The Importance of Having Mentors - ABA YLD 101 Practice Series

By Alexander P. Ryan

Why Mentors are Important
When new lawyers graduate from law school, they typically know more substantive law than they ever will again in their careers, at least from a broad range perspective. However, new graduates and young lawyers generally lack (almost by definition) the answers to questions that aren't typically covered in law school. These are the sorts of questions that all lawyers can relate to: "How do I deal with this type of client?" or "What's the best strategy for handling this type of case?" or "How do I address this particular issue?" Then, there are the bigger, perhaps more overwhelming, concerns many young lawyers face: "Is this practice area the right one for me?" or "Is my work-life balance significantly unbalanced?" or "Am I with the right law firm?"

A mentor is, simply, a more experienced lawyer who has faced, or can relate to, these and other general concerns, if not the specific issues. No matter how talented or bright a young lawyer is, no matter how well he or she did in law school or on the bar exam, all young lawyers will struggle, from time to time, with issues that can't be solved by simply looking at case law or the statutes. Thus, the importance of developing a good relationship with a mentor cannot be overstated.

There are many good reasons to find, and develop relationships with, a mentor. First, practicing law, like all occupations, has its lonely moments. Having someone you can talk with, when the need arises, can be very comforting. Very often, the need will arise unplanned. Therefore, it is a good idea to find a mentor early in one's career, when things are going well. Second, as a young lawyer, you do not have the benefit of seeing as many of the ups and downs, or cycles, of your career as more senior attorneys do. A mentor has the collective experience of many years of practice, and he or she has undoubtedly ridden out many of the struggles that come with practicing law. Young lawyers can benefit from such experience. Third, communicating with mentors can provide a welcome break from the day-to-day routine practice of law. For example, your mentor might be someone with whom you communicate on a regular basis, perhaps daily or once a week. You will likely find that you look forward to these regular "appointments" and the opportunity to share your questions and concerns with someone who really cares.

How to Find a Mentor
Fortunately, once you decide to find a mentor, you will discover that you probably have a number of options. This is because, generally, more senior attorneys are very willing to share the benefit of their years of experience with you. The key, then, is to find a mentor that is right for you.

For some young attorneys, the right mentor might be within their particular law firm, perhaps even down the hall. Often, but not always, young attorneys are paired with older, more experienced lawyers with their firm, sometimes even within the same practice group. There are many benefits to this, including proximity, familiarity with the culture of the specific firm at issue, an understanding of the young attorney's particular workload and responsibilities, etc.

While one's own law firm may be a great source of mentors, as discussed above, young lawyers will likely want to develop relationships with someone outside their particular law firm, as well. These "outside" mentors may be law professors, partners in other law firms, government lawyers, or countless others. In short, the mentor need not be someone within a young lawyer's own organization. Having an outside mentor has much to commend it: the mentor may be able to provide perspective on questions or concerns relating to the young lawyer's firm, since the mentor is not affiliated with the firm; the young lawyer may be able to discuss topics or issues with the mentor that he or she would not feel comfortable discussing with someone within his or her law firm; and the mentor may be able to bring certain experiences to bear that someone within the young lawyer's firm does not share.

Conclusion
Practicing law is difficult, without question. The first few years of a young lawyer's practice can seem especially daunting. Thus, it is important to develop good relationships with more experienced attorneys, whom you trust. These individuals can be valuable sources of empathy and information. Find the mentor that is right for you; you will benefit from the experience.

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About the Author

Alexander Ryan is a litigation associate with Groom Law Group, Chartered, in Washington, DC, the nation's largest employee benefits law firm. His practice is focused on employee benefits litigation. . He can be contacted at (202) 861-6639 or at aryan@groom.com.

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