Mentoring is part of what we do at Finito. Kicking off a new series, Tom Pauk answers our questions about mental health, his career, and the mentor-mentee relationship
Tell us about your career before you joined Finito.
After studying drama, my efforts to become an actor ended with a whimper rather than a bang, and I retrained as a solicitor. The career that followed was a “game of two halves”, half-time marked by the global financial crisis of 2007-08. In the first half, at City law firm Allen & Overy, then in-house at American bank Citigroup, I’d specialised in large cross-border lending transactions. In the second, I helped restructure loans borrowers had taken out in more prosperous times but were now struggling to repay. After leaving the bank in 2017, I began mentoring young men in prison, returned to Allen & Overy, now in a role mentoring lawyers in the early stages of their careers, and began writing plays. My professional life, it seems, had come full circle!
Did you feel your education prepared you for the workplace?
A degree in drama could not have prepared me better for the cut and thrust of commercial law, an above-all collaborative endeavour with a diverse cast list of characters, long “rehearsals” with unfeasible deadlines we somehow always managed to meet. At the conclusion of an especially high-profile deal there was the added satisfaction of reading the “reviews” in the financial press. The practise of law is essentially an exercise in problem-solving. In my case, a love of modern languages and playing the violin had also prepared me for the intellectual rigour of law, and I was even able to use my mother tongue Hungarian in transactions with Hungarian clients. So to anyone reading this wondering whether a knowledge of an obscure language might prove useful one day, the answer is a resounding Yes!
Did you benefit from mentorship during your career?
When I’d started out, mentoring was still very much in its infancy. Fortunately, I was able to benefit from the law firm equivalent, the “seat” system, under which trainee solicitors move from one department (or seat) to another every few months to build up expertise in different areas of a firm’s practise. Each seat is supervised by a senior lawyer — part mentor, supervisor and critical friend — overseeing a trainee’s professional development. Over the course of my training contract I was exposed to a variety of mentoring styles, which then shaped my own approach when I assumed the role. But I continue to benefit from ongoing, less formal mentoring in the shape of the extraordinary people I encounter and who inspire me with their wisdom. So in actual fact I’ve never really stopped being mentored.
What are the most common misconceptions about a career in the law?
I think there’s a general (mis)perception that law is a dry, bookish occupation, and that lawyers are aloof from the rest of society, be they pin-striped solicitors in their ivory towers or wigged-up barristers bowing obsequiously in courtrooms. In fact lawyers are widely dispersed throughout society, in the public sector (civil service, local authorities, regulatory bodies), in companies and banks, charities and NGOs. If you’re a young person considering a career in law you’ll be able to select from a wide range of specialisations that play to your unique skills and interests.
Mental health is a particular passion of yours. Can you describe how your interest in that area came about?
There were occasions, especially early on in my career, when my mental health was impacted under the pressure of work. Symptoms included poor sleep, high anxiety and irritability, and a compulsion for checking work emails 24/7. Back then, there was a stigma around discussing one’s mental health, let alone seeking help when you needed it. Worse, it was regarded as a sign of weakness, possibly even career-limiting, to self-disclose. So one’s natural instinct was simply to keep quiet and soldier on. Thankfully, we’ve evolved to a more enlightened view of wellbeing in the workplace, with a plethora of interventions designed to promote a healthy mind as well as body, including mental health first aiders, mindfulness, and discouraging staff from checking work emails after hours. Eight years ago, the memory of my own experience led me to train as a volunteer at a mental health charity. At The Listening Place I’ve seen vividly for myself how poor mental health can quickly escalate into crisis, and how being truly listened to can be life-saving. Literally.
Work-life balance is something you’ve been vocal about. What are the most common pitfalls people fall into there?
Most people understand the importance of achieving a sensible work-life balance, at least intellectually, And it’s hard to argue against. But here’s the challenge: we’re not necessarily aware of the pendulum as it is swinging in the wrong direction. Whether it’s staying ever-later in the office, checking, or worse, responding to emails at weekends (“because it’s already tomorrow in Tokyo”), before we know it life is work and work is life. Of course we tell ourselves that it’s only temporary, that as soon as we’ve broken the back of whatever it is we’ll take our foot off the accelerator. But it isn’t that simple, for we may unwittingly have recalibrated our benchmark of what a normal working day is. We’ve trapped ourselves into believing our own indispensability (“If I don’t do it no-one else will). We assume that working harder improves performance, demonstrates commitment to our employer and enhances our prospects for promotion. I’d counsel anyone reading this to challenge these assumptions and to listen out closely for the whirring of your inner pendulum!
You obviously have a passion for mentoring. What are the most common challenges you’re seeing among your current crop of mentees?
I’m certainly seeing the longer-term impact of the pandemic. This is the generation whose educations, family and social lives were disrupted by successive lockdowns. And I’m in awe of just how well they’d adapted to remote ways of studying and working. Another challenge is the sheer number of high-calibre applicants vying for limited places on the graduate recruitment schemes of investment banks, accountancy firms and corporations. Training contracts in City law firms are similarly over-subscribed, and with increasing candidates achieving top grades there’s now a far greater reliance on critical reasoning and situational judgement tests, presentations, written assignments and long assessment days. However I’m also sensing some really positive new trends, with mentees less motivated by achieving huge salaries than they are by finding a fulfilling career. And finally, one positive legacy of the pandemic: Finito mentees are often engaged in volunteering activities, whether it’s repurposing old computers and teaching older people how to use them, mentoring disadvantaged kids, or stacking boxes in foodbanks. Something, finally, to celebrate in challenging times.
Do you vary your process for each mentee, or do you have a particular approach which you use with each candidate?
Mentoring is a transformative tool for supporting the development of a mentee, and because no two mentees are the same the mentoring process does inevitably vary. Having said that, there are common features in my approach. In the first place, it’s not about the mentor. Our prime responsibility as mentors is to listen attentively at all times to our mentees. Listening actively (as distinct from merely hearing) is a skill that one develops with practice. And it’s crucial we’re responsive to the stated needs of our mentees rather than clinging stubbornly to our own agendas. One unique aspect of mentoring is our willingness to share our own knowledge and experience to support the development of our mentees. A word of caution however, because this has nothing to do with being directive. What we’re aiming to do is empower our mentees to think and act for themselves. Finally, mentoring is a two-way street. At its most fruitful the relationship between mentor and mentee is one in which sharing and learning opportunities arise for both participants. I’m forever learning from my mentees.
What do you know now in your career which you wish you’d known at its start?
Hindsight being a wonderful thing of course, here’s three things I tell my mentees. Firstly, it’s important to pace yourself, especially when starting out in a new role and you’re trying to make a good impression. Keep something of yourself in reserve for when you really need it. Secondly, don’t plot out your entire career from the get-go. Life has a mischievous habit of opening new doors and leading you in new directions. And thirdly, know where you add most value, and focus your energies accordingly.
Do you have any new challenges on the horizon?
I’m excited to have just been appointed to the board of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, whose endowment supports people tackling the root causes of conflict and injustice. Along with my governance responsibilities, I’ll also be involved in grant-making decisions, an area entirely new to me.