Filling the “Mentor Gap” as a New Solo Attorney

Aastha Madaan
Perhaps the most common piece of advice that new solo practitioners receive is “find a mentor.”

Perhaps the most common piece of advice that new solo practitioners receive is “find a mentor.”

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Many new attorneys choose solo practice instead of a law firm job after law school because of the many perks, including the flexible hours, the ability to choose the clients, and the ability to pursue other interests. Sometimes, however, new attorneys that go solo can experience gaps in learning, without access to the resources at big firms, the mentoring opportunities from experienced attorneys in their firm structure, the ability to learn from others’ mistakes without making their own, and having someone to talk with, strategize about positions, or even proofread an important brief.

Perhaps the most common piece of advice that new solo practitioners receive is “find a mentor.” Although finding a mentor is a good idea and comes with immeasurable benefits, rarely does anyone explain exactly how a fledgling solo should go about finding a mentor. We asked several solo practitioners in different stages of their career how they found their support network, filled the knowledge gap, and what advice they have for other new attorneys going out on their own.

Keep an open mind. You can find mentors anywhere. Peers, young lawyers, senior lawyers, big shots, the guards at the front desk, legal assistants, paralegals. Reach out to your peers and classmates and set up your own referral network. Visit as many solos and small firm lawyers as you can to introduce yourself. Ask them whether, if you provide a writing sample or take on a small research project for them for free, and they are pleased, they might consider adding you as co-counsel to a case or two here and there. If they’re as swamped as I am, I’m certain they will. 

Read. Stay up-to-date on the latest in the law in your jurisdiction. You need to keep up with the competition while you’re catching up with them.

Learn how to network. And then just do it. For introverts, it’s painful, and it saps your energy, but it pays. The trick I use is one my mother taught me as a child. Act as if you are the host at every event you go to. Introduce yourself, shake their hands, and then listen. You’ll certainly—even on your first try—hear one guest say that they need a particular thing (a referral, an expert, a pair of shoes) and another guest say that she knows exactly how to get that same thing, or better yet, she can supply it herself. Use those opportunities to become a go-to person for problem-solving. Follow up with each of them. Invite them for coffee and find out if your introduction succeeded. It doesn’t matter whether it did or not—you are just making yourself a caring and attentive “host.”

Kathleen B. Havener
The Havener Law Firm, LLC
Cleveland, OH

One of the most common gaps in my practice is not knowing whether the way I handle a client’s case is the right way to handle it. I can do all the legal research in the world. Still, until I take action, by filing the right forms, contacting the right agency, or seeking the appropriate relief, I have no way of knowing whether my actions or strategies are sound because there is no one advising me to “do it differently.” I don’t want my practice to be all trial and error. Sometimes, even just a little confirmation such as “yeah, that sounds right” is enough to give me peace of mind that I am a good advocate for my client. That is why having a mentor is so important. Even though I am a solo practitioner, I have several mentors. While networking at different bar association events has its own merits for getting your name out there, I have found that doing contract work for other attorneys pays an even bigger dividend.

Getting contract work is pretty straightforward; it requires a little bit of hustle and getting the contracting attorney to trust you. If you have been fortunate enough to gain any work experience, during law school and after, then you can do contract work because you have the skills that other lawyers can use. Ever been to court? Offer to do court appearances for lawyers who are too busy. Have any experience with discovery? Offer to attend depositions or respond to interrogatories.

How does this fill my “mentor gap”? When lawyers are letting someone handle their case, even if it is as simple as attending a case status conference, they are the ones held accountable if something goes wrong. In my experience, the contracting lawyers will guide me every step of the way to make sure that nothing goes wrong and even throw in several practice pointers that I may not have known before. If I do a good job, not only will I get repeat business, but I have also gained a mentor. You would be pleasantly surprised to see how many experienced attorneys are willing to help out younger lawyers working for them on a limited basis.

Michael Ruttle
Ruttle Law, P.C.
Torrance, CA

Before I went solo, I was a staff attorney at an immigration nonprofit and then worked for a small immigration firm. As a result, when I hung out my shingle, I had a network of attorneys practicing in my area. Once I went solo, I maintained my connection with the nonprofit by volunteering at legal clinics. Volunteering allowed me to connect with more experienced colleagues and discuss tricky issues. That experience was a great help to me in the early days of my practice. After every clinic, the lawyers would stay and talk shop, so my volunteering wasn’t just a safety net for the people who came to the clinic for legal advice—it was also a safety net for me as a young solo practitioner.

Joshua Paulin
Law Offices of Joshua Daley Paulin
Boston, MA

As I started my own practice, I wanted to be sure I could adequately represent my clients. I take many more CLEs every year than necessary to have sufficient knowledge about a wide array of topics, even outside my practice area. I feel that exceeding the minimum required credits has given me the necessary guidance through cases I handled for which I did not otherwise have the necessary expertise.

Also, I work collaboratively with several other small law firms and solo practitioners to refer clients, ask legal questions, debate legal theory, and critique one another. For instance, I presented a mock oral argument in front of these friends before I argued before our state supreme court for the first time. This practice made my arguments much stronger, and I won the case, thanks to the extra help I received. In turn, I offer the same free critique to my friends who are fellow small firm or solo practitioner attorneys. It’s reassuring to know that even if you are a small law firm, you can tap into your network of attorneys to benefit from additional opinions and views.

I have also joined as many listservs as possible and use them whenever appropriate. For example, when you have a specific question about a local rule or procedure or a particular judge’s preferences. Moreover, I have reached out to several more experienced attorneys through my involvement with various bar associations. I have several mentors to guide me through difficult situations when I feel like I need the opinion of a more experienced lawyer. This habit has proven to be invaluable to my practice. In turn, I reciprocate and seek out new graduates and solo practitioners just starting out to assist, guide and mentor because I understand how challenging it can be to open up your own law firm just out of law school.

Andrea Ciobanu
Ciobanu Law, P.C.
Indianapolis, IN

I came out of law school and went right to practicing on my own. The primary problem I faced was the knowledge gap that I would have gained from the resources and mentorship at a law firm early on in my career. I made up for the knowledge gap by having mentors and attending as many CLE courses as possible. Luckily, I had cultivated relationships with attorneys while I was in law school by attending bar association events as a law student. I then joined those bar associations as a newly licensed attorney. By being involved in those bar associations, I had many attorneys who could serve as my mentors as soon as I started practicing. Besides seeking mentors informally, I also participated in mentoring programs with the bar associations that I joined.

In addition to the mentors I found through bar associations, I attended a ton of CLE programs. As a young solo practitioner, I did not benefit from going to a firm that built a library of briefs and forms for its young associates. The CLE materials I obtained at the courses allowed me to build my own library of knowledge resources that I would not have had otherwise. The courses also allowed me to meet attorneys who were more than willing to answer questions and provide forms and guidance for someone new like me.

Between the mentoring and CLE courses and materials, I did just fine filling in the knowledge gap!

Benjamin Sanchez
Sanchez Law Firm
Houston, TX

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Aastha Madaan

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This article was compiled by Aastha Madaan, owner of Madaan Law, PC, in Irvine, California.