LexInsight Blog

What Homer Can Teach Us about Being a Mentor

May 28, 2018 7:00:00 AM / by Rory Nugent

Great-Mentor

Mentor:

  • A trusted counselor or guide;
  • (Capitalized) a friend of Odysseus entrusted with the education of Odysseus' son Telemachus.

-Merriam Webster Dictionary

What does a mentor do besides give advice? For attorneys, giving advice is like breathing - it’s what we do.  And yet, many mentoring relationships fail to take flight because there seems to be something more, something we can’t quite put our fingers on.    

In trying to unpack the meaning of the word “mentor,” I thought it might be helpful to go back to the definition.  I was surprised to find that the word “mentor” actually comes from Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey.  I was intrigued, so I dusted off an old copy and started reading.  

In case you aren’t already familiar with the story, The Odyssey tells the story of Odysseus’ voyage home after the fall of Troy. Odysseus, the hero of his people, has been missing for several years and is presumed dead.  His wife is beset by marriage suitors, who have taken up residence upon his land, eating his food and drinking his wine. Eventually, Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, calls a meeting of the Ithacans to air his grievances and seek redress of his wrongs.  Mentor, Odysseus’ lifelong friend and caretaker of his estate in his’ absence, is in attendance. Telemachus appeals to the suitors to leave, and then appeals to the people to throw the suitors out if they refuse.

A Mentor is an Advocate

A debate follows Telemachus’ appeals, and it’s clear that Telemachus stands almost alone. The suitors are outraged, claiming that Telemachus’ mother is stringing them along.  The reader first meets Mentor as he addresses the crowd, arguing on Telemachus’ behalf and essentially cursing the crowd for their wanton disrespect of Odysseus and his family.  

This development is fascinating because I think we often overlook one of the most important elements of the mentoring relationship: the mentor’s role as an advocate.  A great mentor doesn’t just give advice to her junior associate, but advocates for her colleague’s benefit. She outwardly supports her associate’s development despite firm or even hostile opposition.  

A Mentor Encourages

Telemachus decides during the debate that he must go in search of his father in order to settle the conflict with the suitors.  Unfortunately, he has no ship, no crew, and almost no allies. He then prays to the goddess Athena, who appears to him in the guise of Mentor.  Hearing the challenges that lay before Telemachus, she (as Mentor) tells him in a rousing speech that he is his father’s son and therefore equal to the task set out before him.  

Later, after having assembled a crew and a ship for him, Athena again appears as Mentor and tells him, “Telemachus, already now your strong-greaved companions are sitting at the oars, and waiting for you to set forth.  So let us go, and not delay our voyaging longer.”

A great mentor encourages the young attorneys in his charge.  Rather than focus on shortcomings, potential pitfalls, or “areas that need improvement,” the mentor reassures his junior associate that he is up to the task, and inspires him to grow and succeed.  

The Mentor as Mediator

Eventually, Odysseus returns to his home and goes to war with the suitors.  Although she was enraged with the suitors, Athena begins to recognize that the conflict could lead to the total destruction of the Ithacans. Therefore, in the very last lines of the poem, Athena again appears as Mentor in order to negotiate a peace agreement between the warring parties.  

A great mentor recognizes when she needs to step in and help resolve conflicts. This could be a conflict between her associate and a client, firm management, or another lawyer in the firm.  Rather than allow the disagreement to stagnate and resentment to fester, she tries to bring a neutral perspective and reach an agreement that works to everyone’s benefit.

Putting it All Together

A good mentor spends the bulk of his time giving advice to young lawyers. A great mentor not only gives advice, but encourages growth, acts as a mediator, and serves as an advocate - Homer might even say that these are the qualities of a divine mentor.   

Topics: For Contract Attorneys

Rory Nugent

Written by Rory Nugent

Rory Nugent is an attorney with 17 years experience in the private practice of law. In early 2018, he founded Ascent Strategies, a consulting agency that helps lawyers and law firms grow and manage their practices. He also works with small businesses and non-profit organizations.