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Student Lawyer

Professional Development

How to Make the Most of a Law School Mentor

Jennifer Kain Kilgore

How to Make the Most of a Law School Mentor

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Getting into law school is one of the greatest achievements that a college student or working professional can experience. Attending law school, on the other hand? There is no academic comparison. It’s like being thrown into the deepest, most turbulent ocean without a raft and being told to swim to shore — because that’s where final exams are held.

It can help to have someone who’s been through it all before by your side along the way. Student mentors — older, wiser law students — are that life preserver you need.

The Perks of a Student Mentor

An older student has already experienced the dreaded 1L year. Most importantly, that student has survived. That student has gone through the angst, the tears, the moments where he or she was sure of dropping out, transferring, or perhaps opening a bakery or yoga studio somewhere. There are so many moments when a first-year student can feel alone and overwhelmed, and an older student can become almost like a pseudo-therapist. While no mentor should ever actually replace a therapist, a student who has already gone through the struggle can soothe where nothing else can.

“Many law school classes are still taught by Socratic Method,” said R. Mack Babcock of the Babcock Law Firm in Denver, Colorado, referring to the teaching style in which questions are volleyed endlessly to students like live bombs. “[This] is new and different for pretty much everybody. Preparing for classes, reading and understanding textbooks, which are largely comprised of case law, dealing with the workload and stress, etc., takes some getting used to.”

Student mentors also help when it comes time to pick course tracks, which can be absolutely overwhelming. 1Ls fear choosing the wrong track and locking themselves into a field they do not like (it can be harrowing when it comes time to choose intellectual property law versus tax law, for instance — what if you make the wrong choice and waste precious time?). A mentor can explain what clinics are like, which classes are helpful, which professors turn into helpful resources later on, and more.

Babcock explained this further. “Law degrees are a general degree. Contrary to what many non-lawyers believe, law students do not specialize in any one area of law … There are less than a dozen core classes every law student is required to take. Beyond that, law students spend the rest of their law school career choosing from a myriad of elective courses that range from water law to Native American law to trial practice to securities to tax law.”

Whether it’s meeting for a quick cup of coffee between classes or cramming for finals in the library, a student mentor can help a younger companion keep calm and collected during some very rigorous academic trials. A mentor can also assist when it comes to the practical aspects, too, in terms of seeing how theory works in real life. Many law schools do not teach a student how to actually practice law; they just impart theory and somehow expect students to pick up the basics on the ground later on. A mentee can watch a mentor’s mistakes and strategies during something like a clinic or practicum to see how theory plays out in real life.

Finding a Mentor

Law schools have career services offices that offer mentor-mentee programs. This is a given, and you should absolutely take advantage of it because the office will pair you based on interests, where you’re from, and what you want to do in life. However, that is not the only place to find a mentor. There are some other avenues to try, such as:

  • School groups: There will be organizations like the Irish American Law Association or the Intellectual Property Law Association, and there will be older students. Once you are comfortable and know people’s names, perhaps there will be someone you can approach.
  • At your job: Many first-year students work and their firms often provide mentoring programs with other associates who are employed there.
  • Professional mentoring programs: These organizations exist to promote the exchange of ideas and to help lawyers launch their careers. This will also help you with a springboard for after you graduate. Some examples include the Practicing Attorneys for Law Students Program (PALS) and Leadership Council on Leadership Diversity (LCLD).
  • Professors: Ask your professors if they know of an older student who could use a mentee. Faculty members always have students working for them.
  • Conferences: Not only will you learn something, but you can also make new contacts during the “meet and greet” portion of these events.
  • Pro bono work: You probably won’t be able to do any interesting legal work yet, but at least you can make some good connections. Maybe something in housing law or unemployment law? See what interests you and dive right in.
  • Your bar association: The state bar association offers many different programs, including mentorship opportunities. Becoming a member while you’re in law school is much cheaper than when you are a licensed professional, so you might as well take advantage of the opportunity.

A mentor-mentee relationship is more than just the mentor showering knowledge and stories on a younger student. The mentee must bring energy, enthusiasm, and a willingness to learn. What results is a connection that lasts beyond law school and enriches both lives.