February 17, 2015 article

Mentoring: Helping Young Lawyers "Start Well"

By Kimberly Stamatelos

You see them everywhere: bright-eyed baby lawyers, starting out their law practices. They are in corporate legal departments, government jobs, and law firms. Maybe they've dared to go solo or partnered with kindred spirits from law school setting up shop as a small firm. Each aspires to make his or her mark as a lawyer.

There is also another group: mature lawyers in the last stages of their practice. They are seasoned with legal and life experience, substantive legal knowledge, and war stories. They have seen lawyers come and go in the profession suffering from addiction, burnout, and discouragement, but these veterans have endured and in many cases have even thrived.

Although armed with a law degree, the young lawyers lack training in money management, stress management, and how to avoid burnout. Those building their own firms may not have been taught trust account management, discernment on case selection, or how to set boundaries with overly demanding clients. Some may lack substantive or clinical training on some of the legal matters they will be required to address. Many are taking a leap off the cliff, often without a parachute.

The veterans are apt to have their eye on retirement, resting on their laurels for a job well done, anxious to ride out their tenure and spend time enjoying leisure activities. Their law careers may have been strong and dynamic or they might have been unfulfilling. Looking back, they have learned many lessons in the practice of law.

Unfortunately, there is a chasm between the two groups. Those hoping to "finish well" in our profession are not investing in or mentoring the young lawyers so they "start well." As a result, the veterans are missing the chance to leave a lasting legacy to the profession.

My own lawyer father, now deceased, was the solo practitioner who inspired me to launch my own solo firm. He used to tell me he loved his practice because "you never know what's going to walk in the door." He showed me the ropes, engaging me in a conversation about the "why's" of the practice, and coaching me through the pitfalls and disappointments when things did not go well. He challenged me to "think like a lawyer" and to listen to clients with compassion. "The client will always judge the effort more than the outcome," were words that have proven true to me over the past 30 plus years of practice. Under my father's watchful eye, I got a chance to "start well."

Lawyers in the last phases of legal practice can take wisdom, war wounds, and weariness off into retirement, patting themselves on the back for a job well done, or they can take the time to pass the baton of the legal profession to the next generation of lawyers by investing their time in serving as mentors. Some may say, "I had to learn the hard way and pay my dues, and these young lawyers should have to as well." Such a phrase needs to be examined from a lens of compassion. When we see young lawyers destined to suffer in ways veteran lawyers can help alleviate, is it really ethical to say "too bad"?

Today's young lawyers will have dues to pay. Often starting off their practices laden with $100,000 or more of student loan debt, they are entering a changing market. In the new legal world, only 3 percent of cases go to trial, legal software is available to laypersons, clients have access to self service centers at the courthouse, and many people dislike dealing with lawyers. What will the practice be like in 20 years? Will lawyers be necessary members of our society?

Finding a Mentee

If a seasoned lawyer decides to mentor, how do you go about it? In the customary "meet and greet" mentoring events, veteran lawyers are paired with a mentee. They have a cocktail and make small talk, ending with a "let's do this again" that may or may not happen. Rarely is there a strong connection.

I was once assigned a mentee through a woman lawyers' organization. After she missed our first meeting and then was unavailable for the next three times I tried to arrange a meeting, our efforts fizzled and we never got together. Yet, at the end of the year event, I received a small award for being one of the mentors. Nobody had noticed we were a bust.

Instead of waiting to get an assignment, "setting an intention" to identify law students or baby lawyers who would benefit from a mentoring relationship actually makes them begin to show up. Having started to intentionally look for them, one of my recently acquired mentees approached me in tears, after a speech I had given, saying it had touched her. Another was a student I taught as an adjunct who said something compelling in class indicating she might be struggling with her decision to become a lawyer. Yet another was the niece of a former client who was introduced to me by her aunt who said "would you talk to her?" Once you are awakened to the idea of mentoring, worthy candidates turn up everywhere. The mentees who will benefit most from a mentoring relationship must be highly motivated. For busy but willing mentor lawyers, it's not coldhearted to say "no" to halfhearted mentees or to terminate mentoring relationships that lack momentum.

