Want a Successful Mentoring Relationship? Focus on Building Trust

lawyer mentoring
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Mentoring can be a great tool for lawyers to increase job satisfaction, accelerate learning, and develop new skills. It is an effective way for law firms and companies to create inclusive work environments, attract and retain talent, and increase productivity. To fully realize these benefits, mentoring relationships and mentoring initiatives must take care to build trust.

At its core, trust is the belief that someone or something is safe, honest, and reliable. It is unsurprising that mentoring relationships are more effective when they are built on trust. But trust can be hard to create in formal mentoring programs without an understanding of the components of trust and the behaviors necessary to build it.

There are three kinds of trust that are critical to effective mentoring, and each takes time and attention to build. Each is essential to building high-performing mentoring relationships that last. 


“With self-trust, you’re positioned to become the best possible version of yourself. Without it, you’re stuck in status quo, repeating patterns, reliving worn-out scenarios and missing golden opportunities to take your personal and professional relationships to the next level.”11 Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace, 2nd ed., Dennis and Michelle Reina, (Berrett-Koehler, 2015).

The foundation of a trusting mentoring relationship is self-trust. Self-trust is how mentor and mentee prepare for their relationship. Each must be willing to look inward and be willing to show up fully to the mentoring relationship. They must believe that they have the capacity to learn and grow from one another.

Markers of Self-Trust

Mentees must let go of the idea that they have to show up as a blank slate for their mentor and follow their mentor’s direction. They must approach the mentorship relationship with self-awareness about their limitations, demonstrating curiosity, letting go of any judgments they have made about their current challenges, and adopting a growth mindset. That is, they must trust themselves enough to believe that they can let go of existing limitations and become the person they need to be in order to achieve their own goals. As Reina and Reina note, “Trusting yourself gives you a starting point to face challenges.”22 Id.

Mentoring is a reciprocal learning relationship in which mentor and mentee co-create the terms of their relationship by setting agreements about how they will work together. This requires mentees to trust that they know how they learn best and that their preferences for the working relationship are as valid and important as their mentor’s. It requires mentors to become aware of how they might need to develop their mentoring skills and to let go of the notion that they must have all the answers for their mentee.

Self-trust requires both mentor and mentee to have confidence that if they are vulnerable and share their challenges with their mentoring partner, it will strengthen the relationship and the mentoring outcome.

How to Foster Self-Trust

Here are three ways mentors and mentees can build self-trust:

  1. Set aside time for self-reflection prior to engaging in mentoring. Self-trust begins with self-awareness. Take a few moments to think about what you are bringing to the mentoring relationship and to articulate your own expectations and assumptions.
  2. Co-create agreements that meet both people’s learning needs and priorities. Discuss these with your mentoring partner and take care to form guidelines for your relationship that meet both of your preferences.
  3. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Mentors, this means admitting when you don’t know the answers and sharing your own challenges with your mentee. Mentees, this means being willing to take risks and try new things.


The next kind of trust is interpersonal trust, which is the trust that mentor and mentee develop in each other. Interpersonal trust allows mentoring partners to engage with one another in an environment of psychological safety, where each can share openly and show up authentically without fear of judgement.

Markers of Interpersonal Trust

Interpersonal trust is marked by a shared intent to focus on the developmental needs of the mentee, an openness to feedback, and an assumption of positive intent. Trustworthiness comes from one’s behavior, not one’s intent, so it is critical to demonstrate the behaviors that catalyze trust.

Professor Roger Mayer and his colleagues at the University of Notre Dame and Purdue University identified three factors of perceived trustworthiness: ability (possessing the skills, competencies, and characteristics necessary for success), benevolence (wanting to do good to and for the other), and integrity (adherence to principles, values, and agreements that the other finds acceptable).33 Mayer, Roger C., et al. “An Integrative Model of Organizational Trust.” The Academy of Management Review, vol. 20, no. 3, (Academy of Management, 1995), pp. 709–34.

Here’s how to demonstrate trustworthy behavior in each of those categories:

Mentoring is a reciprocal learning relationship in which mentor and mentee co-create the terms of their relationship by setting agreements about how they will work together.

