The Massachusetts Trial Court’s judicial mentoring program is called J2J, for judge-to-judge. It is a unique professional development resource created by judges for judges based on the core value of continuous self-improvement. It is grounded on the premise that peer-to-peer mentor-coaching1 is a highly effective way to promote judicial excellence. J2J mentor-coaching supplements existing new judge training and informal mentoring to provide an indispensable, career-long layer of support to meet the evolving needs of the judiciary. The program offers tremendous benefits to judges, court departments, chief justices,2 and the entire court system. Designed to be adaptive, the J2J Program has developed and expanded since it began3 and is now firmly ensconced in the Trial Court’s culture and recognized as a national and international model. The J2J Program is administered by an attorney employed by the Trial Court with expertise in mentor-coaching, with assistance from an advisory committee of experienced mentor-coaches.
Mentor-coaches work intensively with new judges, usually within the same court department, during their first two years on the bench. They initially help new judges transition to the judicial role, integrate into the system, and understand their court’s culture. At the same time, mentor-coaches encourage mentees to be self-reflective and embrace the concept of continuous improvement. They provide ongoing support to enable judges to challenge themselves as they develop essential skills for judicial excellence.
The J2J Program is unique in that mentor-coaches are also trained to work with experienced colleagues, at any point in their career, who may be having difficulty in an area of judicial practice, such as maintaining appropriate demeanor or managing a demanding caseload. This is called focused mentoring.
The J2J Program promotes excellent judging and the personal and professional growth of both mentor-coaches and mentees. The process of helping another judge address challenging issues is supportive. A mentor-coach who has established trust with a mentee is the person best situated to help the mentee gain insight into and work on issues that would be harder to reveal and face with a superior. The J2J Program is a shining achievement of which the Massachusetts judiciary can be justly proud.
—Hon. Judith Fabricant (Ret.), Chief Justice, Massachusetts Superior Court4
The J2J Program Is Adaptable
A hallmark of J2J mentor-coaching is adaptability. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, mentor-coaches have been engaging with mentees around the challenges of isolation and other pandemic-related stressors.
A couple of months into the COVID-19 pandemic, I began hosting monthly Zoom meetings for my past and present mentees to provide a confidential place to connect and discuss the challenges of delivering justice virtually, and to address the isolation many judges were feeling. Judges shared strategies for scheduling and managing back-to-back Zoom hearings, delegating technology needs to court staff, working with interpreters, and responding to the unexpected and often disrespectful informality of people in court in the virtual setting. Later, when we resumed jury trials, I held Zoom meetings for my new judge mentees to prepare them to manage the heavy caseload and provided a forum for nuanced analysis and discussion of complex jury management issues to compensate for their lack of traditional courtroom experience due to the pandemic.
Responding to issues of racism and bias in our society, mentor-coaches are assisting mentees to develop strategies to address these concerns in the courtroom and courthouse.
It is essential for mentor-coaches to have initial and multiple follow-up conversations with all mentees about the responsibility to ensure impartial and equitable treatment in the courtroom and courthouse. Mentor-coaches are trained to discuss sensitive issues of race and bias with their mentees, and they encourage their mentees to raise personal and observed experiences for support and to better understand and determine how to manage them. The J2J Program is an ideal platform to identify and address inequities impacting racial justice.
—J2J Advisory Committee
Mentor-coaches are also called on as valuable shorter-term resources when judges face personal or professional crises, such as serious illness or intense media scrutiny.
Chief justices select judges to be trained as mentor-coaches based on experience, reputation, interpersonal skills, desire to support colleagues, and commitment to ongoing learning. Selected judges must complete a foundation training, and all mentor-coaches attend required annual continuing education programs directly related to important mentoring and coaching skills. Chief justices assign mentor-coach/mentee pairs based on geography, background, style, and objectives. Sometimes chief justices pair new judges with a mentor-coach who also has had to learn an area that was new for the mentor-coach, and other times, they pair new judges with a mentor-coach who is very familiar with an area where the new judge lacks experience. Compatibility is also very important.
Launching J2J Assignments
Each assignment begins with a meeting between the mentor-coach, mentee, and departmental chief justice. Mentor-coaches and mentees meet at scheduled intervals and maintain regular contact throughout the entire assignment. In-person meetings during business hours are encouraged. Regular meetings are critical to success, and the structure is flexible to accommodate individual circumstances.
