Trial & Error: How to be a good mentor

During my first year as an associate at McCarthy Tétrault, I benefited from a roster of fantastic mentors, and I’m sure I’ll continue to long into my career. But now that I’ve got a year of experience under my belt, It’s time to start paying it forward. And so, I’ve become a mentor myself. I take the job seriously, and I believe it’s my duty and a privilege to pass along what I’ve learned. 

Here are my top five tips for newly minted mentors:

  1. Recognize when you are mentor

Often associates don’t appreciate when they mentor more junior associates and students. For example, I’m not a formal mentor, so I didn’t recognize that I had stepped into an informal role until a student told me explicitly. While organic mentorship relationships are preferable, they can often be unrecognized. Appreciating that you are a mentor is the first step to being a good one.

  1. Make the time

The most important ingredient in the mentorship relationship is time. Even at my busiest, I always make time for a student who walks into my office. I also make an effort to seek out my mentees so they know that I am available to them. Making time can be as simple as inviting a mentee to a quick afternoon coffee, out for an after-work drink or to join you at a networking event.  

  1. Be candid

This is crucial to being a good mentor. I always try to be honest and forthright about my feedback and opinions. I’m also open about my own experience with career growing pains. Being candid allows me to share teachable moments. It also encourages mentees to be candid with me, which helps me better advise them and learn from them in return. Which brings me to my next point:

  1. Learn From Your Mentee

I learn as much (if not more) from my mentees as they do from me. As a mentor, I get to learn about their exciting cases and new developments in the law, and I gain insights into new ways of thinking about a problem. I think learning from a mentee is one of the most overlooked opportunities. They can observe you as an outsider and can provide a refreshing perspective on your practice.

  1. Offer Relevant Advice

Recognizing that mentorship is a two-way street, it’s important to look for ways to enhance other people’s development. For example, I often send a blackline copy of my changes to students along with an offer to discuss the changes in person. At the conclusion of a significant matter, I suggest a feedback coffee so that we can both learn from the experience. 

Atrisha Lewis is a second-year associate in McCarthy Tétrault’s litigation group. Follow her on Twitter: @atrishalewis

Photo by Stephan Rosger

Best practices: Strong Enough

If we were to analyze the components that make an excellent litigator, Sarah Armstrong would be the ideal model. This is someone whose major promotions — most recently, equity partner at Canada’s third-largest firm — happened during and right after maternity leaves. She’s Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP’s vice-chair of litigation, and one of the firm’s most dedicated mentors. “I suppose my edge is that I work hard and I’m focused.”

“Sarah is so modest,” says Laura Cooper, a partner who’s observed Armstrong’s ascent since she arrived as a summer student in 2001. “She’s the complete package. She’s smart, strategic, assiduous and really cares about the client. But she’s also a team player and dedicated to volunteer work.”

Trace back Armstrong’s communityminded generosity to growing up in the tiny town of Haileybury, north of North Bay. But her determination can probably be attributed to her youth spent standing up to her three brothers and competing as an ice skater. She studied political science at McMaster University and interned at a law firm near home to see if she liked the profession. She did, and applied to law school at the University of Toronto.

Armstrong started in the litigation department at Faskens as a first-year associate and right away found mentors who pushed her. “I was quite junior when, an hour before an arbitration hearing, the senior lawyer told me that I would be examining an important witness that day,” she recalls. Her champions kept offering her opportunities that built up her confidence and made her hungry for more.

When there’s no challenge afoot, she finds it. In 2006, she took a leave of absence to join her husband Jeff Murray in New York City when his firm, Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, seconded him there. But when she could have been skating at Rockefeller Center and hanging out at museums, she instead took on two major cases, working remotely from NYC and flying back to Ontario for hearings.

Armstrong has tackled commercial and contractual disputes, class actions, arbitrations and administrative cases. She acted as lead counsel for a successful claimant in a commercial arbitration over a post-purchase price adjustment. She was also co-counsel in a lengthy wrongful dismissal claim, and co-counsel in a multimillion-dollar commercial dispute between large international corporations.

Meanwhile, Armstrong twice took the top spot in the firm’s annual mentoring awards, based on the number of hours lawyers dedicate to coaching junior staff. She’s one of two partners responsible for the internal legal education program for litigation associates and the business development training program for all associates. She says she’s just doing what senior partners did for her years ago, making herself an “accessible person.”

That accessibility extends to her work with clients, particularly her decade-long pro bono relationship with the Child Advocacy Project. Through the organization, she represented a grade 9 student undergoing kidney dialysis who had been denied funding to be taught in-hospital while remaining enrolled at his school. She also defended a 15-year-old with severe autism who had been excluded from school for over six months.

While litigating, mentoring and volunteering seem to come easily to Armstrong, it’s adding parenthood to the mix that’s proven to be her greatest challenge: she says she juggles work and life with sons Wilson, 4, and Andrew, 10 months, “with great difficulty.” It’s an honest answer, and that kind of honesty is an essential component of a truly great model. 

Faskens litigator Sarah Armstrong corporate securities

The lowdown
Year of call:
Current position: Partner, Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP
Favourite legal character: Alicia Florrick of The Good Wife
If I weren’t a lawyer, I’d be: A doctor
Pet peeve: Incomplete Lego sets
Greatest extravagance: A personal trainer
Most treasured possession: My Knebli ice skates 

Photography by Stacey Croucher