On Becoming a “Real” Lawyer

New Lawyer MentoringOn November 6th, Illinois welcomed nearly 1,900 new lawyers to the ranks. I had the opportunity to attend the 1st Judicial District ceremonies, held in the Arie Crown Theater, where my own swearing-in took place more years ago than I care to admit.

Watching those fresh-faced men and women raise their hands as Supreme Court Justices Anne Burke and Mary Jane Theis administered the oath of office brought a rush of warm memories. Unlike current practice, back in the “old days,” most law firm new-hires worked part-time while studying for the bar, and full-time while awaiting bar results. So even though a desk-full of work awaited me back at the office, I remember feeling like swearing-in day was special. Like joining any club with high barriers to entry, becoming a member of the Illinois bar felt like a pretty big deal. In that instant of taking the oath, my status magically changed: I was a “real” lawyer, even though I didn’t yet entirely understand all that entailed.

That would come later, after many hours of client meetings, document review, reworking drafts, debating strategy, eating cold pizza in conference rooms, and knowing the members of the building’s cleaning staff by name. What I remember most about that first year of law practice was that I never felt like I really knew what I was doing. It was probably nine full months until I got an assignment that looked like something I had already done, and that I could actually start working on without asking a million questions. With the benefit of time, I realize now that this meant I was probably getting a wide variety of work, and good training. At the time, it mostly felt overwhelming. What helped me get through it was the assistance of some more experienced colleagues (older associates, mostly) who patiently answered my questions and didn’t make me feel like I was an idiot—just that I was new, as they had once been.

There was no formal mentoring program at my firm, but there was a culture that encouraged informal training and mentoring. Those who were kind enough to mentor me made a stressful time easier, and I will always be grateful to them for their efforts. I remember the first time one of them asked my opinion on a client matter, and actually relied on it. I remember when a more senior colleague accompanied me into court on his own time, just to quell my nerves. I remember when another couched his extensive redlining of a draft with mentions of the parts I’d done well. I remember when a mentor outlined for me in advance what a particular partner would expect to see in an assignment. I did my best to pass this along to the lawyers who joined the firm after I did, and to younger colleagues in subsequent position. It has always felt like great to be able to give back.

Today, more than in the past, a new lawyer can find structured professional development or mentoring programs offered by their firm or organization. I’m pleased to say that many are using the Commission on Professionalism’s Lawyer-to-Lawyer Mentoring Program as their model. Some version of the Program is now offered by 75 sponsoring organizations (law firms, law schools, government agencies and bar associations) throughout the state. Sponsoring organizations match mentors and mentees and administer the year-long program.

The Commission provides suggested activities from which mentoring pairs create their own customized mentoring plan, and a compendium of supplemental material on each of the five categories enumerated in the Supreme Court’s rule defining professional responsibility CLE: professionalism, civility, legal ethics, health and wellness, and diversity and inclusion. At the end of the mentoring year, both mentor and mentee are eligible to receive six professional responsibility CLE credits. The program is practical, flexible and enjoyable.

At its heart, mentoring is about teaching within the structure of an ongoing relationship. One of the best parts of my job as the Commission staff member with primary responsibility for the statewide Lawyer-to-Lawyer Mentoring Program, is the opportunity to hear from participants how much they gained from developing such a relationship. The young lawyer-mentees reap obvious benefits: they get to learn practical pointers at the elbow of an experienced practitioner. The mentors get something, too. They get a chance to see how young lawyers utilize technology, and how they approach problems. In addition, they get the warm fuzzy feeling of helping a new lawyer find their way into a challenging profession.

Looking back, there wasn’t a single moment I felt like a “real” lawyer, but I do remember a few moments that offered glimmers of transformation. The grateful smile and handshake from a client. Public acknowledgement from a partner. Realizing I could prevent a problem, or solve one. I couldn’t have gotten to those moments without the help of some wise and supportive mentors. I urge you to take the opportunity to find a mentor…or to serve as one. Take the first step by visiting the Mentoring Program section of the Commission’s website to find a nearby organization offering the program.

Katherine Erwin

Katherine Erwin

As the Commission's Special Projects Director, Katherine managed the statewide attorney mentoring program and other special projects. She practiced law in Chicago for 20 years. Then she founded the Chicago office of a legal placement agency, and placed highly credentialed attorneys in law firms, corporate legal departments and governmental agencies. Most recently, Kathy served in the Career Services Office of the University of Chicago Law School. A graduate of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business and the University of Michigan Law School, she lives in Lincoln Park with her husband and daughter.

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Katherine Erwin

Katherine Erwin

As the Commission's Special Projects Director, Katherine managed the statewide attorney mentoring program and other special projects. She practiced law in Chicago for 20 years. Then she founded the Chicago office of a legal placement agency, and placed highly credentialed attorneys in law firms, corporate legal departments and governmental agencies. Most recently, Kathy served in the Career Services Office of the University of Chicago Law School. A graduate of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business and the University of Michigan Law School, she lives in Lincoln Park with her husband and daughter.

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