Monday, November 30, 2015

Senior Counsel: Mentoring Lawyers - Perspectives from a New and an Experienced Lawyer

By Gilbert M. Singer

One of the most important and enduring legacies that you as a more experienced attorney can leave to the profession is the knowledge and pride that a young lawyer you have mentored has been successful. Mentoring young lawyers, in this writer’s opinion, should be an obligation of all members of the Bar. When I began my practice in 1979, I was extremely lucky to have a great mentor I was later proud to call a law partner, and now an old friend.

Like many lawyers, I came out of law school totally unprepared for the practice of law. My mentor showed endless patience and kindness, although I did not recognize it as such until many years later. The most important part of the mentoring process is teaching a new lawyer the practical aspects of lawyering, such as being courteous to opposing counsel even when it is difficult to do so; trying to resolve disputes by picking up the phone and calling opposing counsel instead of filing unnecessary motions and other pleadings; taking time to communicate with clients so that each is fully aware of the status of his or her case; understanding that sometimes we all lose a case; and how to act professionally in any setting.

Being a mentor is an important vehicle in demonstrating to a new lawyer how to take control of a situation in a meeting or a courtroom while still showing respect to all parties. The message to new lawyers is that we as lawyers should have control of any situation in order to achieve maximum results for the client.

Generally, experienced lawyers should set the new lawyer’s expectations high and discourage mediocrity on the job. It is OK to tell a “war story or two” as that might give a new lawyer a little perspective. Mentors should understand that Millennials have a different workplace vision than Baby Boomers. “Dedicated” to a Millennial means something other than the number of hours worked, the number of hours billed, or how many Saturday or Sundays one goes to the office. The Millennial’s interpretation of dedication is based on an overall approach and job satisfaction and their belief that they are doing a good job and that they are being as effective as possible.

Mentors should encourage new lawyers not to “re-invent the wheel,” but be sure they understand how to do so, if so needed in the future. Young lawyers should be encouraged to build their own practice and not simply be “drones” for older lawyers. Encourage client interaction, Bar activities, marketing activities, and very importantly, charitable work in the community. Inculcate the idea that every generation of lawyers must give of themselves to their communities.

One self-described “wet-behind-the-ears lawyer” mentored by this author has stated that one of his earliest and most difficult lessons starting his practice was that he did not know nearly as much as he thought he did. He stated that knowing the tenets of contract formation does not necessarily translate into being an effective lawyer. This new attorney has expressed gratitude to work in a practice with experienced attorneys who go out of their way to offer guidance and advice.

One of the first lessons recounted by this new attorney is one of the most obvious. The lawyer must keep the clients constantly updated about their cases. He went on to state that it does little good to win a hearing without communicating to the client the meaning of the victory in real terms. Education of the client as to realistic expectations and timetables for future aspects of the litigation is equally important.

A second lesson mentioned by this new attorney is that professionalism and courtesy goes miles beyond arguing over relatively trivial matters. This new attorney has gained perspective and found it to be a good rule that he will litigate against the same attorney again in the future and that it does the attorney no favors to leave a poor impression. Through mentoring, this new attorney has better understood that communication with opposing counsel can often resolve most issues without resorting to motions or court intervention.

In summary, experienced lawyers have an obligation to mentor new lawyers, for the general improvement of the practice of law and for the mentor and the new lawyer.

*Note: Written with the assistance of Robert Lindeman - Marcadis Singer, P.A.