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Dottie Perry
Dottie Perry
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Mentoring in the Legal Profession

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I read this article today, written by a female corporate lawyer and it set me back a moment. The article distinguishes between mentors and role models by describing the latter as someone who looks like you do. It probably should have resonated more with me, but I have never looked at my elders/partners/bosses and thought, “If I don’t look like them, then I’ll never get to where they are.” I have never worked under a female partner. I have never had a female mentor in the law.  And yet, my practice is strong and growing, my work product is good and my efforts in advocating for my clients are successful. I am all for more diversity in the legal profession, men/women, black/white, old/young,  and do everything I can to promote it, but don’t think the lack of it is such a hindrance as to keep me (and others like me) from reaching my goals. All you need is at least one good mentor/role model/sponsor, and the world is your oyster.

The American Inns of Court published an article on mentoring, evaluating the results of a study conducted by The National Association for Law Placement, Inc.  The study focused on “informal mentoring,” which is something I have benefited from for many years.

Unlike formal mentoring programs, informal mentoring occurs and develops organically. There is no pre-existing program to follow. It consists of two people who are compatible and get together to share ideas and learn from each other. One individual takes the role of teacher or mentor while the other acts as the mentee or protégé.

When I clerked at the U.S. Attorney’s office, the AUSA’s would daily gather in their offices with each other to chat about work, family, politics and judges. All I had to do was ask, and I was always included in their “meetings” to opine on this trial outcome or that new sitcom. As random as it was, in their way, these lawyers were mentoring me. I learned invaluable lessons about professionalism, the law, the Federal courts, and practicing in them. When I was a judicial law clerk, all I had to do was ask, and my judge would regularly engage in arguments about pending motions. He would play the role of devil’s advocate. I had to defend the outcome I thought was just and he would push and push until one of us relented and conceded the argument. These exercises were always followed up with stories about cases he’d tried, attorneys he’d tried them with, and similar arguments he’d dealt with in the past.  Like my afternoons with the AUSA’s, these informal discussions taught me a lot about the law, the legal profession, and how to be a successful, reputable member of it.

This trend has continued throughout my career. Last month, I attended a mediation with a partner in a neighboring state who drove us there and back.  We used the drive-time to discuss the facts and law in the case, and to hash out the arguments on both sides of  the legally gray areas we’d likely be defending in mediation. Going a step further, we also talked, at length, about the business of practicing law. Since day one, my partners have been teaching their associates how to manage the business of practicing law, which is good because it was not the subject of any class I took in law school.  These discussions, like all of  those I had with the mentors that came before, are a vital part of the “practice” of law, where every day and every problem presents another opportunity to learn how to do it better, quicker, smarter and more economically. This learning goes both ways, too, because younger attorney’s ideas and perspectives are typically very different than, but can be just as valuable as, their partners’.

There are many, many more female associates than female partners in my area, making “role model”-type mentoring simply impossible. Luckily, for those willing to do the work to identify circumstances where mentors can be developed, those circumstances and opportunities abound.  Not only are they present within firms, but Bar Associations and their practice sections usually offer a multitude of contacts and events designed to foster mentoring relationships. All one need do is ask.

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    I think the”informal” mentoring that is done by hashing out and discussing different perspectives and thoughts on a case is one of the best tools we can have. We learn more by engaging then being told or just watching. I think it is why it is called the practice of law.

    As a female attorney I do not always feel I need a “role model” as such, but I take every attorney I work with (whether it is on my side or the opposite side) and usually take something out of the experience and learn from it, good and bad.