female mentor provides feedback to younger male mentee at conference table

Mentorship Means Never Having to Pay Back, Only Forward

  • May 31, 2023
  • Jeremy Martin

It’s hard to put a finger on exactly why I value mentorship so highly. Maybe it’s because I love the romantic Early Modern idea that this profession was built around that kind of relationship: an apprenticeship that was often even more personal than most of the trades that were developing at the same time. Contrary to popular belief, being called to the Bar never did mean getting called forth by a judge to step past the bar separating court officers from the public, though that’s the Bar we imagine now. It meant being called up past the Bar separating lawyers from students at the Inns of Court: your home away from home, where you studied, mooted, roomed and were fed. And you were called by the people you lived and worked with. Our most hallowed tradition, though few now remember, is grounded in a formal ceremony of being welcomed by your mentors and those that have gone before. (That’s why it’s the Benchers that call you, and not a judge.)

My favourite modern tradition at the Bar – that the senior call pays for meals when a group of lawyers goes out together – reinforced for me when I first started working as a law student that there was still something alive and vibrant about that idea of a community of welcoming mentors. It showed me, effortlessly, that there was an innate interest for senior counsel in fostering the next generation, without hesitation or negotiation. It reflected for me the greatest ideals of this profession: that we’re all a community that happens to take on cases that require us to strive against one another before leaving it in a court’s hands and going back to the inn together. 

It’s been remarkable to me throughout my career that I could regularly count on the senior counsel I’ve just triumphed over, or who has triumphed over me, to be willing to go out for lunch afterwards and talk about the case, about our careers, about the law and our respective submissions. The Bar is a community of willing mentors-in-passing, who recognize how challenging this career is and are almost invariably willing to share their best advice and the benefit of their experience with any of their colleagues, no matter how remotely connected.

That’s why I associate this career so closely with mentorship. So much of this job would be impossible without the transmission of experience from one generation to the next, and that recognition is woven into the fabric of how barristers relate to one another.

But more specifically, why do I go out and mentor people, or seek mentorship myself? I think it has a lot to do with the expectations this career places on you. We’re expected to be perfect, to literally see the future and hedge against everything that might happen. Not only do clients (and to some extent, the law) have that expectation, our workplaces are equally demanding. We have to be confident, to make our clients confident, to refrain from showing weakness or uncertainty in a profession that is by its definition nearly incapable of being practiced with any degree of certainty. It’s a stressful friction.

Mentorship is unique in being a relationship outside that power dynamic: a relationship with someone that has been forged by the same fires you’re walking through, that understands the pressures in a way your friends and family can’t, but that has no expectations of you. It’s a space to be flawed, to not be perfect, to express and explore the emotions and fears that are a natural outflow of being asked on a daily basis to stand up for someone who needs you, even if you can’t be sure you’re doing the right thing. 

As a protégé or mentee, it’s a source of comfort and support and honesty in a profession that expects you to stand alone and to deny weakness. As a mentor, it’s an opportunity to look back along the path you’ve walked and to see how far you’ve come. Often in this job, progress and growth can only be assessed by relativity. You don’t notice yourself growing day by day, but a mentee ten years behind you affords you the opportunity to reflect, to make the next steps on that path easier for someone else than they were for you, and to nurture someone else with the generosity and compassion that you received at that same point in your life: a debt that cannot be paid back, but only forwards.

Interested in making a difference as a mentor? Register for the OBA’s mentorship program and find your match.

About the author

Jeremey Martin is a partner at Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP in Toronto. He is the chair of the OBA’s Class Actions Law Section Executive and, in 2021, he received the Heather McArthur Memorial Young Lawyers Award.