chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
August 22, 2023

Pro Bono Best Practices Series: Mentorship

“I cannot speak any more highly of our mentors—they are amazing; they are great!” describes Courtney Smith.

On June 28, 2023, the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service and the Center for Pro Bono and the ABA Commission on Immigration presented “Pro Bono Best Practices: Mentoring” a webinar that explained how legal service providers can best develop and implement mentorship programs within their pro bono programs to better serve the community. Panelists Courtney Smith with the Veterans Consortium Pro Bono Program, Lauren Gilbride with Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, and Claud Nelson with Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida shared a wealth of knowledge and expertise regarding best mentorship practices. For those who missed it, a full recording can be found here.

Here is a summary of 5 key considerations when starting and running a mentorship program and some key take-ways:

Determine the Mentorship Model

Involving mentors in pro bono is a great way to drive engagement amongst volunteer attorneys, which enables a program to serve more clients. The first step in developing a mentorship program is determining the model of mentorship. The two most common mentorship models involve either in-house staff attorneys or volunteer attorneys serving as mentors. Engaging staff attorneys to serve as mentors can be an excellent way to involve them with pro bono volunteers. However, it may be difficult for staff attorneys to fit mentorship into their regular case load. Engaging volunteers to serve as mentors broadens the opportunities for pro bono participation, especially for those attorneys who do not want to take cases. It also allows a program to engage attorneys who may need more assistance in particular areas of law. Furthermore, volunteer attorneys who were mentees can also later become mentors, which is how Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida structures its Peer Academy. 

Clearly Define Expectations

Once a program determines what the structure of the mentorship program will be, it should be clearly communicated to all participants, both potential mentors and mentees.  Clear expectations and communication are important in any mentorship pro bono program. An agreement between the mentors, mentees, and the program is key to setting out the expectations for all parties in the relationship. The mentee and mentor should know how often they are expected to meet, what types of issues the mentor can assist with, and what the parameters are for support from the organization. The mentee/volunteer attorney should be taking the lead on the case, whereas the mentor should be available to answer questions and review documents. Programs can be structured in a way to allow mentors time to review documents by mentees within fixed time frames (i.e., sending draft documents to be reviewed with at least two weeks’ time) or allow the mentor and mentee to determine their own timelines for communication. 

While it is important to delineate responsibilities, it is difficult to quantify the time commitment of mentorship. This may vary depending on the case, because some single-issue cases can take about 10 hours, but with more complex issues the time commitment will increase. As time goes on with a mentor—mentee relationship, the mentee may need less support due to growing experience with an area of law.

Programs may also consider opportunities for mentors to meet with each other. This will help the program identify ways to better improve the program and ensure that the mentors are as supported as the volunteers.

Open Communicate is Key

Open communication in a mentorship program is extremely important. Not only should the mentors and mentees be in regular communication, but the program should be in regular communication with both. The program needs to hear from both mentors and mentees to know what is working or not working with the structure of a program. One way to obtain this feedback is by surveying the mentors and mentees. Furthermore, scheduling regular meetings with mentors together and mentees together will help the program learn what is going well (or not so well) in the program.  Programs should also be in communication with mentors about their capacity and whether they are taking on too much. Programs should be sure that they are not assigning too many mentees to one mentor to avoid overwhelming the mentor, which can lead to burnout and a volunteer mentor leaving the program.

Training is Important

Training should be available for both mentors and mentees. Substantive training on specific areas of law should be available for all participants both in-person and virtually. Mentors can also serve as trainers to newer volunteers. Mentors should be experienced practitioners in the area of law that they are mentoring in. For examples, The Veterans Consortium requires all mentors to have one year of veterans law practice prior to becoming a mentor. Programs may also include trauma-informed training for all participants. This training should include information on working with clients experiencing trauma, the organization’s client base, and supporting clients.  Administrative training with technology is another great way to integrate retired attorneys, who might not be as versed with technology.

Recruitment Tips

When recruiting mentors, it is very important to know your ask. Be very clear from the outset about the expectations and guidelines for the program. Furthermore, have your current volunteers and mentors help with recruitment. Ask them to speak at events about their experience as a mentor and get them involved in CLE presentations to recruit volunteers. Utilize email, social media, press releasees, and word of mouth to advertise the program and need for volunteers. Sometimes recruitment can begin by reaching out to individuals with whom the program has an established relationship and trust to serve as mentors. While recruitment can be difficult for several reasons, having a clear outlined set of expectations will eliminate the hesitation of the common “what if…” that hold attorneys back from pro bono work.

Encouraging current mentees to come back as mentors is a great way to recruit. Remember to also celebrate your mentors and their successes, just as you celebrate all other volunteers. This can either be in a newsletter, social media or website feature, or during the end of year recognition event. This will lead to the retention of mentors and a successful and stable pro bono program.

Key Take-Aways

  • Outlining and setting expectations is essential and should happen often.
  • Recognition of mentors and volunteers will aid with retention.
  • Pick trusted mentors and volunteers when starting a program and ask them for their input to improve the program.
  • A strong structured program will set everything up for success.
  • Be clear in your ask.

Interested in starting your own pro bono mentorship program? Contact the ABA Center for Pro Bono for assistance today!