The magic of mentoring

Articles

Joanne Wicks QC, Grace Ong and Lucinda Orr outline the benefits of mentoring for barristers.

Chancery Bar Association mentoring: Joanne Wicks QC

The Chancery Bar Association (ChBA) mentoring scheme was set up in 2009. It was initially, and controversially, only open to women, though it was always intended to be rolled out to men too: that happened a year later. The rationale behind the initial limitation was that we did not know what the take-up would be like, and felt it was best to concentrate resources initially on a particular perceived need. The scheme is now open to male and female members of the ChBA at all levels of seniority: we currently have 79 mentors and 62 ‘mentees’ (not a good word, but we cannot think of a different one). Applicants fill in a form on the ChBA’s website, which is then forwarded to a matching panel comprising four people.

The scheme is based on ‘role model’ mentoring, so mentors are generally senior to the mentees with whom we match them, but we try to avoid too large an age/seniority divide. The mentoring relationship generally works best when the mentor is sufficiently close to the mentee’s experiences to understand them, but sufficiently distant to be able to be objective about them. Mentors and mentees are free to reject a match and ask for another. We do not require formal training, but we provide written guidance on how the mentoring relationship should be set up and progressed.

In the years since the scheme has been up and running, we have learned a huge amount. I do not believe anybody involved in setting up the scheme had any experience of mentoring to draw on, so we really were feeling our way in the dark. We have twice benefited from outside help: first, when the ChBA consulted Sandi Rhys Jones OBE, who helped us draw up our guidance documents and rethink our processes, and second, when we ran a mentor training event in which Hormoz Ahmadzadeh led a discussion about the benefits of mentoring.

One thing we have learned is that asking to be mentored is emphatically not a show of weakness: on the contrary, it shows the applicant is savvy enough to recognise the benefits which flow from drawing on the experience of a role model. It is, moreover, very much a form of professional development. While mentoring undoubtedly has a part to play in supporting wellbeing, it needs to be borne in mind that mentors are not trained counsellors and that mentoring is not necessarily the right response to a specific stress in a barrister’s life.

Matching people who are likely to build a good relationship is very important and depends on applicants being prepared to share personal information. We ask mentees to say what areas they would particularly like help with and match them if possible to mentors with appropriate experience, such as moving chambers, returning to work following parental leave or silk applications. Ensuring that confidentiality is maintained in the matching process is vital.

When our scheme first started, we assumed that mentoring relationships would continue indefinitely. We have come to learn that it is better if they are set up initially for a defined time: say, a year. That focuses everybody’s mind on what the relationship is meant to achieve, and allows a mentee to move on at the end of their time, perhaps to a different mentor to profit from a different set of experiences. A ‘no-fault divorce clause’ is also an essential part of every mentoring relationship. Sometimes, despite best intentions on both sides, it just does not work. If that is the case, it is better to start afresh rather than soldier on.

We have also learned that some mentoring relationships founder because neither party is sure who is supposed to be driving it on. Barristers are busy people and it is easy for the mentoring process to slip away under the pressure of client demands. Mentees may worry that contacting their mentors feels like badgering. I tell people to remember that the mentor has volunteered their time to be part of the scheme: they will usually be glad for the mentee to get in touch and co-ordinate diaries. It can help if a schedule is agreed at the outset: for example, a meeting or call every month.

Mentoring schemes like the Chancery Bar’s are merely formalising processes which have gone on for centuries, in which more senior members of the Bar support and encourage those who are more junior. Their great advantage is the focused ability to match the particular needs of the mentee with the particular expertise of the mentor. The ChBA is proud to have led the way at the Bar with its scheme and we are very grateful to all our members who participate in it.

Mentoring benefits: Grace Ong

Mentoring is a service normally perceived as only relevant to those new to the profession. The Bar Council e-mentoring pilot scheme, for example, gives access to Year 12, 13 and undergraduate students from non-traditional backgrounds seeking a possible career at the Bar. Inns of Court sponsorship allows prospective pupils to dine at the Inn and get to know the profession. The Pupillage Foundation Scheme, run by the Inns, helps junior barristers looking for pupillage to fine tune their CVs and deal with interviews. Pupil supervisors are there to supervise and set pupils on their way to successful careers at the Bar.

Chambers, however, are now encouraged to set up mentoring schemes accessible to members of all levels of seniority. Private practice at the Bar can feel lonely and insecure, competition is fierce and the adage ‘you are only as good as your next case’, rings in all practitioners’ minds. Certainly, the recent ‘Wellbeing at the Bar’ report published in April 2015, and ‘Snapshot: The Experience of Self-Employed Women at the Bar’ research, provided worrying and long-overdue insight into stress and its consequences. Mentoring can help alleviate this.