The details of the discussions between mentor-coaches and mentees are confidential, and successful mentor-coaching depends on the development of trust, a shared commitment to hard work, and a willingness to engage in difficult conversations when necessary.
The Power of Mentor-Coaching
J2J mentor-coaching takes off where classroom training on substantive and management issues and informal mentoring ends. It offers a trusted confidant who is committed to the well-being of the mentee. It provides a place to discuss challenging issues and problems without fear or insecurity and serves as a valuable source of support for judges throughout their careers. Mentor-coaches form a close, collegial network across the Trial Court, and the program helps develop future Trial Court leaders. Mentor-coaches reap the satisfying reward of helping colleagues achieve and maintain excellence. Mentor-coaches and mentees experience meaningful relationships that can last a lifetime.
My mentor-coach changed the trajectory of my judicial career right from the start. She helped me transition from writing legal briefs to writing thoughtful and well-reasoned court decisions. She enabled me to understand how to prioritize time, deal with difficult lawyers or litigants in the courtroom, work most effectively with court staff, and how to be (and appear) fair and neutral. She allowed me to explore the ethical dilemmas I faced as a judge without judgment, and she taught me the importance of giving back to colleagues through judicial education and committee work.
—New judge mentee
History of the J2J Program
The J2J Program began in 2009 when the Massachusetts Trial Court sought a formal and structured means of professional development for judges identified as struggling in a particular area. Working with an outside consultant5 and the director of judicial education in the Trial Court’s Judicial Institute,6 a core group of judges initiated and developed an innovative program of peer mentor-coaching support for judges likely to benefit from focused, collaborative work with a trained colleague.7 While mentor-coach/mentee work proved beneficial to the judges involved in this context, the resource was not widely publicized or sought after, and it was considered remedial and rather stigmatizing in nature. Realizing the inherent value of mentor-coaching for all judges and highly motivated to reverse the perception of mentor-coaching for judges to one that would embrace the resource as an important professional development tool as in medicine or sports, program administrators consciously endeavored to take on this challenge.
Over time, the importance and efficacy of mentor-coaching for judges became increasingly apparent and welcome, all new judges were assigned a mentor-coach for one year, and these assignments were publicized throughout the court departments. In 2013, the court invested more time and resources in the program, hired a J2J administrator, and created important guiding documents and resources.8 In 2016, court leaders increased all new judge assignments to two years to encourage even deeper collaborative work.
Today, the J2J Program is an essential and coveted professional development resource for judges and is integral to the court’s mission of providing justice with dignity and speed. It is a model suitable for replication in other court systems.
What Sets J2J Mentor-Coaching Apart
The Promise of Commitment
J2J mentor-coaches maintain a high level of frequent, regular contact and follow-up with their mentees and are committed to helping mentees develop and enhance their skills. The consistent and steady dedication and offer of time and individualized attention from the mentor-coach to the mentee allow the mentee to engage in ways that substantially differ from connections with other trusted colleagues.
Mentor-Coaches Serve a Dual Function
Mentoring is relationship-oriented and involves providing a safe, confidential environment where the mentee is encouraged to be self-reflective and take risks for growth, leading to the self-directed development of skills to enhance judicial performance. Coaching is task-oriented and involves giving practical tips and information for improving skills in specific areas, ranging from discrete legal issues to courtroom management to judicial writing and decision-making. Mentor-coaches weave from mentoring to coaching and back again, depending on the type of work at hand, the point in time of the work, and the specific needs and receptivity of the mentee.
Trust, Confidentiality, and Vulnerability
Mutual trust is critical to the success of mentor-coaching. It begins when mentor-coaches explain that the purpose of the collaboration is to support the mentee, conversations are strictly confidential,9 and there are no “stupid” questions. Mentor-coaches commit to mutual learning and advocate for risk-taking. They emphasize the importance of vulnerability10 for growth. Mentor-coaches underscore the value of humility and a commitment to continuous learning,11 even for those at the top of their careers.
