THE “PRACTICE” MENTOR: A FIRST STEP TOWARDS A SUCCESSFUL CAREER
Now that you have the last semester of law school on your hands, it is now time to think about the next step in your legal education. Until now, your teachers have largely been in control of the content and procedure of your legal knowledge formation stage. They have defined the scope of the curriculum, the methods of communication, and the process of measuring success. With the end of your formal legal studies comes the knowledge that you are about to begin the next phase— “self-directed learning.” Although many beginning lawyers believe that the learning process will be controlled by the firm, company, or agency where they will be employed, there are very few employers who will take the time and expenses of formal education. The responsibility of the next phase is really on your own shoulders, and the scope and manner of the learning process is directly within your control. What and how you advance your legal knowledge and skill is up to you.
But that does not mean that no one is out there to help you. Indeed, many who you have already met—professors (both adjunct and full-time), judges, alumni, and practicing lawyers—are all possible sources of the next phase of your education. When asked to help you become the lawyer you wish to be, many of these individuals will be happy to assist. But when asked to be your MENTOR, a really dedicated person will respond with the willingness to give you the depth of their experience, and to discuss both the successes and mistakes they have made, to help you navigate the passage from law student to lawyer.
The most important step in identifying the true “practice” mentor is to establish the expectations and abilities (including time) for both of you.
“Judge, as I begin my legal career, I have thought about finding a mentor, someone who has gone into the arena and experienced the realities of the practice of law. It is clear that you have, and I hope that you would consider being my mentor and teacher. I promise not to overload you with too many questions, but hope that we could get together for coffee or lunch once a month (my treat) just so that I can ask you about the practice of law and how I am doing. I will be sure to not violate any confidentiality rules, and I will be respectful of your time, but I would appreciate your insight and experience in the next stage of my career. The truth is, Judge, I really don’t know what I don’t know.”
So who might be, and where might you locate, potential mentors? As mentioned, adjunct professors are a good source, as they have already shown that they want to teach for almost no compensation. Alumni you have met or lawyers with whom you’ve crossed paths through the job search process (even those who have not hired you) are also possible mentors. Many local and state bar associations compile lists of people who wish to be mentors, so reach out to the bar executive for that information. Search out lawyers who have become leaders (such as the leadership group within the ABA Section of Litigation), as they either will serve or might identify a person they know who they would recommend to serve. While most mentors are people whom you might ask based upon a prior relationship, recommendations are also very valuable in beginning a new relationship. The introductory process may by itself forge a long-lasting relationship.
While many mentors make the effort to continue the relationship, the maintenance of the mentoring process is your responsibility. Keep it going and make your mentor feel important, helpful, and valued. Motivating them is easy if you take the time and make an effort; they have already indicated that they are willing to do the job.
The mentoring relationship is part of the foundation of the practice of law. In its history, lawyers taught and mentored the next generation; teaching “the law” was part of the obligation and professional responsibility of lawyers. And it will be part of your future in a few years when you will be asked to be a mentor.
Best of luck in this next phase of your professional development.
Laurence M. Rose
Professor Emeritus and Director
Litigation Skills Program
University of Miami School of Law