Mentoring, however, is not just for those who are in trouble or experiencing stress, it is a key professional development tool.

At the junior end of chambers, mentoring might be a simple informal matter of providing support by setting up a secure internet chat group, such as WhatsApp, to answer questions which younger barristers might hesitate to ask a more senior practitioner. In my chambers, a junior member, Marie de Redman, set up a WhatsApp group for juniors and a separate one for pupils. She says: ‘It’s discreet, secure and introduces a far more social element to our daily work. It’s nice to know that there are 11 other juniors ready to advise, commiserate or laugh their heads off; and it’s encouraging to see that we’re all facing the same issues from day to day.’

It works in a very simple way; the group organiser invites the relevant members/pupils onto the group and the members of the group can then interact with each other and ask advice. (For interested app novices, you set up your own group on WhatsApp by pressing ‘New Group’ on the app, and then invite the participants.)

Later in a career, a barrister looking to take maternity or paternity leave may be concerned about the maintenance of their practice while they away. Or the issue may be a broader one of practice development, perhaps when a member of chambers is looking to change his or her direction of practice.

Mentoring for silk and judicial appointment, with a judge or QC who has been through the process and has come out on top, is invaluable. A successful applicant, after all, should demonstrate not just what they can do in court, but what they put back into the profession: article writing; advocacy training; taking active part in specialist Bar associations (SBAs).

Becoming a mentor similarly has advantages. Developing and helping others is enriching and often questions are asked that may require mature reflection, as well as questions about the law or ethics. Often being a ‘sounding board’ develops one’s own self-confidence and respect within the profession. The benefits to chambers are also many, including retention of members of chambers and sound practice development.

BACFI mentoring: Lucinda Orr

The Bar Association for Finance, Commerce and Industry’s (BACFI’s) website has for years offered contact details of committee members who are willing to be contacted for career guidance regarding their area of practice at the employed Bar. BACFI is a broad organisation with members who work in solicitors’ firms, in-house in a variety of industries and in government departments.

The type of enquiries BACFI receives cover the full spectrum of experience: from students enquiring about employed pupillage opportunities; pupils looking to move out of the self-employed bar at the end of pupillage; a considerable number of barristers in the 7-15 years’ call range (particularly women) looking to transition into the employed bar; and even senior practitioners, or those coming back into practice, seeking advice on how to set up their own consultancies or job opportunities in the employed practice.

BACFI has been at the vanguard of liaising with the Bar Standards Board (BSB) to ease the process for those working in consultancy, dual capacity or non-traditional modes and has therefore built up particular expertise in this area.

The form of guidance normally involves a few e-mails and a telephone call for 30-60 mins to cover any outstanding queries and occasionally an in-person coffee meeting. As each inquiry is different, sometimes it will also involve directing the person to either another BACFI member who could help further, or on to the correct person at the Bar Council or the BSB.

Given the wide range of enquiries received, it is difficult to be too prescriptive in how enquiries should be dealt with, but BACFI believes that it is important that barristers remember that their skills and training are a passport that can take them to a career well beyond the confines of chambers.

Contributors

Joanne Wicks QC is a silk at Wilberforce Chambers, Grace Ong is a barrister at Goldsmith Chambers and Lucinda Orr is a senior associate at Enyo Law.

From mentee to mentor

“I can honestly say the ChBA mentoring scheme changed my life. Coming from a specialist area where litigation is infrequent, it was superb to have a mentor who had recently taken Silk to guide me through the process. It was also nice to come within the family of the ChBA – I am now a ChBA officer and very much enjoy being involved. I would thoroughly recommend its mentoring scheme and now mentor both junior members and more senior practitioners wishing to consider an application for Silk or judicial appointment.”

Amanda Hardy QC

Bar Council mentoring services

  • E-mentoring – an e-mentoring service aimed at students from diverse backgrounds and those from state schools, e-mentoring helps to improve understanding of the profession and support students in taking their first steps towards a career at the Bar.
  • Maternity mentoring – the Bar Council also offers a maternity mentoring scheme for women dealing with challenges such as arranging and taking parental leave, returning to practice after a career or family break, and other maternity and work-related issues.
  • Silk and judicial scheme – for barristers considering applying for Silk or judicial appointment, the Bar Council offers a mentoring scheme where they can learn more about the competition process, get help to identify potential barriers, and explore specific areas for personal development. Mentoring is delivered by experienced QCs and members of the judiciary.

This article is from the counsel magazine.


Related barristers: Grace Ong