The Importance of Legal Apprenticeship: Why There is no Substitute for the Master-Student Relationship

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“Never trust a teacher who does not have a teacher.”

-Unknown

On the first day of my Summer Clerkship in 2016 at the firm of Anspach Meeks Ellenberger LLP in Toledo, Ohio, Mark Meeks, a partner at the firm, sat me down in his office to give me the rundown of what I could expect during my twelve weeks there.  At that meeting, he stressed the importance of the work I would be doing, as well as the fact that most of it would be spent on what was going to turn out to be one of the most important cases the firm would try in years.  He also said something I will never forget: “What you learn in law school is a mile wide and an inch deep.”  He told me I would likely learn more during that summer than I did in my entire first year of law school.  I was skeptical, but by the end of the summer, I would come to understand what he meant.

My father, Robert Anspach, is founder and managing partner of the firm.  In his office there is a picture hanging on the wall of a man no older than my father is today.  If I didn’t know any better, I would have guessed it was his father.  It is, however, not a blood relative: it is a picture of Charlie W. Peckinpaugh, Jr., the man who mentored my father during his early, formative years as a practicing attorney, into the effective lawyer he is today. (Pictured above.)

The Master-Apprentice relationship has been around for millennia. (Consider, for example, one of the most well-known teacher-student relationships of Socrates and Plato).  In the study of Yoga (capital “Y,” for union of mind, body, and spirit), those who want to become teachers (or better yet, who are called to be teachers), learn to master their art by studying under this sort of tutelage.  For example, Ravi Shankar, one of the world’s best known composers of Indian music and a virtuoso on the sitar, lived with his Guru, Allaudin Khan, for more than five years, in order to learn to master his art.  The teacher (or Guru) comes to know the student better than the student knows him or herself.  Because of this, the master will only give the student teachings for which he or she is ready, and the student will retain only what is meant to be retained.

Quite obviously, this is not the way law is now taught in the West.  Christopher Columbus Langdell, credited with developing the “case method” at Harvard Law School, is the architect of the law school teaching method as we know it today.  Prior to Langdell, students of the law did, in fact, learn how to practice by studying with, and refining their skills under, a practicing attorney.  Now, we students can pay six figures for three years worth of school, take a test (or maybe not), and graduate under the impression that this “qualifies” us to practice law.

But there is hope.  Law schools generally (including Marquette Law) are beginning once again to require students to have actual, hands-on experience in the real world in order to graduate.  Through programs like the Supervised Fieldwork Program, a plethora of pro bono opportunities, and internship options made available through the school, students are beginning to experience the practice of law, rather than study it.  What still seems to be lacking, however, is the student’s sense of responsibility in seeking out mentors within these programs or during their summer internships.  There are many things I learned over the course of the summer working with my father in the Toledo office, and under partner David Rich, in the Huntington, West Virginia office.  The following are three things you just won’t learn in a law school classroom:

  1. Mistakes Make You Better. The mistakes we make in law school result in little or no repercussions in the real world.  Perhaps we lose a few points on a grade point average (it stings, I know), or our egos get bruised.  But when we are working in a legal capacity on behalf of another human being, mistakes have a real-life impact on a person’s livelihood.  After watching Dave cross-examine a witness at trial, I asked him how he became an effective litigator.  He told me, “I made mistakes that made me want to die in the courtroom.”  When we make these sorts of mistakes (as I did, but not in a courtroom), we will do everything we can so as not to make them again.  And when we meet the people who are relying on us to not make these mistakes, the impact is even more real.

 

  1. If Mistakes Do Happen, Those of Commission are Better Than Those of Omission. I was asked by my father to fax a letter to opposing counsel at a very specific time while he was defending a deposition.  When the deposition started, and my father was thus unreachable, I could not remember when exactly I was meant to send it.  In a split decision, I chose to send the fax, rather than miss the deadline.  On the next break, I found out I had erred.  I sat in my office, head in my hands (actually, with my lunch bag over my head and face), praying for what seemed to be an eternity, that the fax would not be seen by the plaintiff’s firm before the deposition was over.  It ended, it went unnoticed, and I could breathe.  My father came into my office and saw the exasperation on my pallid face, and explained to me that, in this situation, if one acts while believing he or she is taking the right action, but it turns out to be wrong, it is better than failing to act at all.

 

  1. Know Your Audience. On a hot summer day in Jackson, Mississippi, I was meeting Dave to prep an expert witness.  I had on a suit, white dress shirt, and a tie.  He picked me up in his rental car wearing khaki pants and a plain looking polo.  I wondered to myself if he was going to change clothes.  Instead, I asked if I had overdressed.  He said, without directly answering my question, “You have to know your audience.”  I had always had an image in my head of what lawyers are supposed to look like, how they act, what they wear, etc.  But the fact is, what makes a truly good lawyer is the ability to be flexible and adapt.  Our nursing expert in Jackson, Mississippi, meeting with us at a local hotel, does not need to feel like she is entering a corporate board meeting when we sit down to speak with her about deep tissue injuries.  Now I know how to approach similar situations next time.

I give these only as examples of the sorts of things one can experience and learn under the watchful eye of a mentor.  As we students head into the summer internship season for both rising 2L and 3L students, and as our graduating 3Ls head out into the work force, it is important for us to remember that what we have learned in law school is, in fact, a mile wide and an inch deep.  And if we want to dig deeper, it helps (no, it is imperative) that we have someone who has gone before us to help navigate the nuances and intricacies of the practice.

Over the last six years of my life I have sought out mentors in all different arenas, whether in the academic environment, spiritual realm, or the professional world.  I do this because a path is easier to navigate with a guide who has walked the path already than to try to walk an unknown path alone.  In the Eastern traditions, there are prayers (mantras, if you will) that a student says to honor his or her teachers, the teachers’ teachers, and those teachers who exist only in the ethereal plane.  These prayers convey thanks and gratitude because, without our teachers to illuminate the way, we may never experience our fullest potential as human beings (and as lawyers).  So, if we want to make it to the top of our mountain, we should find our own Charlie W. Peckinpaugh Jr., to help us get there.

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