Trying cases challenges us to be better lawyers. For those of us primarily in civil practice, the opportunity to conduct a trial or other adversarial proceeding can be rare. The preparation is the practice for many litigators. And so, to excel in our profession, we must excel at preparation. This is true both for the matters we handle and for honing our abilities as trial lawyers. Being mentored as young lawyers is essential to this development, and we likewise must act as mentors to those who follow. Mentorship offers benefits and satisfaction to both the mentor and the person receiving the guidance.
Steven Spielberg has said that “the delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.” I have been fortunate throughout my career to have mentors who have taken that approach to guiding me as a lawyer. My first exposure to the practice of law came when I was just out of high school and worked with a legendary lawyer in my hometown in eastern Kentucky. Days after my graduation and a couple of months before my 18th birthday, he had me reading a case file and then sitting with him at counsel table as he tried a personal injury case involving an accident between a coal truck and a passenger car. Over the course of three summers, I attended four trials with him, including serving as a witness in one of them (a war story for another time), and learned skills ranging from answering interrogatories to performing mineral title work to plotting a metes and bounds deed description with a ruler and compass. The most important lesson he taught was the importance of relentless attention to detail and how it could make a difference in vindicating the client’s position or explaining the failure to do so.
Each mentor I have had throughout my career has added to the full measure of the lawyer I have become. From the judge for whom I clerked, I learned how to be brief, how to better organize my thoughts, and the importance of humor in the practice of law. From the terrific trial lawyer who guided my first years of practice after that clerkship, I learned how to take a deposition, the five commandments of witness preparation, and when to forgo the urge to comment. That last lesson remains a constant struggle. From my current and former senior partners at my present firm, I have learned how to work as a team, how to try a case, and the importance of creativity and agility in representing our clients.
Working in the Section of Litigation has provided mentors in other contexts. Former authors of the Opening Statement in this journal have instilled the importance of giving back to our profession and of our role in preserving our system of justice and the rule of law. Other bar leaders have served as examples of how to collaborate and advance goals.
Having benefitted from mentors throughout my career, I have also tried to serve as a mentor to younger lawyers. As Spielberg correctly observed, this cannot be a process of superimposing yourself onto another person in an effort to create a “mini me.” Yes, you can and should provide instruction and guidance based upon how you engage in a particular task or practice a case. But your role should be to allow younger lawyers to identify their own best practices based on their skills and abilities.
In considering the effectiveness of mentoring, I have six suggestions for litigators who act as mentors to their younger colleagues. I have found that each of these ideas works well for me.
1. Avoid “Assigned” Mentorships, If Possible
My best mentoring experiences have occurred when the relationship has developed organically. Conversely, poor experiences have sometimes resulted when I have been assigned to a mentoring relationship. I recognize that avoiding this structure may be challenging in a larger law firm environment. If you are assigned someone to mentor, by all means work on development of the relationship. But you will likely find that the best relationships develop when working together on common tasks.
2. Look Outside Your Practice
Opportunities to mentor do not rest solely within your firm or practice. Yes, you have the ability to guide younger colleagues with whom you work directly. But there are also young lawyers needing assistance who are working elsewhere. If you are in a solo or small firm practice and a newly minted lawyer hangs out a shingle next door or across town, reach out to that person and offer your assistance. If you are a former prosecutor or public defender, look for chances to guide new lawyers filling your old role.
3. Be Mindful of the Need for Diversity in Our Profession
One of the greatest benefits you can bring as a mentor is to guide young lawyers with different backgrounds. While all young lawyers need mentors, the law remains one of the least diverse professions in the United States. Reaching out to young lawyers of color not only benefits those individuals, but also helps to produce a justice system that is broadly representative of the public we serve.
4. Share Experiences
It is one thing to talk about how to conduct a discovery deposition or to prepare a witness to testify. It is quite another to actually see and experience those events. Effective teaching requires both action and reflection. After the event concludes, be sure to discuss and evaluate it. Ask the younger litigator why a witness responded in a certain way or why a witness failed to follow guidance provided in preparation. Make this a continuous process with multiple opportunities. When the younger lawyer is ready to conduct the preparation or the deposition, attend with her and then have a dialogue afterward.
Developing a career as a litigator requires a great deal of work and multiple skills. Mentoring includes guidance on the work we perform for our clients, but also on the work we do to develop as professionals, the work we do to earn business and our obligation to serve the public. Younger lawyers may often find a need for advice in any or all of these areas. Schedule unstructured time to talk about concerns and answer questions. Be sure to listen more than you talk in this setting. There are times when your junior colleague can talk out an issue just through a conversation with an experienced guide.
Most of my mentors have been genuinely interested in my growth as a lawyer and as a person. To have success mentoring others, you must care about those individuals and their development. In the words of Maya Angelou, “In order to be a mentor, and an effective one, one must care. You must care. You don’t have to know how many square miles are in Idaho, you don’t need to know what is the chemical makeup chemistry, or of blood or water. Know what you know and care about the person, care about what you know and care about the person you’re sharing with.” She is right. Although what you know as a lawyer is important to mentoring another lawyer, the most critical element of a successful relationship is caring that your younger colleague gets the most from her abilities.
The title of this Opening Statement recognizes that mentorship is essential. In my view, it is essential for both the mentor and the person being mentored. When you are mentored, you grow, develop and become a better lawyer. When you mentor someone else, you gain the satisfaction of seeing another lawyer succeed. In the words of Phil Collins, “In learning you will teach; in teaching you will learn.”
Copyright © 2019, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).