Most people would probably agree that establishing a mentoring scheme in chambers sounds like a good idea. There is no doubt that mentoring is a great way of giving something back, helping to address underrepresentation and inequalities in the profession, while improving chambers’ credentials as an inclusive, progressive and responsible organisation. It also makes chambers more attractive to applicants as they will get a sense that they will be supported through their career development.

But perhaps it also sounds like a lot of work for an already busy person to organise. And for that work to be worthwhile the scheme would need to be a success, rather than a tokenistic gesture. In my time as a barrister I certainly had ‘mentors’ who provided perhaps one coffee and one court visit – both beneficial in themselves but falling far short of what mentoring can offer.

However, there are a number of steps a chambers can take to make sure that their mentoring scheme is effective and provides demonstrable results.

Creating the outline

First, you need to establish the purpose of the scheme including the definition of mentoring. People often have their own understanding of mentoring so it will undoubtedly help if both mentors and mentees share a view of what that will entail.

The definition I usually work with is that mentoring is a relationship (short- or long-term), usually between two people where:

  • Person A has more or different experience and knowledge than Person B;
  • Person A is willing to help Person B to learn, and Person B is willing to accept that help;
  • Person A is willing and able to let Person B have control over their learning; and
  • Most of the learning is through conversation.

If that definition is chosen, applicants to the scheme should also be encouraged to give some thought to whether it’s the right arrangement for them at that time, as opposed to say coaching or training. The prospective mentor should also reflect on whether they can really give the relationship the time, knowledge and experience needed.

Chambers will also want to consider whether the scheme is open to all or is designed for a specific group e.g. law students, returners to practice or those approaching an application for silk.

Finally, chambers will want to consider the broader structure of the scheme – how will confidentiality be managed, for example? Will there be somebody that mentors or mentees can turn to in the event of any problems?

Once these basic parameters are in place, you can turn to the matching of mentors and mentees.


Software is available and is used by larger organisations to match mentors and mentees. But, if you want to keep it simple, you can easily design an online form with a few key questions to allow prospective mentors and mentees to provide some basic information about the knowledge and experience of mentors and the goals of mentees. A neutral person can then carry out a matching exercise to put together suitable pairings.

A strong start is crucial for success

In the world of coaching we use the word ‘contracting’ to mean agreeing the ground rules of the relationship at the outset to minimise any difficulties in the future. I recommend that the matched mentor and mentee agree their own arrangements at the outset around the parameters and boundaries they will respect including the following:

  • The specific purpose of their mentoring relationship.
  • How frequently they will meet, for how long and how (phone, video or in person?).
  • How will they each provide feedback to ensure the success of the relationship?
  • What are the rules on confidentiality?
  • How/when will the relationship end?

A significant factor in determining success or failure is how open the parties can be regarding their relationship. Honesty in communication throughout is vital. This can go a long way to preventing the mentoring relationship fading to an occasional chat.

Guiding the learning (or how to be a great mentor)

Another key to successful mentoring is effective teaching. The mentee should be learning and, as both my own experience and various studies show, the mentor will also learn a lot and potentially even experience reduced stress levels.

Most people will recognise that learning tends to ‘stick’ more if the learner is involved rather than merely being lectured. So, for mentors to ensure that their mentees stay involved, I recommend the following approach:

  1. Require the mentee to set the agenda – to come to the session prepared and with a topic they want to discuss e.g. insight into a career in law, development of key skills, improving cross examination techniques, building relationships with clients and liaising with clerks.
  2. Get into the habit of asking questions first. Instead of rushing in with the answer you happened upon 30 years ago, why not ask the mentee what they think first: ‘What do you think you could do?’ ‘What options have you considered?’
  3. Share your own experience, but sparingly. It is important to be focused, and not spend an hour telling ‘war stories’. Before you share an anecdote consider what, if anything, the mentee will learn from that. Respect both your time and your mentee’s time and your boundaries.
  4. Aim for supportive challenge. The ideal is to create a safe learning environment but also to provide some accountability to your mentee so that they don’t drift.
  5. Be open to feedback. I would encourage you to both provide it and ask for it.

‘If you want to go fast go alone. If you want to go far, go together’

This proverb sums up my passion for mentoring. A great mentor can save a keen mentee a lot of time and effort in achieving their goals by sharing some of their wisdom and providing support, encouragement and even introductions.

And, while a mentoring relationship might be for a specific task or time, in practical terms, if it’s a good quality one, and benefits both parties, it can last a lifetime and develop into a strong friendship.

How to be mentored – advice for the mentee
  1. Take responsibility for your own learning – reflect on what it is you want to learn and be prepared to think your own thoughts about it. Don’t expect to be spoon-fed. Set your own agenda.
  2. Be brave – give honest feedback if something isn’t working for you.
  3. Respect your mentor’s time and your own. Everybody is too busy to add another meeting to the diary unless it has real purpose.
  4. Be open – while mentors should be wary of just firing answers at you, there is little point in having a mentor if you are not prepared to listen to them and give careful consideration to their views on the way to reaching your own.
  5. Embrace the opportunity – don’t be afraid to ask questions and make the most of the time with your mentor. Ensure that you reflect throughout on what is and isn’t working.