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The Singapore Law Gazette

Rethinking Mentoring – Some Hard Truths


There are certain preconceived notions about mentoring and hence this article aims to unpack what mentoring is and is not. It also seeks to debunk the myth that having a mentor is instrumental to career success. Certainly, there have been some famous success stories of how Steve Jobs mentored Mark Zuckerberg and how Warren Buffet did the same for Bill Gates. Not all of us will be as fortunate to have a mentor offering us insightful work-related guidance. It may be better to do without one than have a mismatched mentoring relationship.1 Indeed, there have been well-known examples of mentors who subsequently turned on their mentees. At best, it is simply better to avoid putting all our eggs into one basket.

I have never been a firm believer in the need for mentorship and my views may be somewhat contrarian. Speaking from my own personal experience, I believe that there are viable alternatives that we can embrace with open-mindedness and whole-heartedness. In fact, it could be said that I thrived without having a mentor and not despite not having a mentor. Having relied on my own “rugged individualism”, there is something very satisfying about being self-made.

Sponsorship vs Mentorship2

The primary misconception about mentorship is that mentees expect mentors to bestow them with career opportunities. This appears to conflate the role of a mentor and that of a sponsor. Mentorship is a relationship between the mentor sharing knowledge and providing guidance and the mentee learning from the mentor’s experience and example. As they say, a mentor talks with you, whereas a sponsor talks about you.

Rather than merely offering you advice and guidance, the best sponsors can advocate for you, connecting protégés to key people within the organisation, jobs, and assignments. For me, my sponsors have helped to enhance my visibility both within and outside the firm, such as by introducing me to key clients or even by giving me opportunities to speak on a panel.

To my mind, sponsorship is far important than mentorship. While mentorship can take people far, sponsorship propels them even further in their career. How then does one attract a sponsor?3 This takes work on the part of the protégé because the sponsor is putting their reputation and professional branding on the line for the protégé.

You need to do the (hard) work first so you have the proven track record and contributions that will pique the interest of a prospective sponsor who will then be willing to invest in your potential. Because a sponsor is investing time and effort into helping you develop your career, you should demonstrate that you equally have skin in the game by following through on any actionable advice or steps that they provide.

Building a Network of Resources

I call this the council of advisors who can even comprise of peers or even younger people. It is difficult to expect a singular person to be a myriad of things to us. Instead of looking to just one person for advice, seek out several. This means create your own personal (sounding) board of directors, an informal group of six to eight people who can provide diversified expertise and perspectives and to take on different roles.

Some of the members of my “board of directors” are my former colleagues and members of my school alumni. Having some commonality of a shared work history or school heritage is usually a good starting point. Be prepared for the dissonance of dissenting views, which is anytime better than the echo chamber of just one person telling us what to do.

Ending a Mentoring Relationship

Goodbyes can be difficult. However, it is important to be aware when a mentoring relationship is no longer serving your goals. Or it could be the case that a formal mentoring relationship just runs its course, and it is time to exit the relationship. After all, the human body replaces itself every seven years through the regeneration cells. If biology dictates that we have changed somewhat, it is perfectly okay to accept that a mentoring relationship may not be permanent.

A simple expression of gratitude is a meaningful and respectful way to let someone know that you appreciate them for their time. This should be the baseline, regardless of the length and depth of the mentoring relationship. It is always good to end the relationship on a positive note as we never know whether our paths may cross in the future.

Alternatives to Having a Mentor

Instead of looking for guidance, seek out inspiration. There are influential voices on LinkedIn that I follow which have been very useful. One of my favourite voices, Jay Harrington, was previously a restructuring and bankruptcy lawyer. He is now a leading consultant and strategist in the areas of legal marketing, PR, and business development. He posts thought provoking ideas about how to succeed in the practice of law including how to gain expertise and then position yourself as an expert that clients want to work with.

I also found Instagram to be a surprising repository of thought leadership. On Instagram, I follow the musings of Yung Pueblo, Vex King, Lewis Howes and Adam Grant to name a few.

There are also good podcasts to listen to such as the “How I Lawyer” podcast with Jonah Perlin and “Personal Jurisdiction,” a podcast series hosted by Allison Freedman and Hallie Ritzu.

There is also picking a book in the good old library. In particular, autobiographies are an excellent way to learn from the experiences of figures such as the Obamas and Supreme Court justices like Ruth Bader Ginsburg.


At the end of the day, honing your own craft or finding a way to stand out from the crowd will actually draw help to you and give you more leverage to ask for it.4 The irony is that people may be more willing to help those who help themselves. Mentorship cannot be a shortcut or a substitute for working hard to build our own expertise.



Dentons Rodyk & Davidson LLP
E-mail: [email protected]

Debby Lim is a partner of Dentons Rodyk & Davidson LLP and is a member of the Dentons Global Inclusion Advisory Council. She is also a founding member of the Law Society of Singapore’s Women in Practice Task Force which aims to advance and protect the interests of Singapore women lawyers. This culminated in the 2020 Report on Gender Diversity in the Legal Profession which Debby contributed to. She is concurrently the Co-Chairperson of the Publications Committee and the Vice-Chairperson of the Insolvency Practice Committee.