Linda Klein on Mentorship

Linda A. Klein is a senior managing shareholder at Baker Donelson and is the current president of the American Bar Association (2016-2017).

Mathew Kerbis is an attorney with the Law Offices of David Freydin in Chicago, Illinois. 

Mathew Kerbis: Linda, thank you very much for taking the time to chat about your career, mentorship, and the ABA. Let’s start with a basic question: How would you define mentorship in the legal profession?

Linda Klein: Mentoring is really a partnership of learning, so somebody who has more experience helps someone who has less experience. It’s not about age; it’s about experience. Many very successful mentoring relationships are very informal. For example, where someone of less experience meets someone with more experience.

MK: What was the role of mentorship in your career? Is there something unique that young lawyers learn from a strong mentor-mentee relationship that cannot be learned through other means?

LK: I suppose that young lawyers could learn from books and videos, but I think mentorship is the best way. In my career, sure, receiving mentorship made me a better lawyer. There were numerous times where people created opportunity for me, and I walked through the door and took it. I have also taken on mentees, both formal and informal, on many occasions. You can help someone in their success. It is like pro bono work. In some ways, it is more beneficial for me than for the mentee.

MK: Did mentorship help you with your journey in the ABA?

LK: Many people deserve a lot of credit. None of us got here ourselves. I joined the Association in my first year of law school. I recall my first section meeting where experienced attorneys would talk to me about my cases. As a young lawyer, I was entrusted with committee assignments. When I did them well, they trusted me with bigger assignments, and so on. Eventually my numerous ABA mentors suggested that I run for an officer position and speak on programs. In short, mentorship in the ABA helped me because I came to meetings, I met with experienced people, and I did the job consistently. If you can’t come to meetings, ABA members are very generous with their time. Call them up and ask for help. That’s the strength of the ABA; no matter the specialty or interest, there is someone in the ABA who will share time with you.

ABA members are very generous with their time. They want to help others succeed. In my law firm, we have topic mentors: people who will provide advice or answer questions on an ad hoc basis. These relationships are not always legal related. Topics can also include leadership, bar events, and work-life balance.

MK: Do you view mentorship opportunities as crucial to the young lawyer’s practice, or more of just an added benefit when available? How important is it that a young lawyer find a mentor at work or in the Association?

LK: Mentorship is important. For example, everyone is offered a mentor in my law firm. Firms are making an investment in talent and you want that talent to succeed. You want to support networking opportunities at all stages of career development, and there should be additional opportunities for women or diverse lawyers. Firms must offer a menu of options for people to get what they need. You want to know that the firm’s culture is passed down to the next generation.

MK: How about those young attorneys who find it difficult to get involved and find a mentor?

LK: You have to find what is comfortable for you. Some law firms have sponsorships, where a very senior law firm member will use influence to help secure an associate with opportunities to advance. Solo attorneys who are not in firms have to get out there and find a mentor within or outside of an organization, such as the ABA. This is your career; you should spend your time and energy in the best ways to grow and develop. I went to see a younger lawyer in my law firm today, and she said that it is very crucial because her practice includes making decisions, and the way lawyers make decisions is based on their past experiences.

MK: In your opinion, what are the pitfalls of mentorship?

LK: From a mentor’s standpoint, if the mentor is not going to listen carefully and answer the right questions, then the relationship will not work. Mentors should care about the person that they are mentoring. If not, then maybe mentoring is not for you.

For mentees, you have to be active in taking ownership of your career. Mentees shouldn’t wait for the mentor to come to you. Call or go to the mentor. Take charge. You should respect what the mentor is doing for you.

MK: Certain states permit CLE credit for one-on-one mentorship programs, such as Illinois, which is where I am licensed. What is your position on granting CLE credit for mentorship?

LK: My state bar, Georgia, was a very early adopter of granting CLE for mentorship programs, so it is near and dear to our hearts. We believe that mentorship programs for members of the bar in Georgia make a big difference. The point is that it makes the bar better and prevents young lawyers from making mistakes that could harm their careers and clients. Early in the program, fewer young lawyers were finding themselves in the disciplinary system. From an aspirational standpoint, these programs make sense.

MK: I would now like to give you an opportunity to provide some mentorship to our young lawyer readers across the country. I understand that the ABA recently filed suit against the US Department of Education regarding the Federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) Program. Could you please explain why the ABA decided to file suit?

LK: This is very different from when the ABA did the buttons and social media campaign for killing or capping PSLF. The law suit involves a very specific program for specific people. Student loan borrowers pursuing the benefits of PSLF had to make ten years of payments; then, the outstanding loan balance would be forgiven. The first time people would be eligible for the forgiveness is 2017. People have been getting letters every year that they are in a certified position. Those letters have laid out the amount of payments made and need amount of payments that need to be made for their loans to be forgiven. Without notice, these individuals received new letters, stating that none of the payments qualified. They dedicated their lives to public service. They relied on the promise of the Department of Education. In many cases their debts went up. The Department of Education provided no logical explanation. There was no warning. Life and career decisions were made based on promises.

This is absolutely unfair and deeply damaging to these people. Before we filed suit, I met with the Department of Education’s Under Secretary Ted Mitchell, as did ABA Executive Director Jack Rives and ABA President-Elect Hilarie Bass. That was on September 19, 2016. We were promised an answer within thirty days and never got an answer. The Department of Education has not even tried to explain it. We made a FOIA request for two years of documents that was mostly redacted. The conduct of the Department of Education regarding PSLF is contrary to open government and the Administrative Procedure Act. Nothing was published in the Federal Register, thus the public did not have an opportunity to provide comments.

MK: Why is this issue so important for young lawyers?

LK: Congress made a decision that it was in the best interest of the public to get more people involved in public service. Knowing that the cost of education was increasing, Congress chose to address it through PSLF. This is a decision that Congress made. Now people made a decision in reliance on PSLF, and the rug has been pulled out from under them.

MK: To wrap it up, what opportunities are there within the Association for young lawyers interested in mentorship?

LK: Core diversity entities are spearheading mentorship programs that target diverse student populations, even pre-law students. Another thing is mentoring circles, which is where one mentor, such as a judge, will mentor many people at once. The ABA is also experimenting with online mentoring. Just some of the mentorship opportunities that the ABA offers are as follows:

  • The Section of Litigation has the Judicial Intern Opportunity Program (JIOP). Applicants get jobs in the courthouse and receive mentorship. The interview process has applicants meet with attorneys and participate in mentoring circles.
  • The Commission on Women in the Profession promotes Ms. JD, which is a non-profit that helps young women and women law students find success.
  • The Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division works with law students and lawyers in its Law Student Mentoring Certificate Program.
  • The Judicial Clerkship Program (JCP), which is from the Pipeline Council, is where a hundred diverse law students meet at Midyear, and for three days they do networking, research and writing with members from the judiciary. Judges are fabulously generous people.
  • The Commission on Disability provides mentors for law students, and prospective and recent graduates with disabilities to learn about practicing law with their disability.
  • The Tort Trial and Insurance Practice Section (TIPS) has the Annual National Trial Academy, which takes place at the National Judicial College in Reno. It is a very exciting program where they pair three students per experienced lawyer and combine the latest technology in mentoring over the course of several days.
  • The ABA’s Rule of Law Initiative (ROLI) brings in judges and lawyers from other countries to come to the United States for mentoring and skills training.

These opportunities can benefit young lawyers in their career as well as in the Association.


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