In 2013, I signed up for the Commission on Professionalism’s mentorship program through the University of Illinois College of Law. In all honesty, my expectations were limited. The program seemed like a nice way to meet other lawyers in town and perhaps learn a little bit about what I could expect from a career in the law. Within a few short meetings my mentor, Fred Underhill, then a solo practitioner in Danville, IL, blew these expectations away. My mentorship experience on a one-to-ten scale was a ten.
An Experience in Professionalism
The Commission provides the mentees and mentors with some guidelines and a variety of suggested activities and topics, but it is left to the pair to choose the specific actions and events that will make up their customized mentoring plan. Fred and I spent many mornings at the courthouse where he introduced me to local judges, attorneys, and court staff. Many of the practical details of practice are left out of the traditional law school education, such as where to file papers at the courthouse and how to learn the informal local rules of each court, and these courthouse visits were the beginnings of my practical legal education. Most helpfully, Fred created opportunities for us to sit down with several circuit court judges, and I heard firsthand about the most common mistakes made by young lawyers.
Over the twelve-month mentoring period, Fred and I continued to meet every few weeks. We met with local attorneys from various practice areas, representing private practice, transactional law, and legal aid agencies, increasing both my substantive knowledge and my professional network. I learned about Fred’s own experiences in running first a partnership and then a solo office. While some new attorneys may have their future career route planned out, I found this extremely helpful as my career path was uncertain after the completion of my clerkship with Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Rita Garman.
Through his mentorship, Fred assisted me and my husband with a real estate transaction, using the opportunity to teach me how to handle the process in the future. More importantly, Fred taught me to be respectful of not only judges, but also each and every person I encounter in my career. It is the courthouse staff, assistants, and attorneys with whom we interact that build our reputation as an attorney. As a practicing attorney in Danville for decades, Fred chose early in his career to work hard to build a reputation of honesty and trustworthiness. Through our relationship he showed, rather than merely told, me how important his reputation was to his success. In each of our meetings, he demonstrated this honesty and grace in his interactions with judges, fellow attorneys, courthouse staff, his assistants, and everyone whose path he crossed.
All this would have been great in and of itself, but our mentor relationship has been so much more than professional training and networking; Fred has become a good and valued friend. Now, several months after our official completion of the program, we continue to meet and speak regularly. Fred has since retired, but he represents everything that is good about the legal profession. I can only hope that one day I will pass on the life lessons he taught me to another young lawyer.
Some of you may have resisted joining the program for fear of the time commitment or the reporting obligations. Please do not let these unwarranted concerns keep you from experiencing this unique partnership. There are over 70 organizations sponsoring mentoring programs. Young lawyers need mentors as we begin our careers. While the young lawyer stands to gain much from the mentoring relationship, the mentors also benefit by seeing a fresh perspective in a career that may have grown repetitive or unchallenging.