players and decision-makers are, who to seek out, and who not to cross. A more senior person in your organization can help you learn the protocol; she or he can speak up for you when you need a champion and facilitate your socialization and integration into the firm.

It is extremely useful to find a mentor who does the same kind of work as you. A senior and successful attorney in your practice area who can provide candid and constructive criticism of your work is an invaluable resource.

Within your firm or organization, build alliances with people who have influence with decision-makers. Identify people you trust and admire and who share your values. You’ll need to feel comfortable enough with this person to honestly share questions and concerns.

It’s especially helpful for women attorneys to form alliances with other women lawyers who share their values concerning work/life balance. It’s even better if you admire how this person has handles the issue in her own life.

It’s also advantageous to build alliances with people outside of your firm or organization. These may be individuals with expertise in areas where you have knowledge gaps, people you generally admire and believe can teach you a lot, or attorneys who are particularly supportive and whose perspective on the profession is of value to you. Your personal knowledge board also may include people in other professions, perhaps in the industry you serve. It’s also good to include someone who can guide you in strategic life and career design. Often a professional coach serves this purpose.

Keep in mind the importance of discretion when speaking to a mentor within your firm. You must protect the confidentiality of client information when speaking with advisors outside of your firm. If your coach is a psychologist, your communications are privileged.


The alliances you form are substantive, strategically important business relationships. They have far more depth than someone to whom you hand a business card at a networking event. These are meaningful, productive relationships with people at all levels of experience who can provide career enhancement and self-development.

Especially if you dislike the superficiality that networking connotes, these alliances will be easier to develop because they evolve in a natural and authentic way. They depend upon personal chemistry and often occur serendipitously. But you can influence serendipity by volunteering for committees or work assignments that allow collaborative relationships to develop. This allows both parties to evaluate the benefit of the working relationship.

Knowledge and assistance are privileges, not rights. It’s important to clarify each person’s expectations of the relationship. Negotiate how long you expect the relationship to proceed in this form - you can always arrange to continue the alliance.

Try to gain an understanding of what your mentor or ally needs in order for the relationship to be mutually rewarding. For some advisors, helping another attorney succeed is sufficient. Others might feel rewarded by your offers to assist them in writing an article or speech.

Developing your own area of expertise makes you a desirable ally. You can be a source of information to your mentor by sending clippings, articles, and so on that you know would be of interest. When you can link the problem for which you’re seeking expertise to an area of your advisor’s interest, your mentor can deepen his or her own knowledge while helping you.

It’s important not to abuse your relationships with your personal advisory board. Be clear about each individual’s willingness to be available and helpful and structure your requests accordingly. Treat these relationships with great care, show appropriate gratitude, and give proper credit for contributions. Never waste your advisors’ time. When you seek their expertise, prepare your questions well and summarize the efforts you’ve already made to solve the problem.


The worst time to be constructing your strategic advisory board is when you need it to work for you. It’s essential to be proactive and to find ways to build these relationships before you need to call on them for their assistance. Try to find ways to collaborate with potential information sources. Build credit by offering help and following through.

And don’t forget the unique contribution a professional coach can make to your career and personal development. Other attorneys can teach you practical applications of the law or show you the ropes of your firm, but only your coach is dedicated to your success, is an expert in the change process, has no vested interest in your choices, and has special knowledge about how to plan your career without sacrificing the important things in your life.


(1) Jay M Jackman. Quoted in Nichols, Nancy A. (Ed.) “Reach for the Top: Women and the Changing Facts of Work Life,” 81 (Harvard Business School Press, 1996).

(2) Thomas, David A., ‘Race Matters: The Truth About Mentoring Minorities,’ “Harvard Business Review,” April, 2001.

(3) Kelley, Robert E. “How to Be a Star at Work - 9 Breakthrough Strategies You Need to Succeed,” 81, (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999).


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