Many who have gained some measure of experience in the criminal justice system can identify one or more individuals who have mentored them in their careers. Often that mentor was an undergraduate or graduate school professor. Other mentors may have been colleagues or supervisors at a place of employment. Mentoring relationships can arise from any number of situations and associations. Mentees frequently pay their own mentoring forward by becoming mentors to those who are less experienced.
Mentoring has a long-standing prominent position in various aspects of the practice of criminal law. Experienced lawyers often mentor their less experienced colleagues in law firms, prosecutor’s offices, and public defender programs, for example. Members of the bar frequently take on law students as mentees to provide their professional experience and expertise as those students are navigating their academic courses. Other participants in the criminal justice system, such as law enforcement officers, paralegals, victims’ advocates, and mitigation specialists, both mentor their colleagues and are mentored by others.
Another often overlooked potential candidate for mentoring is the undergraduate who is considering a career in the criminal justice system. Numerous colleges and universities are fostering mentoring programs to match alums in various professions and occupations with undergraduates interested in the same career path. Often undergraduates are considering a vocation in the criminal justice system as prosecutors, defense attorneys, investigators, law enforcement agents, or probation and parole officers, to name but a few. Those undergraduates may evolve into the future of the criminal justice system.
The word “mentor” is derived from a character in Homer’s epic, The Odyssey. Odysseus, a.k.a. Ulysses, left his infant son, Telemachus, at home as he embarked on what became a 20-year adventurous journey. Telemachus during his formative years was under the care and guidance of Mentor, a reliable older friend of Odysseus. Eventually the goddess Athena elected to finish young Telemachus’s grooming and approached him disguised as Mentor to educate him about his father. Today’s modern-day mentors seek to replicate the role of the mythical Mentor in educating their mentees.
The types of mentoring programs that are available at the undergraduate level are numerous and varied. Many colleges and universities create mentoring programs that seek to match their own alums with practical experience in a profession with a student who is considering a career in that same specialty, such as the law, or a subset, such as the practice of criminal law. Some undergraduate programs are not as insular in this regard and will accept qualified and experienced non-alums as mentors for their students.
Some higher education institutions limit eligibility for their mentoring programs to juniors or seniors, while others allow first-year students through seniors the opportunity to have a mentor every year of their enrollment. In the latter situation, some institutions require the student to have a different mentor each year, while others permit the first mentoring relationship to continue through graduation, should both mentor and mentee so desire. Some institutions encourage long-term mentoring relationships for students who seek them. Importantly, a program may encourage but virtually never require a mentoring relationship to continue beyond the mentee’s graduation. Obviously, both the student and the mentor are in a voluntary relationship, and either can opt out at any time.
Mentoring can involve face-to-face meetings between student and mentor over the course of a semester or an academic year and even into the summer months. Some programs are limited to or allow mentoring via telecommunication using vehicles such as email, phone calls, and Skype visits. Telecommunication mentoring allows alums who reside a substantial distance from their undergraduate campus to share their professional experiences with students attending their alma mater. This approach can be particularly beneficial to a student who desires upon graduation to locate in the same geographical area where the mentor resides. Traditionally the mentoring configuration is one student to one mentor, but a number of variations on that approach have come into play. For example, some programs match a small group of students to one mentor.
A mentor of an undergraduate mentee is expected to create a reciprocal relationship in which both parties are respectful of each other. This mutual trust develops from both committing to attending agreed upon meetings and promptly responding to each other’s communications, whether by phone, email, or text. Both mentor and mentee need to “open up” to each other so that the mentoring experience is truly personal in nature and not sterile. A mentor, despite having the credentials of education, experience, and expertise, needs to learn to listen to the mentee to determine what the mentee wants out of the relationship. Often the mentee will wish to hear about the mentor’s experiences and what lessons the mentor learned from these diverse situations. Other times the mentor may function as a teacher explaining matters that an apprentice in the criminal law specialty wants or needs to know. A mentor may expose a mentee to a work product, with appropriate deletions, such as a motion, a brief, or a search warrant application, allowing the undergraduate to experience some of the tools of the trade.
Equally important is that the mentee be given the breathing space to share career aspirations, personal perceptions of what a career in this specialty entails, and apprehensions about pursuing this vocation. A mentor does not always need to have the answer to the mentee’s question, but should provide a listening post with a perspective born of having worked in the position in question or a similar one.
One potential component of mentoring can be a chance for the mentee to shadow the mentor at work. In some criminal justice career specialties, shadowing could be inviting the mentee to a day at the mentor’s office. Should the mentor’s office work seem too bland or of limited educational value, inviting the mentee to see the criminal law professional in an outside-the-office environment, such as a court proceeding or a training exercise, may be preferable.
Although not a primary goal of mentoring, a mentor may identify a mentee as a potential candidate for an internship or future employment in the mentor’s own office. At the minimum, assuming the mentee desires such assistance, the mentor should be able to provide guidance on networking, identifying internships in the particular field, and traits sought by a future employer in the criminal law specialty. Most importantly, the mentor should not hesitate early on to ask the mentee what is wanted from the relationship.
In many mentoring programs, the educational institution will prescribe a minimum number of contacts between mentor and mentee, while giving the parties the freedom to engage in more than those mandatory contacts. Again, the decision to have more frequent contacts must be a joint decision and certainly not a demand by the mentor. Offering additional opportunities for contact demonstrates the mentor’s commitment to the process as long as those offers do not seem to be a requirement for continuing the relationship with the mentee.
A successful mentor should be willing to offer the mentee opportunities to meet with other professionals who could provide a somewhat different slant on the career specialty than the mentor. This could include other professionals who perform basically the same type of work as the mentor, such as colleagues. In other instances, the mentor may suggest that the mentee might benefit from meeting the type of professional the mentor interacts with regularly, but who has a different function than the mentor in the criminal justice system. For example, a prosecutor or criminal defense attorney serving as a mentor may offer the mentee an opportunity to meet a trial or appellate judge and have some face time with that judge.
Should a criminal justice professional wish to participate in an undergraduate mentoring program, there are several approaches to take. If that individual resides in the same locale as his or her undergraduate alma mater, the aspiring mentor should reach out to that educational institution and see if it already has an alum mentoring program in place and how to apply. If the individual’s undergraduate alma mater is not nearby, the professional should contact a nearby comparable undergraduate institution to determine if it has a mentoring program and whether non-alums may participate as mentors. Another option requires the criminal justice professional to contact that distant undergraduate alma mater to determine whether it has a mentoring program and if an alum may participate from afar by use of electronic means without face-to-face contact. Finally, should all of these avenues fail, the criminal justice professional should go to one or more of these colleges or universities and push for the creation of a mentoring program and the right to participate as a mentor.
Those who presently participate in the nation’s criminal justice system owe a duty to its future to embrace the role of mentoring undergraduates who are considering taking their place within the system. Today’s criminal justice participants should not allow undergraduates contemplating a future in criminal justice to lose interest in that career choice because no participant in the system was available to mentor them. Those undergrads may well be key components of tomorrow’s criminal justice system, particularly if mentored early in their academic careers.