How to Foster Interpersonal Trust

  1. Behaviors that demonstrate ability. Mentors can demonstrate their ability to be trustworthy by exercising sound judgment and by asking questions of the mentee so they can come to their own conclusions, rather than telling the mentee what to do. Mentees can demonstrate the ability to be trustworthy by stepping out of their comfort zone, being willing to take risks, being curious, and showing up ready to learn.
  2. Behaviors that demonstrate benevolence. Demonstrate benevolence by prioritizing mentoring, limiting distractions during mentoring, and showing up for mentoring meetings prepared. Check in frequently on the relationship—show a willingness to improve your mentoring relationship by adjusting the way you conduct your meetings if necessary. Be candid about your observations and your opinions. Mentors, extend your network to your mentees. Mentees, share feedback and progress with your mentors.
  3. Behaviors that demonstrate integrity. Integrity requires each mentoring partner’s fidelity to principles, values, and agreements that the other finds acceptable. To demonstrate integrity, mentoring partners should adequately prepare for mentoring, keep their agreements to each other, protect confidentiality, and stay connected and accountable to one another.


The final level of trust essential for successful mentoring is institutional trust. Too often, organizations miss the importance of creating trust beyond the mentoring pairs. When there is institutional trust, individuals have trust in the efficacy of the mentoring program and trust in the organization to protect and value mentoring.

Markers of Institutional Trust

Without trust in the mentoring program, participants are less likely to maintain engagement in mentoring or to believe it will yield measurable results. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some markers of trust in a mentoring program are: training mentors and mentees, equipping mentoring managers with skills and resources for supporting pairs, providing resources for mentoring pairs, and reinforcing learning throughout the mentoring period by sharing milestones or best practices.

When program participants do not trust that an organization values its mentoring initiatives, they doubt that opportunities will be available or that the organization values the development of its people. They will be less likely to volunteer to participate in mentoring. Some markers of institutional trust in the organization’s commitment to mentoring are: opportunities to become a mentor and find a mentor, dedication of financial and human resources to creating effective mentoring initiatives, and a demonstrated understanding of the alignment of mentoring with organizational strategy and business outcomes.

How to Foster Institutional Trust in a Mentoring Program

Here are three ways that organizations can demonstrate trustworthiness in their mentoring programs:

  1. Provide training and resources for mentors and mentees. This will both build competency and align expectations.
  2. Measure outcomes of mentoring. The only way to know the return on investment of mentoring is to measure it. Measurement also holds participants and program teams accountable for results and continued programmatic improvement.
  3. Communicate with mentoring partners throughout the course of the relationship and provide opportunities for them to engage socially and share best practices. Reinforcement of learning and continued outreach helps to create a sense of community and sustain momentum.

How to Foster Institutional Trust in an Organization’s Commitment to Mentoring

Three ways to demonstrate organizational trustworthiness are:

  1. Leadership participation in and endorsement of mentoring. Leaders can and should be mentors. At the least, leaders should discuss the importance of mentoring and encourage team members to find a mentor and mentor others.
  2. Alignment with organizational objectives. When mentoring initiatives are aligned with other leadership development initiatives like retention; culture change; and diversity, equity, and inclusion, they are more likely to be successful.
  3. Create accountabilities around mentoring. Set an expectation for new and experienced lawyers to participate in mentoring. Reinforce this expectation in performance reviews and companywide communications, and recognize mentoring as you would other positive contributions.

Remember that building trust takes time. With time, intention, and attention across each level of trust, your mentoring initiatives will be strengthened and result in better outcomes.

About the Author
About the Author

Lisa Z. Fain Lisa Z. Fain is the CEO of Center for Mentoring Excellence, located on Mercer Island. A graduate of Northwestern University School of Law, Fain practiced employment law for a decade before moving into the field of leadership development. She is the co-author of Bridging Differences for Better Mentoring (Berrett-Koehler, 2020) and the forthcoming third edition of The Mentor’s Guide (Jossey-Bass, 2022). She can be reached at:


1.  Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace, 2nd ed., Dennis and Michelle Reina, (Berrett-Koehler, 2015).

2.  Id.

3.  Mayer, Roger C., et al. “An Integrative Model of Organizational Trust.” The Academy of Management Review, vol. 20, no. 3, (Academy of Management, 1995), pp. 709–34.