After nearly two decades of classroom education, to say that law students are anxious to enter the law profession and begin their careers is an understatement. Maybe it is accepting a job at a law firm after a successful summer internship. Maybe it is entering the public sector as a new prosecutor or public defender, or clerking for a judge. Others may even be so bold as to take the leap into the legal profession by hanging out a shingle as a sole practitioner, often picking up those first clients through family and friends.
Regardless of the initial path on one’s legal career, there is arguably no better way to gain real world advice and supplement your law degree with practical knowledge than to connect with a mentor – an experienced attorney willing and able to provide professional guidance and share her judgment and skills. The mentoring relationship creates the opportunity for young lawyers to enhance the services provided to clients while promoting the relationships between all attorneys, the court, and even the public.
In the end, the mentor and mentee often both find professional and personal growth from participating in a structured mentoring program. Mentors often comment on how much unexpected insight they gained from the experience, especially when different viewpoints and experiences can be shared between the two.
Digging A Deeper Pool
Mentoring pairs in a structured program facilitate their relationship by completing designated tasks designed to promote professionalism and career building throughout the year-long mentoring commitment. Young attorneys and seasoned lawyers alike have demanding schedules making it ever more challenging to dedicate an allotted time and place for regular, in-person mentoring time. Finding quality mentors to make that sacrifice in an essential ingredient before the program can even begin to see results.
The pool of available mentors, albeit from law school alums, bar associations, government agencies, or directly from law firms, may not be large enough or diverse enough by practice area, geography, or otherwise for the best mentoring match. A clear option to expand that community of mentors is to allow virtual mentoring to supplement or replace face-to-face meetings.
One such virtual mentoring platform designed to make those connections and build on them is IntheBenches. Created by a recent law school graduate herself (Harvard Law School in 2011), Andrea Woloski launched the online mentorship platform for law students, young lawyers and experienced attorneys in a variety of legal fields and industries. IntheBenches provides much more than just mentoring connections, as it is a virtual discussion platform for career building and making business connections.
Measuring The Value of In-Person Contact
Lawyer mentoring will prove to be another benefactor of advancements in technology for virtual discussions, video chatting, and online communications. However, should a balance be found between a more structured, face-to-face program and a flexible, virtual option for meeting from hundreds of miles apart? If quality mentoring demands personal contact, does virtual mentoring meet those same expectations and allow for an environment of learning and interacting? Or is something better than nothing when unconnected mentees would otherwise go unserved by a lack of qualified, local mentors?
In Illinois, the Justices of the Illinois Supreme Court have recognized the important role new attorney mentoring plays in providing professional guidance and sharing practical knowledge and skills. The Lawyer-to-Lawyer Mentoring Program, administered by the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, strives to develop relationships between new and more experienced lawyers while using a structured curriculum to educate pairs about professional responsibility topics. As such, Illinois allows the new attorney and mentor each to receive 6.0 Professional Responsibility CLE credits upon completion of the one-year Program.
While the Commission on Professionalism’s mentoring program continues to grow and succeed, with over 80 sponsoring organizations across the Land of Lincoln helping nearly 4,000 attorneys complete the program, the demand for even more quality mentors to match with young attorneys eager for help can exceed the supply. A new lawyer mentee without a mentor counterpart is a problem we hope to avoid.
A Hybrid Approach
In order to accommodate a need for virtual mentoring in Illinois in certain circumstances, we have developed an exception to face-to-face mentoring that still allows a mentor and new lawyer who do not live or work near each other to participate in the Program. Such a situation may arise when the two clearly make an ideal pair, but have geographical restrictions or may have encountered changes to their circumstances during the year that make regular, in-person meetings prohibitive. As a way to enable such pairs to benefit from participation in the program, at the Program Administrator’s discretion, an exception to the requirement that at least eight meetings must be held in person may be granted.
In order to meet the requirements of the Mentoring Program and qualify for the 6.0 hours of professional responsibility CLE, the mentoring pair must demonstrate a compelling need to use distance mentoring to participate in the program (not just convenience). Once this has been determined, the pair may use virtual mentoring, with the use of a video-assisted communications such as Skype, FaceTime or videoconferencing, for no more than five of the minimum eight meetings during the year term, with the remaining contacts being in-person.
Like it or not, advancements in technology are an integral part of today’s practice of law. From litigation to transactional work, those attorneys who embrace change will thrive. A modern mentoring program for young lawyers must continue to serve their best interests, and in turn the best interests of the profession and the clients we serve. Online communications such as video conferencing will continue to grow in use and feasibility in the workplace and, likewise, must find a role in lawyer mentoring.