Things You Didn’t Learn In Law School: The Importance of Mentors

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(Photo credit: tim ellis)

Mentors: most young lawyers know how important they can be, but unfortunately, very few know how to go about finding them. That’s because most aspects of professional development, of which mentors are an important part, are one of the many things often overlooked by law schools when establishing a curriculum.

So most recent law graduates head out into the legal world with no idea how to find a mentor that will help them through the ups and downs of being a lawyer. That’s why “the importance of mentors” made our list of the Top 10 Things You Didn’t Learn in Law School.

But never fear–today we’re going try to fill in this gap by  focusing on strategies to help young lawyers find lifelong mentors.

As we’ve discussed throughout this blog post series, law schools fail to teach law students about many of the practical aspects of practicing law–and that’s why finding one or two mentors is so important for young lawyers just starting their careers. Mentors help bridge this educational gap and serve a advisors and confidantes to young lawyers just starting out, but lacking knowledge of the intricacies of day-to-day practice.

Of course, the idea of finding a mentor sounds well and good, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. That’s because lawyers are incredibly busy and mentoring a young attorney takes time–time that many experienced lawyers simply don’t have to available to give.

The good news is that many bar associations recognize this inherent conflict and often create programs designed to encourage their more seasoned member attorneys to mentor new admittees. For example, the Wisconsin Bar’s “The Challenges Facing New Lawyers Task Force” issued a report designed to address the needs of new law graduates. One of the areas of need identified in the report was helping young attorneys find much-needed mentors. One suggested solution was to provide mentors with CLE credit for the time spent assisting new lawyers:

To give lawyers more access to experienced lawyers, the task force also recommends developing a mentorship program, allowing mentors to obtain CLE credit. In some states, such as South Carolina, every new lawyer must complete one year of mentoring, and mentors get CLE credit.

Of course, there are plenty of others ways to find a mentor aside from relying on services offered by your local or state bar association. Getting involved in your local legal community, whether through bar association meetings or otherwise, is a great place to start. As explained in this recent ABA GPSolo article, joining and participating in local bar association section committees is one way to meet more experienced attorneys:

Local bar associations generally have sections for different practice areas. I recommend going to the section meetings, and speaking with a solo or small firm practitioner in your practice area that has a more flexible schedule than someone that works for a mid-size or large firm. Section meetings are generally more intimate, and easier to navigate than general bar association meetings. A solo or small firm practitioner will also have relevant tips for your practice. Offer to take her to lunch, be positive, and leave a good impression. Offer to help them with their research or drafting if they need it, in exchange for their time.

The good news is that face-to-face opportunities aren’t the only way to find mentors these days. That’s the beauty of being a lawyer in the 21st century–you now have so many more ways to meet and interact with your professional colleagues. This recent Massachusetts Bar Association blog post, How a Young Lawyer Can Run a Successful Firm, offers a number of helpful tips for finding mentors both on and offline:

(L)awyers are busy and you, not being as well connected because you’re young, (might find it hard) to find a lawyer to mentor you and who’s willing to spend the time to answer all your questions. The Massachusetts Bar Association recently redesigned their online portal and now offers “communal mentorship” through their My Bar Access discussion groups. Solosez (operated by the ABA) is an online listserv that also works like communal mentorship. Instead of having one mentor, you can have thousands of mentors from across the country. You simply post a question to the Solosez listserv and usually within the hour, you’ll get an answer or even forms for your particular question. Along those same lines, MASSFORUM (operated by Lawyer’s Weekly) is a local Solosez just for Massachusetts lawyers. Another great organization to join if you start a practice straight out of law school is Starting Out Solo (www.startingoutsolo.com).

So even if your law school failed to teach you how to find a mentor, never fear. There are plenty of ways to connect with seasoned attorneys who are willing to show you the ropes. So be creative and get out there! Explore the many options available to you and start interacting with other lawyers in your community. After just a bit of effort, you’ll undoubtedly locate an attorney willing to provide you with mentorship and advice.

–Nicole Black

  • Susan Cartier Liebel

    Niki, this very shortage was the basis for Solo Practice University. Mentors are so important and new lawyers are truly gun shy about asking for assistance. I find it doesn’t require a formal mentor/mentee relationship, either. New lawyers should never feel they have nothing to offer and are simply ‘taking’ from a mentor. A smart mentor understands there is value beyond being benevolent. New lawyers have many potential clients they will never work with and establishing a relationship with a mentor allows the new lawyer to establish referral relationships (often reciprocal) so they needn’t feel as if they are coming to the party empty-handed.

  • nikilblack

    Thanks for the comment and great points Susan. I agree that Solo Practice U provides a helpful resource for young lawyers and new solos and expect that the online world will increasingly play a role in helping young lawyers to find mentors.

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