The Mentoring Agenda

Each mentoring duo can define the goals and terms of their relationship. It might be informal, such as a "phone a friend" connection for the younger lawyers to have a resource when issues or strains of the practice overwhelm them. There may be a specific case or project that lends itself to mentoring. For lawyers in larger firms, taking a specific young lawyer "under your wing" and giving him or her regular attention and feedback can put the trajectory of his or her career on a totally different path.

In more formal mentoring relationships, the mentor and mentee meet regularly, such as once a month. There may also be weekly "check in" emails on Fridays. The Friday emails help to stay connected and provide an ongoing accountability log for the goals or issues identified in the monthly meetings. My formal mentees report they like having someone to check in with on Fridays. It keeps issues that derail them from festering, and usually only requires a small time investment to monitor. "You are doing great! Keep up the good work," or "It sounds like things are rough right now; let's discuss in detail when we meet next week," can be like gold to a young lawyer that is looking for validation or encouragement.

Listening Is the Key

The mentor doesn't drive the agenda. Instead, the mentor's main task is to listen intently to the mentee and help the mentee get clarity on what he or she is thinking. Dispensing advice is only a small part of the mentor's role. Asking the simple question "what would you like to discuss?" and then waiting for the answers can release a wealth of information. Sometimes the mentee wants to discuss legally related topics and sometimes it is personal. Either way it is directed by the younger lawyer based on what he or she needs to discuss, not on what the mentor wants to tell him or her.

True listening skills are difficult for most people. As lawyers, we are quick to diagnose and jump in to solve problems. In the mentoring relationship, our effectiveness can be enhanced if we ask questions, listen, and then summarize back what we have heard, asking follow-up questions designed to "dig deeper." The mentees' answers to weighty questions are often already inside them. In a nonjudgmental, inquisitive, listening environment, the mentees often come to their own conclusions.

Dispensing Wisdom and Guidance

Sometimes the younger lawyer seeks our guidance and wisdom. Good mentoring allows this to happen only at the invitation of the mentee, not because the mentor wants to regale him or her with war stories. "May I offer an insight?" can transition from "listening" to the "wisdom dispensing stage." I have found that the ratio of "listening" and helping the lawyer identify what he or she is thinking versus "telling" is about 90 to 10.

One law student I began mentoring faced the unexpected terminal illness of her mother only a few months into our mentoring relationship. The student was accomplished, a member of law review, and involved in various law student organizations. She had to make a decision to drop out of law school and move across the country to literally help her single mother die. She also had a special needs brother who lived with the mother and would need residential placement. Along the way of these decisions, she used me as a sounding board and support person.

Our mentoring relationship continued monthly, or biweekly when things got really intense for her, over Skype. I am not a therapist but a lawyer, so I worried that my mentoring skills would be inadequate to support the situation. Instead, our mentoring relationship was a strong support to her as she processed a myriad of issues. I was uniquely suited to help her navigate all of the life events that were happening to her, as well as to keep her focused on ultimately getting back into law school.

My mentee ended up taking care of business and working with a grief group. She will return to law school in the fall and is leaning toward being an elder law attorney. I wonder whether the outcome would be different if she hadn't had a mentor taking an interest in supporting her during that time.

Iowa State Bar Association Mentoring Program

In recognition of the importance of mentoring, the Iowa State Bar Association Young Lawyers Division launched a mentoring program in late 2014. Mentors and mentees must apply and are currently being matched, with anticipated meetings to commence in March 2015. Mentees must have less than five years of practice experience in the state of Iowa. Mentor attorneys must have been licensed for five years or more in Iowa, have a clean disciplinary record, and carry malpractice insurance (if required).

The program does not have a defined protocol, but instead offers packets that provide prompts for guided discussions between the mentorship team about such issues as office management, interaction with judges, mental health, and ethics. Participants agree to spend six hours per year in the program and are advised to meet three to four times per year. Each mentorship relationship will last one year.

Conclusion

Being a mentor can be one of the most fulfilling roles experienced lawyers can have. Looking over our shoulder with compassion at the younger lawyers coming up behind us, and placing the baton confidently and deliberately into their hands, we can leave a lasting legacy of integrity and competence on our profession.

Keywords: litigation, solo practitioners, small firms, mentoring, veteran lawyers, young lawyers

Kimberly Stamatelos is a solo practitioner in West Des Moines, Iowa.


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