October 2010 President's Column
Make a Difference . . . Be a Mentor and Role Model
By A. Todd Brown
My wife took our grandson to a theme park that has a children's area, where he was playing by a little girl. When asked how old she was, the girl held up three fingers, and said "but two when we come here." The park admitted children two and under for free.
While president of the Justice William Glenn Terrell American Inn of Court in Tampa, Florida, Tom Elligett used this illustration to posit that, like young children, young lawyers fresh out of law school and new to the practice of law will emulate what they see and hear. That they will learn by example. Elligett pondered whether the "little white lie" in the instance above was an early lesson in dishonesty. His supposition: senior lawyers model behavior for young lawyers and therefore "are empowered to mentor professionals or jerks."
Mentoring reportedly dates back at least to the 13th century, when judges had to provide for the apprenticeship of lawyers and mentoring was the only way lawyers could learn their craft. Today, law schools, bar review courses and CLEs alone simply cannot impart the level of knowledge, experience, and skills that are critical for the professional development of young lawyers. Mentoring remains one of the most effective tools for passing on wisdom and training the next generation of lawyers. Mentoring permits modeling of best practices, fosters integrity, teaches professionalism, curbs incivility, enhances learning, helps manage risks, promotes diversity, provides networking, advances business imperatives and aids the administration of justice. Solo practitioners, new associates at law firms or lawyers moving into new and different practice areas in light of today's rapidly changing legal landscape surely will benefit from senior lawyers imparting helpful guidance, knowledge, and experience.
Lawyers learn from watching other lawyers. It follows that if young lawyers observe more senior lawyers being untruthful or uncivil toward opposing counsel; misleading or being less than candid with a tribunal; counseling clients to withhold information that should be disclosed; engaging in questionable billing practices; ignoring conflicts of interest; exhibiting disrespect for firm employees, court personnel, or court reporters; failing to abide ethical rules, etc., young lawyers may conclude that's just how attorneys practice law. I suspect the empirical evidence will support the proposition that young lawyers who get in trouble are often those who are rudderlessly trying to navigate the practice of law. Successful mentoring by senior lawyers will help minimize the development of "bad habits."
Mentors also can be good role models, even sources of inspiration. James Sandman, former president of the District of Columbia Bar, observed that attorney role models share certain traits we all admire: they mentor other lawyers; they have integrity; they have a keen understanding of the law as a service profession; they are professional and respectful to all; they value the differences among people; they give back to their community; they put family first; and they enjoy what they do. While not an exhaustive list, these attributes are commonly found among many of the MCB's most admired and successful role models.
In recognition of the salutary benefits of mentoring, the MCB is rolling out an expanded mentoring initiative implemented through the Professionalism, Lawyer Life and Culture Committee of the MCB. The proposed Linking Lawyers is a retooled version of our Silent Partners Program that will provide mentoring opportunities to a broader segment of the MCB. Read more about Linking Lawyers.
Many believe that the best prospects for positively influencing students, whether at risk or thriving, come from developing personal relationships with adults who set high standards and inspire the students to interact with them. Consistent with this belief, the MCB has developed a pipeline program that allows practicing lawyers to serve as role models by agreeing to mentor middle school students. Our Lunch with a Lawyer program, implemented through the MCB's Special Committee on Diversity, targets rising eighth grade students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Participating students come from diverse backgrounds (racially, ethnically and socioeconomically), are recommended by their principals, are considering a future legal career and exhibit outstanding scholastic achievement. Mentors and mentees meet on a monthly basis at the schools. At year's end, mentees are afforded the opportunity to shadow mentors at their workplaces, as well as tour the Mecklenburg County Courthouse and meet with court personnel. The program gives students a better understanding of the important roles lawyers play in everyday life, and allows attorneys to make lasting impacts on students' lives.
In addition, as part of the MCB's Action Plan of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Managing Partners and General Counsel Diversity Initiative, we are planning to launch a pilot mentoring program designed to promote mid-level minority associates within signatory organizations. The program will match eligible signatory associates with tenured in-house counsel. In the year-long program, mentors and mentees will meet monthly and attend quarterly networking or development programs. More to come on that.
Mentoring is one of the best investments of time and energy we can make. The relationships can be formal or informal, structured or unstructured, basic or complex, and everywhere in between. No matter the format, the key is that the mentor imparts guidance, knowledge, experience, and skills that promote the personal and professional growth and development of the mentee.
I believe that each of us has a duty to help train and develop the next generation of lawyers, who are the lifeblood of the MCB specifically and the legal profession generally. Please share with me your thoughts on how we can develop more role models, and also volunteer to join your MCB colleagues who are already serving as mentors and thereby benefitting immensely from this personally gratifying and professionally rewarding endeavor.