When I was attending law school, I always heard about the importance of having mentors. I recall Professor Fallone quipping about his professor, Archibald Cox, and encouraging my Constitutional Law class to adopt heroes in the law.
When I first started to think about legal mentorship, I envisioned the following: I work at a firm or organization and my boss, who is a more experienced attorney than I, gives me useful tips and tricks that will help me get my sea legs more quickly.
As it works out, this perception of mentorship really fails to encapsulate the many dimensions of mentorship, and misses some of the greatest benefits mentorship has to offer a less experienced attorney (like me).
The breadth of knowledge I’ve learned from my mentors is striking. Certainly I’ve gotten a lot of technical support, but I’ve also learned about living as a lawyer and even as a human being.
Since starting practice a little over a year ago, I have been fortunate to find tremendous mentors. A lot of these relationships are informal—some of my mentors may not even know that I consider myself their mentee. Having a formal label on the relationship isn’t what’s important—all that matters is that you have someone who’s been there and can point you in the right direction.
I think the best way I can illustrate how I’ve learned from my mentors is to describe a few of the mentors I’ve had in my brief legal career. This list is far from complete, and I want to extend my deepest thanks to those who have guided me that practicality prohibits me from writing about.
My first legal mentor was my uncle, Prof. Gregory O’Meara. I admit, this one was kind of handed to me. His role as my mentor started long ago when he used to read aloud his criminal law exam fact patterns to our family at Christmas time. This sparked my interest in the law—I wondered what the heck his students were supposed to do with a story about Paris Hilton shooting people (or dying gruesomely, I can’t recall).
Later, he would be a valuable resource as I considered attending law school. He helped me plan which classes and professors to take, or which internships he had heard were particularly good. He introduced me to people. As I got closer to graduation, he helped me think about the trajectory of my career.
Much more than this career or law advice was the insight he gave me on living well. I loved law school, but it was also a tumultuous time in my life. I married during the summer after my 1L year only to divorce the next. More than anything else, talking to my Uncle Greg helped me get through some of these difficult times.
I continue to turn to Uncle Greg as a lawyer. He has brought me tremendous insight on what it means to be successful—that paycheck size or suit cut aren’t the best criteria. We’ve talked about how life can get messy and how in some ways that messiness defines the human experience in a way that is beautiful and remarkable. And heck, sometimes he will even help me sort through a legal ethics issue.
I have found in practice that what the law says a client is entitled to and how to get there are two very different questions. In immigration, an area where benefits are doled out by a faraway processing center through submission of myriad forms, it is far from obvious how to turn eligibility under the Immigration and Nationality Act into a green card.
This is why my supervising attorney, Barbara Graham, has been such a wonderful mentor. Time and again, she has patiently lent me her experience both when cases are complicated and unique, but even when the answer is easy and I just need someone to point it out. When I’m researching something for a case, she is my last stop. Often, even if I get the law right, she helps me find a way that’s easier, will be of greater benefit to a client, or can act as a plan B if my first course of action fails.
What really makes Attorney Graham valuable is how easy it is to talk to her. Her door is always open. She never makes me feel stupid for asking something, even if I’m asking a stupid question. She’s passionate about the law, and likes to grapple with interesting questions. She doesn’t mind if I argue with her about a point, though I admit she usually is right.
Most importantly, Attorney Graham also provides a lot of support when I’m freaking out, have made a mistake, or feel overwhelmed. Having a reassuring voice in those times helps.
She also gives the best cooking tips—I guess graduating Le Cordon Bleu lends her some authority there.
The last mentor I’ll describe is one that is newer to me. Last week, I had the biggest case of my brief career before the immigration court in Chicago. Fortunately, not long before commencing the case, a retired partner from Quarles and Brady, Attorney Stuart Parsons, volunteered to do pro bono work with our office.
An experienced litigator as well a kind and engaging man, Attorney Parsons helped me prepare for the hearing. Even more valuable, he was generous enough to accompany me to Chicago and sat as co-counsel. He didn’t ask any questions himself, but gave me a few crucial notes when he caught something I hadn’t. His being there made me feel more comfortable through the hearing.
A week or so after the hearing, Attorney Parsons met me at my office on Milwaukee’s south side. He had taken extensive notes from the hearing, and was able to give me a thorough critique. To be able to get that kind of feedback from an attorney with the experience of Mr. Parsons is an invaluable lesson. I can’t wait to put it into practice.
Law school builds a great foundation of a legal career. It teaches how to write, think, and conceptualize the law. I’ve found, however, in my brief time as a practitioner, that mentors have helped me grow as an attorney in a way that the classroom cannot.
Law students: build relationships with attorneys not only with the hope that they can help you get a job, but that they can help you learn what practice is all about. I think you will find generous benefactors of experience and wisdom. Experienced lawyers: your advice and assistance are appreciated and valued, please continue to help us rookies.
To the attorneys listed above and the many others that have helped me on my way so far: thank you, you have given me more than you know.