New Zealand Law Society - Maria Sopoaga talks about the NZLS Pilot Mentoring Programme

Maria Sopoaga talks about the NZLS Pilot Mentoring Programme

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Have you had a mentor or been a mentor? Please can you describe the experience in a few words.

I have both been a mentor and have had a number of mentors throughout my life, and I am really grateful to have been able to experience both sides. As a mentor, I’ve been a friend, a confidant, a guide and teacher all in one, and you learn so much both about your mentee, and yourself. Most of my mentoring roles have focussed on young people at transitional times in their life (i.e. embarking on the end of their high school career and those in the first year of their tertiary studies) and it is beyond rewarding to be able to draw from my own experience to demystify the experience that would feel really alien to these students otherwise. As someone now in a transitional period in my professional career myself, moving into the work force from university, I’ve found that having mentors has really grounded me, made me feel supported, and has encouraged me to back myself to try new things where I probably wouldn’t if I didn’t get the gentle nudge from them.

How do you think mentoring could assist /assists/assisted you with your career and personal development?

Mentoring has vastly assisted my career and my personal development in ways I hadn’t realised before having mentors. In a short time, I’ve been able to achieve a lot that I’m proud of both within work and as part of the legal community because of the encouragement and support of my mentor. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to be part of the Young Lawyers Committee or reach out to others without mentoring. Moreover, having a mentor has made me more intentional about seeking out opportunities and others both within the legal community and in the wider professional community, broadening my networks and allowing me to connect with some amazing people doing great things. It has also fostered and encouraged my heart for service and helping others, which I hope is something that others can gain too.

In a recent NZLS Lawyer Survey only 36% of lawyers reported feeling well connected to others in the profession, and just 29% of lawyers agreed that the legal profession values diversity and inclusion and meets the needs of diverse groups. In your view, how can mentoring programmes help?

Mentoring programmes formalise and create a platform for people to come together who may not usually, or feel uncomfortable, creating a platform to connect with others themselves. It can be a daunting task to put yourself out there to be either a mentor or a mentee, and a mentoring programme can catalyse connections in a way that doesn’t burden those who are willing to put themselves out there. We also know that unconscious bias is real, and runs a lot deeper than most of us would care to admit. The mentoring programme will allow us to connect with others who we may not usually cross paths with otherwise, and in that way, can foster better connections across diverse communities.

How can mentees drive the mentoring relationship?

I think there are a lot of lawyers out there who may have not considered the idea of being a mentor before, but would be willing to provide support to those who reach out. While our profession has been criticised for its historically inappropriate and unhealthy culture, there are so many of us willing to help change but are unsure how. As mentees, lawyers are just as responsible to teach, guide and support those brave enough to put their hand up as mentors, and in that practice we can build connections and relationships that will, hopefully, turn the needle in the right direction for our profession.

Anything else you'd like to add?

Don’t be afraid to put your hand up to be a mentor, a mentee, or both! Lawyers at every stage of their career will greatly benefit by being a mentor/mentee/both, not purely for the sake of networking but through the meaningful relationships with others who are not carbon copies of ourselves. If we are not open to our differences we will uphold a system that we know does not work. In order to be better we need to change what has been the status quo, and the best way to do that is to shake things up and try something new. So be bold, be confident and pay it forward!

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