Investing in an honest and confidential relationship creates a space where a mentee over time is more likely to feel free to expose vulnerabilities. It is only then that the real work begins. Acknowledging an area of relative weakness—whether it is difficulty managing time, maintaining control in the courtroom, or unfamiliarity with an area of the law—opens the door to pursuing growth and change.
Active Listening and Probing Questions
Mentor-coaches are trained to develop, hone, and use interpersonal and conversational skills involving active listening and probing questions to help mentees gain personal insight, develop skills for judicial excellence, and embrace a commitment to continuous improvement. Active listening means talking less, listening more, avoiding strong reactions or judgments, and responding intentionally with thoughtful questions to elicit information rather than providing solutions. Probing questions are open-ended and neutral to encourage mentees to think critically and deeply. They slow down the analysis and keep the focus on the mentee’s thoughts and feelings. These two approaches differ from the “assess and resolve” strategy judges typically use, and although unfamiliar at first, mentor-coaches excel with practice.
Active listening involves resisting the impulse to interject with comments. It builds trust, prevents missing important information, reduces misunderstandings, and enables the listener to fully understand. When a mentee raises an issue of concern, the initial reaction is “how can I fix this?” Utilizing the tools of asking probing questions breaks down the issue to allow for exploration and shifts the burden of uncovering a solution back onto the mentee.
The following excerpt from a hypothetical conversation between a mentor-coach (MC) and a mentee (M) was developed as a training tool for J2J mentor-coaches. The mentor-coach’s use of the active listening and probing questions techniques helps guide the mentee to see things from a different perspective and come up with a strategy to try to resolve the issue at hand.
MC: What was the most challenging thing for you in the session today?
M: Well, my session clerk was a problem. His phone was ringing all afternoon. I could hear almost everything he was saying even though he was trying to whisper, and it was really distracting. Sometimes it was hard to hear the lawyers. It was actually pretty rude. I’m guessing those calls weren’t all business. Some of them sounded personal to me.
MC: Have you thought about how you’ll address that with him?
M: I don’t know—we haven’t really hit it off very well so far. He’s kind of disrespectful.
MC: Do you have any idea why he might be acting that way?
M: I have no idea. I am always polite and professional toward him, and truthfully, I’m offended by the way he acts.
MC: I wonder if there might be an underlying reason for his behavior that you aren’t aware of.
M: I don’t know. It is possible there is something upsetting or difficult going on for him, and perhaps he isn’t sleeping well at night.
MC: What do you think you could do to improve communications with him?
M: I’m not sure—maybe try to get to know him a little better? I could tell him that I don’t want to pry but want to make sure that he’s OK?
MC: That’s a great idea. You know I had a tough time a few years ago with a member of the court staff. I thought she didn’t like me, but after I spent some time getting to know more about her and her family, our working relationship improved dramatically.
Evolving Judicial Core Competencies
The judicial role requires a wide range of experience, knowledge, and skill. The J2J judicial core competencies, updated numerous times since 2013,12 illustrate the range of potential areas of concentration in all new judge and focused J2J assignments. They include traditional competencies like decision-making, demeanor, knowledge of the law, and resilience and more recent additions like impartial and equitable treatment, public trust, and wellness.
For me, as a mentor-coach, the core competencies serve as an excellent, practical resource that enable me to raise comfortably and strategically with my mentees the array of potential areas of focus for our work and maximize receptivity. They provide a concrete framework within which judges can understand the broad range of expertise required of all judges, discover areas of particular strength, and select discrete areas of judicial performance for skill building or enhancement.
The Many Hats of Mentor-Coaching
Working with New Judges
Mentor-coaches are responsible for setting the tone and structure of one-on-one collaborations with new judges. They introduce a variety of topics over time in response to specific needs and goals. They explore the judicial core competencies and use the Judicial Capacity Wheel13 to focus the work. (See below.)
Finding time for mentor-coaching may be challenging with busy court schedules and other commitments and obligations. Sometimes, a telephone conference while commuting, videoconferencing, or meeting before or after work for coffee or a meal may be a good substitute for meeting in person during business hours.
Mentor-coaches are required to engage in three activities with new judge mentees. They must participate in reciprocal courtroom observation and follow-up conversations; review and discuss a recording of the new judge on the bench; and review several of the new judge’s early written draft decisions and offer feedback on tone, substance, style, and organization.
