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******* Our 3rd Place Winner *******
TPS Writing Contest – Mentors/Mentorship

Vanessa Knight

Vanessa Knight
(Guest Blogger)

We’re pleased to announce the 3rd Place Winner of our writing contest – Vanessa Knight, a paralegal student at Georgetown University!

We’d like to thank all of the hardworking folks out there in paralegal land who entered our first writing contest on the topic of Mentors/Mentorship! We thoroughly enjoyed reading all of the submissions. We must admit, it was a wee bit of a challenge to reach a consensus regarding our Top 3 winners, but an enthralling, nationwide game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” did the trick. (Okay, not really… but it really was a challenge).

We will feature our writing contest submissions on what will now officially be dubbed as “Mentorship Mondays.” Next Monday, we will announce our 2nd Place Winner, to build a little excitement for the big unveiling of our super, fabulous, 1st Place “Grand Prize Winner” the Monday after that. We will then post all of our honorable mentions, in no particular order. Welcome to your first, official “Mentorship Monday,” TPS readers! We hope you enjoy reading these pieces as much as we did.

Be awake (challenging, we know…especially on a Monday = caffeine). Be alive. Be inspired. And as Vanessa would tell you: “Be an empty cup.” Now go read her fabulous article to find out why!

The American job market is an interesting one–and not just because jobs have been so hard to come by in recent years. No. What started out as a country of artisans and skilled tradesman has become one in which the “Jack of all trades” is exalted instead. Yet sometimes it can be daunting to figure out how to become an expert in any one thing (much less many singular things) without the benefit of the traditional opportunity of apprenticeships.

The paralegal field in particular burgeoned from the practice of law office apprenticeships, an opportunity that is largely out the door in modern times. So, how does one learn? That might sound like a loaded question to some. But, in a broad sense, I have an answer: be your own mentor.

“What?” you say. “How is that possible?” you wonder.

Allow me to address your electronic ruminations with a story. Stop me if you’ve heard this one; then, keep right on reading.

Once upon a time, a young mystic traveled a great distance to study at the feet of an old wise man. When the young man arrived, he proceeded to try and impress the master with how much he knew and how wise he was. Instead of asking questions, the student ranted on about his beliefs and philosophies. The master listened quietly for a long while.

Finally, the student stopped talking for a few moments. The master asked his guest if he would like some tea. “Why, yes,” the young man replied. The old man began to pour the tea into his visitor’s cup. But he didn’t stop when the cup was full. He continued to pour as the tea overflowed into the saucer and then onto the tabletop, where it began to run out on the floor.

“Stop!” the young man said. “The cup is full. Can’t you see? It can hold no more.”

“It’s true,” the wise one said. “We cannot put more into an already full cup. And you are like that cup. Until you empty yourself of yourself, your fullness will prevent you from learning.”

In order to learn, we must first be willing and open. The young man in our story does one thing right: he seeks out the source of the knowledge to be gained. But we can’t always know whom to seek, or where to look. Sometimes being unlearned means you don’t know enough to look in the first place.

In that case, what is the natural first step? Seek out knowledge, period. Be an empty cup with a wide brim. Look at trade publications to see the latest trends. Join related groups on LinkedIn. Contribute to public forums. WRITE, don’t just read. The funny thing about taking responsibility for a topic is that the knowledge sticks with you far more than rote memorization. In order to write in the first place, you take it upon yourself to seek out information worth writing about: pertinent articles, facts on new trends, or seemingly unrelated information that has some tenuous impact on the future of your field.

In writing, you’re participating in a discussion that enables the give and take of the natural learning process. In actively replying to the ensuing discussion (although sometimes you’ll have to horn in for want of a seamless introduction), you’ll build connections who can refer you to books that might interest you, tips that might help you, and people who might take interest in you. Like a candidate for any job, you first have to make yourself competitive in the mentor-market. Show that you’re eager to sponge up all knowledge thrown your way, and you’re well on your way to becoming a valued mentee. Even the best mentor can only be so effective with an unreceptive pupil.

You can network for mentors, too.

Great. “Now what?”

Once you have a grasp of key terms in your field and a rough familiarity with the “movers and shakers” in your network, find ways to incorporate the two. What follows is a sample outreach to someone whom you’ve determined is a reputable and active source.

Hi, Ms. Niceladyresearcher. My name is Youknowtherest. We are in anonlinegroup together and I’ve been following your discussions/posts/newsletter for several weeks now. The information you provide on term1, term2, and term3 has been very helpful in orienting me to the marketing/legal/etc arena so far. I would love the opportunity to speak with you directly as I continue to delve into suchandsuchmatter/field. Would you be willing to speak with me on related entry-level topics?

