Law school is like an Army boot camp for the mind; professors will tear down students’ mental constructs and rebuild them to think like lawyers. Given the unique and highly stressful nature of law school and the continued need for guidance as a young lawyer, mentors are a necessity to feel confident and gain important resources.
The Benefits of a Mentor
A mentor has already experienced and survived law school and the accompanying career-defining decisions. When first-year law student Lexi Harris wanted to quit halfway through her first semester, her mentor, Sheila Bias, gave her advice that ultimately convinced Harris to stick it out. “During those times that I wanted to quit, she made sure that I understood that every other student was under the same pressure and that we all had the same doubts,” Harris said. “That convinced me to stick with it, and eventually I realized that even though it felt like I had no idea what I was doing, I actually did.” As Bias did, a mentor can take on the role of a therapist and be the voice of reason when the world feels like an endless assault of lectures, reading and exams.
Mentors are also beneficial when it is time to make career choices, such as picking course tracks in law school, figuring out which clinics to take, or choosing a different type of law to practice (e.g., intellectual property versus estate planning).
Many law schools do not teach the practical aspects of law. A mentor has already navigated these pitfalls and has wisdom to impart. A mentee can learn the application of the substantive law by observing and speaking with a mentor. For example, to supplement a substantive evidence class and see how theory works in real life, a student can observe a mentor conduct a deposition and learn from the mentor’s mistakes and strategies. Neal Davis, a Houston-based attorney, believes he learned more from his mentor than he did in all three years of law school. Legendary trial attorney Dick DeGuerin mentored Davis during law school. Afterward, Davis worked with DeGuerin for more than a decade and even presented a case (Salinas v. Texas) with him before the US Supreme Court.
Tips for Finding a Mentor
Your immediate network. Ask experienced lawyers you already know out for coffee or lunch and pick their brains and gather practicable tips.
Career services departments. Many schools offer a program to pair mentors and mentees. This is the case even if you graduated years ago. Your alma mater can always help.
Your employer. Ask about mentoring programs at your law firm. Many employers understand the importance of developing young lawyers and have official or unofficial mentoring programs.
Professional mentoring programs. These organizations exist to promote the free exchange of ideas and help lawyers launch their careers. Some examples include the Practicing Attorneys for Law Students Program (PALS) and Leadership Council on Leadership Diversity (LCLD). Most organizations offer mentors for young lawyers as well as students.
Associations for your area of interest. Some associations, like the National Association of Women Lawyers, offer a mentorship program. However, even organizations lacking official mentoring programs can offer ways to meet more experienced attorneys while contributing to a mission that’s important to you.
Alumni network. Get involved with your law school’s alumni department. Alumni events can yield relationships that might result in a mentor-mentee relationship after spending some time following lawyers with whom you identify.
Law school faculty. Faculty members may also assist with recommendations and introductions if they are not potential mentors themselves.
Conferences. Not only will you learn new skills, but you also will make new contacts at the “meet and greet” portion of these events. If you are a working attorney, see if you can get your employer to reimburse you for the cost of attending.
Pro bono work. Try to find an area of law that truly speaks to you and dive right in. Do you want to do some work in housing law? Maybe domestic relations? You might find that a different type of law is where you really want to work, and you could also find some new contacts.
Your bar association. Bar associations have young lawyer divisions that are quite good at pairing young attorneys with more experienced attorneys. The ABA Young Lawyers Division is a great place to start!
Hustle. If you see an attorney who needs assistance with a white paper, a publication, or a case, you can offer to help—if only for the credit. Just having your name under theirs on a project, as well as the opportunity to mingle with their cohorts while the work is underway, can be priceless.
A mentor-mentee relationship is a two-way street. The mentee must bring energy and a willingness to learn. The mentor should impart knowledge, stories, and advice. The result can be an enriching experience for both parties.