When an experienced judge is having significant difficulty in an area of judicial competence, the departmental chief justice will assign a mentor-coach to assist. Due to the sensitive nature of these assignments, focused mentor-coaches may be chosen from other Trial Court departments, and details are known only to the involved parties and their chief justices. Focused mentor-coaches use the utmost tact and discretion to engage mentees to progress. Although challenging, such assignments can be extremely rewarding for both mentor-coaches and mentees.
I was assigned to work as a focused mentor-coach with a judge who was at times impatient or reactive on the bench. To prepare for the assignment, I spoke confidentially with a behavioral health expert and other judges. Through careful and directed attention to the issues, emotions, and barriers presented, over time, I was able to help the mentee judge understand how certain language, conduct, and facial expressions negatively affected others and how they reflected badly on the entire court system. It was a rewarding experience to help my mentee gain personal insight and make meaningful, positive change.
In addition to one-on-one work with mentees, mentor-coaches share their knowledge and experience by developing and teaching education programs on the judicial core competencies for all Trial Court judges.
The J2J Program introduced me to essential, practical skills every judge needs to be effective, like case management and decision-making. It also helped me understand the culture of my court department and what I need to do to be happy as a judge, including how to manage the stresses of the position, and how to remain human. I attended education programs taught by mentor-coaches on individual judicial core competencies, such as “resilience” and “demeanor.” The lessons delivered stuck primarily because our teachers were colleagues who have lived the job and understand the toll it can take on you and because they know how to break down the unique aspects of the judicial core competencies in their teaching.
—New judge mentee
Essential Components of the J2J Program
The detailed, written J2J Policy, now in its sixth edition,14 ensures quality, consistency, and sustainability in the program’s operation.
The success of the J2J Program depends on the unconditional support of the Trial Court chief justice and the departmental chief justices. Departmental chief justices select judges to serve as J2J mentor-coaches; make assignments; reinforce the confidential, collaborative nature of the work; and ensure that judges have time to meet and attend required training.
Chief Justice Paula M. Carey provided invaluable leadership of the J2J Program until her retirement on January 18, 2022. She promoted judicial mentoring and encouraged judges to strive for continuous improvement throughout their careers.
I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to call upon our J2J mentor-coaches, forever a group of mindful, compassionate, and conscientious judges, to help colleagues reach their fullest potential. Their steady determination and commitment to working one-on-one with peers is laudable, impressive, and sincerely appreciated. Mentor-coaching enables judges to work together to strive for excellence, and this program makes the Massachusetts Trial Court the best it can be.
—Hon. Paula M. Carey (Ret.), Chief Justice, Massachusetts Trial Court
J2J Advisory Committee
The J2J Advisory Committee of seven experienced and dedicated mentor-coaches works closely with the J2J administrator to plan and deliver trainings, evaluates emerging needs, and makes recommendations for improvements. Having a group of mentor-coaches to serve as advisors to the J2J administrator has proven to be invaluable to the success of the program.
The J2J administrator ensures that the program runs efficiently and works closely with the J2J Advisory Committee. The administrator takes the lead on producing and distributing written materials and resources for mentor-coaches and chiefs, collects and analyzes data15 from the court departments and mentees, and advocates to adapt and improve the program.
Rigorous Required Training for Mentor-Coaches and Chiefs
Judges selected to serve as J2J mentor-coaches must successfully complete an intensive initial training to understand the structure and requirements of the program, develop and practice skills for mentor-coaching, and learn strategies for navigating challenges. The foundation training is taught by experienced mentor-coaches.
Mentor-Coach Learning Labs
Mentor-coaches must attend required ongoing education each year on discrete topics and skills for effective mentor-coaching. Mentor-coach labs build on each other, provide time for practicing skills in pairs or trios and the sharing of expertise and experience, and address pressing needs for mentor-coaches to meet the challenges of the times.
Chief Justice Learning Labs
The chief justices attend learning labs to review J2J data, approve required training, develop skills to support mentor-coaching, and discuss pressing issues to ensure the strength and reach of the program. These labs ensure and solidify a commitment from the top, which is essential to the program’s success.
