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Finding a mentor: You don’t have to go it alone in law school

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One of the most important steps you can take during law school is developing a mentoring relationship with someone you trust.

You’ve got your head down, and you’re focusing on your course work. Good plan. But it’s also smart to begin building the relationships that will help you plan and pursue your legal career goals. One way to do that is by finding a mentor who can help guide you down the smartest path.

“Law school is good,” said Evan W. Walker, a solo attorney in La Jolla, Calif., who offers a scholarship to law students that combines a financial reward with the opportunity to use him as a mentor.

“It teaches black-letter law, and you really start to think like a lawyer,” he explained. “But I think a lot of times, students are ill-prepared for the practice of law. Having a mentor is fantastic for someone to come in and say, ‘Look, I’m not coming from the proverbial ivory tower: this is what it’s like, and this is what you need to be mindful of.’” Sounds appealing, doesn’t it? Here’s how you find someone who can fill that role for you.

What’s a mentor?

Mentors are typically practicing attorneys who can share with you with their experience, advice, and networking opportunities. From strategizing on how you can to achieve concrete goals to finding potential clients and navigating clients’ expectations, the mentorship relationship can benefit both parties well beyond the student’s law school years.

Kirsten Williams, a student at Florida A&M University College of Law in Orlando and mentoring chair for The Florida Bar Young Lawyers Division, is working on revising and revamping the program in the Sunshine State. She described the role of a mentor as “a legal professional who imparts wisdom, ethical character, networking abilities, and other relevant skills to mold a law student into a competent, mindful attorney.”

Think you don’t need a mentor? Deborah S. Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation.com in Calabasas, Calif., argued mentors are helpful for all students, whether you’re just choosing classes or you’re actually struggling in law school. Mentors can provide you with ideas, strategies, and examples of people who’ve accomplished goals.

You can glean a lot from this type of relationship, Sweeney added, by being inquisitive, open-minded, and welcoming to feedback and insight. Mentors can help you with non-professional skills as well. “Law students are thirsty for knowledge in many ways, but sometimes not the more ‘soft’ ways,” Sweeney noted. “They’re practical, logical thinkers, but they may not be strategic in personal development.”

However, if you realize you can solicit help and get feedback, learn and grow, and gain a better big-picture perspective from the outset, said Sweeney, you’re likely to be more successful in law school.

The earlier the better

You’ll gain nothing by waiting to build a mentoring relationship, and you may lose valuable time by delaying. Former litigation associate Adam Pascarella, who runs the website Deciding on Law School, a blog and online course discussing common issues in law school and legal practice, said mentors can be important throughout your entire legal career—from when you begin thinking about law school to when you’re “battle-tested, practicing attorney.”

As you progress through law school and become an attorney, your mentor can continue providing advice regarding exams, securing jobs, and finding clients. Sweeney agrees.

“They can help you think strategically about your coursework, how you work with professors, how you engage with fellow students, and even provide advice and insight into internships and summer programs,” she said. “I think insight from anyone who has been through the trenches can be very valuable. You may even find fantastic mentors in your law school professors.”

In fact, finding a mentor early on can maximize your odds of ultimately getting your dream job. “This is playing the long game, but a mentor can help you with job opportunities down the road,” Pascarella added. “While your actual mentor may not be able to offer you a job, he or she may know someone working at an office doing work you’re passionate about. The market remains competitive, and the legal field is heavily based on relationships.”

Find your match

Arguably the easiest way to find a mentor is through a specific program like the one Williams and her team are building through The Florida Bar YLD’s Law Student Division, which actively recruits attorneys to serve as mentors. Having an organization pair students and mentors is beneficial because there’s an entire pool of professionals to match based on a variety of factors.

If your state bar hasn’t created a mentoring program, you can explore multiple avenues to find the perfect person to fit your mentorship needs. “There’s a tremendous sense of camaraderie in clubs like Rotary International, especially where many members are retired professionals,” said Elizabeth Ricci, managing partner at the immigration law firm of Rambana & Ricci in Tallahassee. Fla. Ricci herself specifically seeks out mentees who are members of organizations that she put her own time and talents into when she was in law school. The honors fraternity Phi Alpha Delta and similar groups provide a built-in networking system across the country, she added.

One of the best ways to find a mentor is through practical experience in the legal field, stated Pascarella. “Upon reflection, many attorneys probably would have done things differently in law school,” he stated. “You can learn from their mistakes and maximize your chances of receiving high grades. You’re setting yourself up for success if you can avoid missteps or bad habits before they happen.”

Another potential way to find a mentor is through unique scholarship opportunities, such as Walker’s program. “What’s important about the scholarship is the mentorship,” he said. “The recipient is able to call me up and talk about whatever—law school or career. “I envision the student calling me with a number of questions they want to discuss. For example, ‘What types of negligence do you see?’ ‘Can you tell me what a deposition is like?’ ‘How difficult is it to open your own practice immediately after passing the bar?’”

Think big when you choose

You might assume your mentor needs to be an attorney in the practice area in which you hope to find yourself in the future. However, mentors can be inspiring professors, business professionals in a similar field, or even fellow students. Sweeney had some pretty unconventional mentors, including her mother.

“My mom mentored me on my attitude and my approach toward life,” she recalled. “She’s inspirational in every sense of the word. She gave me the mindset to believe in myself, to persevere, to work hard, to avoid complaining, to build great relationships, and to simply be positive. “Having a positive outlook in life can make all the difference,” added Sweeney. “It’s what enabled me to feel confident in myself and to succeed in my personal and professional endeavors. My mom rocks—she still inspires me daily.”

Walker’s opinion is that when you pass the bar, you need a mentor practicing in the field you’re pursuing. He contended there’s a world of difference between book knowledge and the practice of law, and he stressed the idea of going outside of law school to gain real-world perspectives on the art of being a successful attorney. “It’s good to find a mentor who’s not just a professor but a practicing attorney who can say, ‘This is what the practice of law is like. You may have been told to write a brief a certain way, but let me tell you what works here and what these judges want to see,’” Walker said.

Your goals should align

Besides finding a mentor who’s a good fit professionally, it’s important to feel comfortable and share similar desires for the amount of time and energy you’ll both put into the relationship.

Someone who’s well-versed in different types of law could also be a worthwhile mentor. “Look for people who might be different from you and those who might have followed a similar path,” advised Sweeney. “If you think you’re interested only in an in-house position, it may be valuable to find mentorship among people in other positions— those who’ve followed non-traditional paths, those who’ve worked in litigation but then moved to a transactional practice, for example.”

It’s important to keep in mind the advice you’re hoping to glean from the relationship, recommended Ricci, whether that’s job advice, tips to pass the bar, ideas to achieve work-family balance, or resources for landing your dream job. Then seek out a mentor to fill your particular need. The most crucial aspect in looking for a mentor, contended Pascarella, is the strength of your relationship with that person. “By that, I’m emphasizing trust,” he stated.

“Everything flows from this. If you can’t trust each other, your mentor can’t deliver honest advice to you. This may take time, but the juice is worth the squeeze.”

Dayna Maeder Dayna Maeder is a 1L student at Florida State University College of Law. She graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University of Central Florida where she studied English and mass communications, and went on to earn her Master’s in Education. Dayna is a former journalist who edited and wrote articles for Houston Chronicle, Chicago Tribune and other major newspapers and magazines throughout the nation. In her spare time, she enjoys spending time with her family, skydiving, playing poker and reading novels.