That’s the bare bones version of it. This is not a spam message; you should tailor your message for each would-be mentor. What topics, shared interests, and specific question matters would best suit him or her? While it shouldn’t carry the stress of a job hunt, you should look at finding a reputable mentor as a similarly formal proceeding. You’re selling yourself as a stock, in the hopes that someone will buy a share early on and feed in some capital. Be sure to convey that your stock has a wide growth margin through thorough groundwork, detailed questions, and careful comprehension. Minimize your shareholder’s time involvement while maximizing your return on each exchange.

A few things to keep in mind:

1) Remember: you’re contacting someone for insight after you’ve already set yourself in his line of vision. Regular comments and responses to his posts or discussions, starting your own insightful discussions which he might be compelled to comment in, meeting at a live networking event or conference, etc. Establishing some basic rapport or commonalities is an essential step in our go-go-go world.

2) Because someone says “yes” doesn’t mean he’s willing or able to devote unlimited time to mentoring you. To him, this might not even be a formal mentor-mentee relationship; he’s just answering some questions for you. You take what you can get, when you can get it, and try to make each exchange as meaningful as possible. Assuming his desire to be free of you is based on a hectic schedule alone, you want to build a bridge that can be crossed much more regularly once his schedule allows.

3) If someone says “no,” it doesn’t mean you should stop asking. Persistence is good; it’s petulance that’s bad. Continue to make brief comments of appreciation or small insights on his/her blog posts and discussions. Send along a related link or two to articles you think (s)he might find beneficial. Then, send one last request to discuss a particular topic or topics for an estimated amount of time. Let him know that his schedule is just as important to you as the insight he can provide.

4) Don’t stop at one. Again, you won’t always know where to look. With that said, even a “success” in finding a mentor can mean a “miss” in finding the information you seek. Teachers don’t always have to be singular, if that helps. In fact, teachers / mentors are increasingly NOT singular. A networking group, a support chat, a recurring conference–these are all sources of great mentors, and of great “opportunities-of-mentorship.” Yes, I just made that up. Still, it helps to remind yourself that, sometimes, the instance of learning something is teacher enough. Just be sure to note all information as you gather it for easy reference in subsequent meetings or informational interviews.

Your end goal might be a recurring interval of time with which to meet or confer with some golden mentor, but the case is much more likely that you’ll often be instructing yourself. Don’t be discouraged by that. Never forget: most great minds and field-leaders have taught themselves. That internal drive to know more often shatters the glass framework which restrains those who wait for knowledge to be conveyed to them.

View your mentor as the pot of tea, not the wise sage.

The final step to preparing yourself for mentoring is to set reasonable expectations. Certainly there have been entrepreneurs who have found the favor of a multi-billionaire who later led them on to a similar degree of success. But if the definition of success varies, there can be no straight paths in its direction. Don’t expect some Messiahofyourfield to descend from the clouds and raise you up into an expert. Again, expertise doesn’t come through osmosis. Second, anyone so knowledgeable and successful in his or her field is likely too self-motivating to have pity on those that need a push-start. Use this mythical creature as inspiration; motivation comes from within, but we can all use inspiration!

Lastly, don’t compare your education or career benchmarks to those of your would-be mentor. The point of the mentor is to give you a glimpse of the map so you can draw your own. While you’re being your own mentor, be your own cartographer to boot! Figure out the gaps in your education, knowledge, or skills, and lay out your own path to summit those obstacles.

Think back to the story of the overflowing cup. Did the wise man say, “if you had a 24-oz thermos, life would be a lot easier”? No. A full thermos overflows just as easily as a full teacup. Trade up for the bigger cup if you must, but never feel so full that you think you have no more room to learn. Life isn’t like that, and the law certainly isn’t either. As Malcolm Forbes, founder of Forbes Magazine, said: “Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one.” Be mindful of receiving knowledge, and your cup will swell on its own. As for how you receive knowledge: there is no wrong way to learn, as long as you don’t stop.

Vanessa Knight is currently completing a graduate certificate in the Paralegal Studies program at Georgetown University. She concurrently maintains full-time, entry-level employment at a prominent law firm in Washington, D.C. Vanessa holds a bachelor’s degree for studies in advertising, marketing, public relations, and business administration. She is interested in pursuing an eDiscovery / litigation support track, and has begun to actively mentor herself in that area. She welcomes feedback and suggestions on her new legal support blog, vlknight.wordpress.com, and is always eager to learn new things, find new opportunities, and grow in the arena of legal support.

So, what did you think of this piece, TPSers? We love that this article shared an interesting lead in story, and offered up some specific (and realistic) tips for finding/enlisting the help of a mentor! Please feel free to share a thought or leave a comment. We know Vanessa would love to hear from you, and so would we!

Congratulations, Vanessa!! Way to represent the students…and the Hoyas! We loved your article, and hope our readers embrace your advice.

Remember to “Be an empty cup.”