Comprehensive Resources for Mentor-Coaches
J2J Toolbox and Meeting Book
Mentor-coaches have a J2J Toolbox, a binder with hard copies of important materials and resources, including the policy, core competencies, judicial capacity wheel, and numerous checklists. The toolbox also contains a set of in-depth resource guides on individual judicial core competencies and mentor-coaching skills, including recently added topics of having difficult conversations and mentor-coaching during challenging times. Mentees have a J2J Meeting Book with core J2J documents. All materials are also available electronically.
Intranet Web Page
All chief judges and judges in the Trial Court have access to a J2J intranet homepage replete with articles, videos, links, and additional materials organized by topic.
Judicial Capacity Wheel
The Judicial Capacity Wheel is a self-assessment tool developed for the J2J Program16 to help judges evaluate their skill and confidence in essential areas of judicial core competency. Knowledge gained from this self-assessment may be useful to direct professional development efforts with a mentor-coach for new and experienced judges.
Challenges in Mentor-Coaching
Complex obstacles may arise in mentor-coaching. The pairing may not be ideal; collaborative work may reach a plateau; a mentor-coach may not know how to help, may feel uncomfortable navigating the assignment as a peer, or may be worried about a mentee. These challenges require attention, strategies, and resources.
Mentor-coaching can still be very effective without a strong interpersonal bond or in the face of mentee resistance. Sometimes a chief justice will need to step in and meet with a pair to address a situation where a judge is reluctant to engage with the mentor-coach or to lend support or suggest a different approach to the work. In the rare case where a pairing doesn’t work, or an issue needs particular attention, the departmental chief justice may assign a different mentor-coach or a mentor-coach from another court department.
The J2J Program is a dynamic, vibrant model of judicial professional development that inspires judicial excellence and provides a platform to meet pressing and evolving needs of the court. The J2J model supplements existing training and mentoring programs and is inherently adaptable to other state court systems. It has the capacity to make tangible differences in the quality of justice delivered to the public.
For questions about the Massachusetts Trial Court’s J2J Program, email [email protected].
1. Mentor-coaching is a hybrid role, involving both mentoring and coaching, depending on the circumstances and issues for a particular judge.
2. The Massachusetts Trial Court has seven departments: Boston Municipal, District, Housing, Juvenile, Land, Probate and Family, and Superior, each with its own chief justice responsible for the overall management of that department who reports to the Chief Justice of the Trial Court. There are 385 judges in the Massachusetts Trial Court, appointed by the governor until the mandatory retirement age of 70, and 103 trained mentor-coaches in the J2J Program.
3. Jan C. Bouch, Psy.D., a consultant hired by the Massachusetts Trial Court in 2009, worked with court leaders at the outset to develop the J2J Program, and her work was instrumental in establishing the structure of the program as it exists today. Just. Coaching & Consulting, www.justicecoachingcenter.com.
4. Chief Justice Fabricant retired on July 6, 2021.
6. Ellen M. O’Connor, Esq.
7. An article, written by Jan C. Bouch and Hon. Barbara J. Rouse (Ret.), details the beginnings of the J2J Program. Barbara J. Rouse & Jan C. Bouch, Coaching Better Justice, Nat’l Jud. Coll. (Jan. 21, 2016), https://www.judges.org/news-and-info/coaching-better-justice.
8. Based on materials originally developed with Jan and Stephen Bouch.
9. Of course, confidentiality has limits in extreme situations. It must yield if a mentor-coach learns of conduct that may have violated established boundaries of judicial ethics.
10. Brené Brown, “The Power of Vulnerability,” TED Talk.
11. Atul Gawande, MD, “Want to Get Great at Something? Get a Coach,” TED Talk.
12. Originally developed with Jan and Stephen Bouch.
13. Originally developed by Jan and Stephen Bouch.
14. Originally developed with the assistance of Jan and Stephen Bouch.
15. The J2J administrator collects and analyzes monthly data from the chief justices on the number of trained mentor-coaches in each department and how many are assigned to work with a judge; the number, nature, and beginning and concluding dates of all assignments; the specific core competencies involved in focused assignments; and the outcome of all assignments. The J2J administrator also collects completed evaluations from mentees to continually improve the program.
16. By Jan and Stephen Bouch.