Mentoring is an Important Part of My Professional Life

ABA Voice of Experience

The word mentoring comes from the Greek word meaning enduring. It usually is defined as a relationship between an individual (the mentor) usually older, always more experienced, who helps and guides another’s development (the mentee).

I have been both a mentor and mentee in my life and hope to continue to be both. There is value in both roles. 

All higher positions or promotions I have reached in my career have been through being mentored – and mostly by women. This is how I became the first female General Counsel of the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) and as I recall, the first female Assistant General Counsel at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). My mentor at NOAA was a senior level political appointee. Although I was just a career level attorney, she took me under her wing and made sure I got the promotions she thought I deserved. I didn’t ask her to be my mentor – she just volunteered. I recall at one point I wrote a report for her on one of NOAA’s satellite programs, and she told me how well-written it was. When I asked her why, she said not everyone can write clearly. From then on, she continued to help me develop my writing skills, which I greatly appreciated. My mentor went on to other heights, and I miss her to this day.

I digress to tell a little anecdote. When I first went to MARAD, one of the senior career lawyers said he never worked for a woman before and I replied “Well, now you will,” and we fashioned a good working relationship thereafter.

So now that I am a senior lawyer, I think it’s my duty to mentor younger lawyers and other professionals. I think there are lessons to be learned in how to be a mentor and when to call in other mentors. Although I haven’t always done this, it’s probably a good idea to set up the guard rails and expectations from the beginning. 

Recently I became a member of an international organization called Women in Wind (WIW). The purpose of WIW is to encourage more women in the field of offshore wind because the numbers are still pretty low especially around the world. Here’s an introduction to WIW from their website:

“In order to advance the role of women as agents of change in society and promote best practices within the wind industry, the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) partnered with the Global Women’s Network for the Energy Transition (GWNET) to launch the Women in Wind Global Leadership Program in 2019. The program is designed to accelerate the careers of women in the wind industry, support their pathway to leadership positions and foster a global network of mentorship, knowledge-sharing and empowerment.”

I became interested in WIW because of my volunteer work as a member and chair of the Virginia Offshore Wind Development Authority (VOWDA),  a statutorily-created committeedesigned to help promote and advise the Governor of Virginia on how Virginia can become a leader in the development of offshore wind. I’m pleased to say it is moving in the right  direction thanks to the work of Dominion Energy Virginia and many other partners.   

Headquartered in Europe, WIW partners are experienced women who work principally in the field of offshore wind with younger women who are starting out in this field. I offered to participate in their Leadership Program in 2022 and was selected to be a mentor to an engineer from Chile who wants to help her country develop offshore wind. We meet monthly and attend educational seminars together, and I try to advise however I can. Even though I speak some Spanish, there is a language barrier, and I’m lucky my mentee can communicate with me in English.  I think perhaps I have learned more from this experience than my mentee. But then this is the advantage of mentoring – it’s a two-way street.

The following are a few other examples of my role as a mentor where I was proud of and perhaps less proud of the outcomes: 

In a previous position, I mentored a young lawyer from Arizona. I regretted when this lawyer moved on quickly to other higher-level jobs; but, then my philosophy is always to let good people go and not hold them back. After this attorney left my supervision, she went on to greater jobs including working in the White House and eventually becoming the President of the Girl Scouts of America (GSA). I was deeply touched when she honored me at her GSA retirement luncheon.    

In another example of mentoring, which we established on an informal basis, I helped a young man who was struggling to get through law school. I encouraged him to stay the course, and subsequently helped him get his first job as a trade attorney. He is now in a senior trade position at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.    

Last year, I tried my hand at teaching a seminar on renewable energy at Georgetown Law School. This was a challenging experience as a new instructor especially when it was remote in the beginning. As it turns out, the students in this case were not always eager for my advice, and I brought in other experienced speakers to try and hold their attention. I just hope I was able to encourage some newly minted attorneys to become more interested in the field of renewable energy and climate law. Not all mentoring examples can be successful from the mentor or mentee’s point of view, but one never knows where the fruit of the learning tree will land. 

Through my position as Vice Chair at Large of the Marine Resources Committee of the ABA Section of Environment, Energy and Resources (SEER), I am able to work with law students interested in writing and publishing articles for our monthly newsletter. I finished working with a law student to write about the new UN Plastics Treaty. Getting marine debris out of our oceans is also a passion of mine. I have signed up with another law student to write about ocean planning and the impact on offshore wind. The students prepare the first draft, and I edit as needed. This is a worthwhile task and repeats the lessons learned from my first mentor at NOAA.

Finally, I encourage the associates in my office to co-author articles with me. It’s a good opportunity for them, and they are able to correct my mis-citations.

At the end of the day, I believe it is our obligation as senior lawyers to give back to the profession in any way we can, and mentoring is one of the best ways to do this. Remember: you will learn from your mentee and the experience of mentoring as much as they learn from you. It’s an enduring and worthwhile tradition.  

“Mentoring is an Important Part of My Professional Life,” by Joan M. Bondareff was published in the American Bar Association’s Senior Lawyers Division Voice of Experience newsletter on November 30, 2022.