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February 26, 2014
One of the more startling realizations for Wisconsin and Marquette law students upon graduation and prompt admission to the bar is that they suddenly become lawyers. These bright young minds are transformed from a disheveled group of law students with no real grasp of how to practice law to full-fledged attorneys — properly attired but still with no idea of how to practice law. Moreover, because of the diploma privilege, the lead time between hanging out at the student union to hanging up a law license is pretty short. At least our out-of-state colleagues had to study for the bar exam and are fully prepared to answer clients’ calls concerning Marbury v. Madison, International Shoe, or the rule against perpetuities.
As a profession, we tend to be concerned with standards for admitting lawyers, requirements for continuing education, and grounds for disciplining wayward practitioners. We should be just as concerned with providing guidance to new lawyers and helping shape their practice habits. Good mentoring serves three primary purposes: (1) mentors can provide practical information, whether it’s about how to file a particular motion or how to discuss fees with a client, (2) mentors serve as a sounding board for thoughts and ideas, fostering creativity, (3) mentors act as a filter, screening out objectionable behavior while encouraging professionalism.
I have vivid memories of my first few clients and cases. I can also remember the positive mentoring I received, both within my law office and more informally with the attorneys I practiced with (and against) in Dane County. I was given plenty of rope to do things for myself, which is a great way to learn. I was just as fortunate that mentors were close by with the scissors each time I risked working that rope into a Gordian knot – or tripping over it when I was arguing to the court.
Thinking about my own trip down mentoring lane, I feel extremely lucky to have connected with some really good attorneys and judges. They showed me with their actions and interactions how we can all advocate or judge at the highest level and still leave plenty of room for respect and camaraderie, regardless of whether the ink on one’s diploma was dusty or not yet dry. I recall the advice I received and emphasize to this day: “You will do business with the same lawyers and judges throughout your career, and your professionalism and credibility are your most important commodities.”
I believe it is incumbent upon the State Bar to promote good lawyering, which is why I want the Bar to foster good mentoring relationships. Many new lawyers become sole practitioners or work in positions where such relationships may not be available. Furthermore, although many law firms have internal mentoring programs, there are issues that are easier to discuss with attorneys outside one’s firm.
A mentoring program need not be complicated. All we need are willing participants and a way to coordinate matches. A new lawyer would be matched up with a more experienced lawyer in a similar line of practice – think of it as a Big Brothers/Sisters program for bar members. The mentor could set up an initial meeting for lunch, perhaps coordinating it with a regularly scheduled local bar luncheon. The mentor would ideally follow up with occasional phone calls or additional meetings, but otherwise need only commit to being available for questions and phone calls.
But regardless of whether my goal for a State Bar mentoring program reaches fruition, attorneys should not wait for a formal program to be a mentor. There are many good, experienced attorneys who could act as mentors. All it takes to start such a relationship is an invitation to a new associate or sole practitioner to meet for lunch and share some conversation. A follow-up note or phone call from the mentor-to-be will likely make the newer attorney feel comfortable enough to ask questions or solicit feedback.
This call for action is not intended to be patronizing to new lawyers. A new associate, solo practitioner or even law student often possesses the aptitude to effectively analyze a legal issue and construct an argument or opinion as well as, or better than, an experienced lawyer. The mentor can assist with the practicalities of being a lawyer, however, which one only learns through experience.
I realize that time is often tight in the legal profession and being a mentor may not be for everyone. On the other hand, a small time commitment by mentors reaps significant rewards: A new professional relationship with an earnest lawyer just starting out, or a feeling of contribution to a fellow lawyer and the bar. From personal experience those mentoring relationships often turn into career-long relationships that bring value and enjoyment to the practice of law. Mentors and mentees don’t stop learning from each other, they simply transition to learning from each other as experienced colleagues and friends. That type of support benefits lawyers professionally by preventing the rope from tripping us all up. More importantly, the collegiality benefits us all personally by reducing the likelihood that our career satisfaction gets tied up into a Gordian knot.
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