Finding Mentorship In The Legal Profession

Goutham Shivshankar

15 Jun 2020 5:08 AM GMT

  • Finding Mentorship In The Legal Profession

    One of the side effects of the Covid-19 lockdown is the deluge of webinars being hosted on a variety of legal subjects. This spurt in discussion and mentorship in the legal profession is undoubtedly seasonal and is unlikely to continue when the lockdown eases. When everyone becomes busy again, young lawyers would need to actively seek out mentorship rather than it being offered to...

    One of the side effects of the Covid-19 lockdown is the deluge of webinars being hosted on a variety of legal subjects. This spurt in discussion and mentorship in the legal profession is undoubtedly seasonal and is unlikely to continue when the lockdown eases. When everyone becomes busy again, young lawyers would need to actively seek out mentorship rather than it being offered to them gratuitously. Over the past 15 years, first as a law student and then as a lawyer, I have learnt a little about the importance of finding the right kind of mentorship in the profession. I felt I could help others by sharing what I have learnt.

    In these years, I have met many lawyers who have shown great courage, leadership, resilience and wit. They have both inspired me and counseled me in difficult situations. You may not have heard much about many of these lawyers. This is not because they don't deserve fame, but because they go about their work with an unseen and quiet dignity, navigating a profession that is rife with nepotism, systemic access barriers, inequalities and work-a-day rejection. They are not perfect human beings nor even heroic ones, but they are very good men and women.

    As young lawyers, we need mentors for a whole host of reasons. Even if we are very bright at reading and understanding the law, we often lack the experience to reliably anticipate how events will unfold, how clients will behave or how judges or regulators will react. When we face the unexpected, we are likely to panic and flit about like headless chickens. If you are like me, you may even panic thrice a day. You might also outrage on social media at the unfairness of the world. Trust me, that doesn't really achieve much. More dangerously, if the pressures we face become too much to handle, we may hit the bottom of a bottle or leave the profession. Even worse, we may resort to unethical means. Good mentorship helps us navigate around our inexperience and manage our anxiety. To access the right kind of mentorship, one just needs to be observant, respectful, truthful and courteous to the community of lawyers around you. This has been my experience and I hope it can be yours too. Here are just a few suggestions that could set you on your way.

    Classifying mentors

    Searching for mentorship entails looking for mentors. Mentors are people and people can be classified in many different ways. A most basic but still useful categorization is dead people, old people and young people. In between the old and the young, is another category, which has been artfully described by Arundhati Roy as "not old, not young, but a viable-dieable age". Mentors too are available in all of these categories, and each category offers us a different sort of mentorship. I have benefited greatly by looking for and learning from each kind.

    Dead lawyers likely outnumber the living. To learn from the dead, one needs advanced technology: books, brains and a motivation to read. Fortunately, books and brains are available aplenty. There are some delightful biographical and autobiographical accounts of Indian lawyers, judges and their lives. These books are not only wonderful to read, but also give us glimpses into the working methods and ethics of successful lawyers of the past. Please do search for them and read them. The advantage with learning from dead people is that they have no axe to grind with us. Personally, I found the works by and relating to Nani Palkhivala most inspiring and educative when I was a law student. Those would be a great place to begin for an Indian law student. If you have the right sort of imagination, the characters you meet in books are very real people indeed. I would urge you to find your own favourite dead lawyers, read about them and learn from them.

    Old lawyers too have memoirs. After all, the proper way of doing things is to first write a memoir and then die. Older lawyers are also invited to give lectures and contribute their insights on a wide variety of issues in the written word. These lectures and articles are now widely circulated on social media and easily available. The memoirs and speeches of old lawyers differ from the memoirs of dead lawyers in one significant way. You can see many old lawyers still attending to their craft in courtrooms, law firms, board rooms, civil society organizations and other professional settings across the country. This gives us opportunity not only to read and hear what they say, but also observe what they do. This is both a blessing and a curse, for people often say something grand in their memoirs and speeches and do something quite different in real life. When I encounter dissonance between what lawyers say and what they do, I try not to be outraged or judge them for it. Instead, I try to introspect on how being a good lawyer is a very difficult thing to do, and how even the most experienced and talented men and women can fail at the high standards of conduct that the profession demands. I then ask myself: "how can I equip myself so that I don't falter in that same way?"

    Now comes the "neither-too-old-nor-too-young" category. In India, these are lawyers at the primes of their professional lives. They are extremely busy people whom we are likely to encounter frequently in some tangible way. You may be their chamber junior, a lawyer who briefs them on cases, their junior associate on a deal, or even their opponents on a case. Whichever form that interaction takes, they are unlikely to have the time to teach you personally. However, that does not mean you cannot learn from them. Learning in this case, just requires a different approach. It requires you to keenly observe these lawyers in action when you interact with them, and when they interact with the public. Moreover, if you are sincere about your work and that shows in your work product, these lawyers are very likely to notice you and take an interest in promoting and guiding you. I have received a great deal of support, encouragement and extremely useful feedback from this category of lawyers.

    There is then the category of young lawyers. Since I am a young lawyer myself, all of what I say about this category applies to me as well. With this category, I have found that I need to be much more careful about looking for mentors. This is for a variety of reasons. There are undoubtedly many driven, highly efficient and intelligent young lawyers in the profession. However, since these lawyers are young, they are very much in the process of "becoming" excellent lawyers. Young lawyers make plenty of their own mistakes can be reluctant to admit to them. When it comes to learning from younger lawyers, I have found one rule to be extremely useful. If someone sounds very sure of themselves, steer clear of them. Certitude at a young age seems to lead us to dark, dangerous places.

    The Right Attitude

    To learn well from mentors, one needs to have the right attitude. Humility is a good place to begin. You might indeed know more than a mentor on a whole range of subjects. You might even have fancy degrees from Ivy League universities. None of that matters. Your mentors know something better than you do, and your job is to learn that something well from them. They will teach you only if they like you and you are good to them.

    It also helps to be earnest and proactive. Even if you are shy or an introvert, like I am, please don't hesitate to approach elder lawyers in a quiet way and ask for help. As the Bible says, "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye. shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you." The Bible also tells us that "Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth."

    Lastly, be there for your mentors when they need your help. This is very important. It is also self-explanatory.

    Two Important Cautions

    There are two cautions I would like to end with. Firstly, when looking for mentors steer clear of bullies. Regretfully, our profession has largely normalized the idea that senior lawyers can be abusive towards junior ones. This is true of both law firms and litigation. I have lost count of the number of stories I have heard of hostile, abusive work environments perpetuated by highly sought-after lawyers. For women lawyers, there is the added menace of sexual harassment. No mentorship is worth subjecting oneself to abuse. No salary is worth it too. If you encounter abuse, politely excuse yourself and leave as quickly as you can. If you are threatened with dire consequences, pay no heed and still leave. If dire consequences are indeed thrust upon you, reach out to others and ask for help. You will find many helping hands to support you.

    Second, don't make your mentors out to be more than what they are. They are human and fallible. They may be heroes, but they are almost certainly flawed ones. The Arctic Monkeys, a British rock band that I am quite fond of, said it best: "Your heroes aren't what they seem, when you've been where we've been." Respect your mentors but be mindful of their flaws. This, I hope, was of a little help to you. 

    (Goutham Shivshankar is an Advocate on Record at the Supreme Court. He may be reached at He tweets @gousgame).

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