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Litigation Journal

Fall 2022 | Work

Finding Mentors, Building Skills

Sheila Sabrina Boston


  • Accept help wherever it makes sense to get it from, regardless of what that person looks like.
  • Junior lawyers need to take every opportunity possible to speak publicly.
  • Find and invest in people who are willing to put their political capital on the line for you.
Finding Mentors, Building Skills
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There was not enough room in the Summer 2022 issue of Litigation to publish in full the lively discussion among the panel of Black women litigators featured in that issue. We saved this passage for Headnotes. Moderator Sheila S. Boston elicits advice for junior attorneys from the panelists. Jamila S. Mensah, a partner at Norton Rose Fulbright in Houston, and Lonita Baker, an in-house attorney for Waystar in Louisville, emphasize the importance of finding mentors and sponsors. Vickie Turner, a partner at Wilson Turner Kosmo LLP in San Diego, and Lonita share tips on how newer attorneys can find ways to build their trial skills. The rest of the panel discussion, “Black Women Litigators—In Their Own Words,” appears beginning on page 39 of volume 48, issue 4 of the journal, which has the theme Experience Black. A 25-minute video of Sheila’s introduction of herself and the panel is available at

SB: Let’s talk about mentoring. I preach the importance of having mentors all the time, especially to my associates. And I always emphasize that this must be plural. You need as many mentors as you can. Let’s face it, that’s a challenge for Black women because, frankly, there’s not a lot of people who look like us. How did you go about establishing relationships such that you can have mentors?

JM: Part of my strategy has been to think of everyone that I interact with in this profession—folks in the firm, internal clients, folks outside the firm—as a client. Having this mind-set changes all my interactions because when you’re thinking about someone as a client, then you’re thinking about what you bring to the table, and not just what you can get from them. And I think that’s the key to any kind of mentor relationship, and also with sponsors, who are more critical than mentors in my view. Part of my strategy has been to find and invest in people who are willing to put their political capital on the line for me, to say, “Jamila deserves this opportunity,” or “she deserves this client matter,” or “she deserves to be on this case.” That’s what you need to advance.

But focusing on mentors, I have had a number of mentors throughout my career. Some are Black, some are white, and they are of both genders. Young Black lawyers need to get comfortable with the fact that not all attorneys are going to look like them. You have to be comfortable working with all different sorts of clients and all different sorts of colleagues. You have to be willing to accept the help wherever it makes sense to get it from, regardless of what that person looks like. If you start to think about it more broadly, and you consider that the people who can help you don’t have to look like you, that will open up your opportunities. I think young lawyers also need to give proactive thought to finding the way to connect with people on any level. I’ll give an example. I was an athlete in school, and I’m still a huge sports fan. I use these interests to connect with people, especially with men. It’s an easy subject for introductory conversations that can lead to a more significant work relationship. Of course, none of this matters unless you do a good job. Once you do somebody a solid the first time, they’re going to come back to you again.

SB: Well said, Jamila. In fact, most of my mentors have been white males. And I understand your point about finding ways to connect. I’m not a big sports person, but I will admit that after I got married, I would regularly say to my husband, “Jerome! What’s happened in the sports world?” just so I could throw a little something in there if necessary. We don’t want to be inauthentic, but sometimes you got to go that little extra mile and learn a little something new that enables you to add to the conversation the next morning.

LB: I agree that it’s important to have white mentors and sponsors, but the truth of the matter is that the rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply the same way to us as Black women. Black women have to find our own way because white mentors can only help us so much. Black women are situated differently in this legal profession.

SB: Let’s talk about skills building for the junior attorneys who are out there. What are the best ways younger lawyers can build skills?

VT: Pro bono. My first six trials were done through a program called Rent-an-ADA. The firm would loan associates out to a district attorney’s office for six weeks to try misdemeanor cases. It was a great opportunity. You didn’t do any of the paperwork. You took a file, you showed up in court, and you hoped your witnesses were lined up and ready. It really taught me to be quick on my feet and adaptive, too. Also, teaching. I know there aren’t that many opportunities to teach for more junior lawyers, but I have learned more from teaching than anything else. I have taught trial techniques for a while, and it’s amazing. Every time I teach a course, I learn something more myself, so it’s really kind of a gradual and progressive learning process. It just never ends.

LB: Just regular public speaking. Junior lawyers need to take every opportunity possible to speak publicly. Take every opportunity you can to step in front of a group and speak.

SB: I’m going to take this a step further: My suggestion is to make one of your extracurricular activities public speaking. For example, join a theater group. I sing in my choir at church, and I’m part of an Inn of Court where I help put on a legal-themed production every year. These are fun activities, but they are also skill-building.