When I graduated from law school, I was privileged to immediately start working at a small firm. I was ecstatic to put my law school skills to use.
However, as the year went by, I noticed one thing that law school did not prepare me for – how to be an actual lawyer. Law school provided me the research, writing, and analytical tools to help me succeed in practice, but law school did not teach me how to be an attorney.
Even though I was fortunate enough to have a job at the firm, I did not receive the mentorship I craved. As a young family law lawyer, I found it hard to do basic procedural tasks without a mentor. It was even more challenging to learn how to evaluate cases, speak to clients, and myriad other tasks we have to do every day. It is frustrating when you want to do your best, but you are not given the tools with which to do it.
Marquette 2018, is an associate attorney with Becker, Hickey & Poster, S.C., in Milwaukee, where she practices in family law, elder law, estate planning, special needs planning, trust administration, guardianship, and probate matters.
Some senior family law attorneys may argue that mentoring should not be necessary, that once the new family attorney is hired to do the job, he or she should know how to do it. This "throw them into the water and watch if they sink or swim" approach may work for some, but not all.
I have met a lot of great family law attorneys who needed guidance at first, then quickly developed the necessary skills they need and were able to work independently from that point forward.
The pressure new family law attorneys or associates feel when they join a firm also adds to the reluctance to seek help or ask for guidance, especially if the more senior attorney rebuffed or refused to guide or answer the new attorney’s question.
In my current position, the other attorneys take time to revise my work, and help me develop skills by sitting in on depositions and court hearings. That mentorship is invaluable. However, other new family law attorneys are not given that opportunity.
What Does Mentorship Mean?
Mentorships can be defined as a one-on-one relationships between an experienced lawyer and another lawyer, law student, or potential law student, or it can occur in a group setting. Mentoring helps new family law attorneys "bridge the gap" between the theoretical education we received in law school and the legal profession.
Mentors can be essential to a new attorney's success, whether it be in a law firm, a corporate legal department, a government agency, or other contexts. The more time a more senior family law attorney spends training a new family law attorney how to draft divorce pleadings and financial disclosure statements the right way, the less supervision is needed ultimately on their part.
Where Can Family Law Attorneys Find Mentors?
Connect with bar associations. Mentorship programs can be found in the State Bar or with your local bar. The State Bar of Wisconsin’s mentoring program is Ready. Set. Practice. The program pairs you with a more experienced attorney.
Another option is to join bar committees for meetings or to make connections to attorneys in specific practice areas. Members of the local bar association are also familiar with the active members of the association who help less experienced bar members. They can make a recommendation.
Ask questions! Ask a more experienced family law attorney, "How did you do this or that?" or "I see what you've done with your career; I'd like to be there. I'd love your advice." Say things like, "I'd like to learn how you do this particular practice or how you got this client," or ask, "I've heard great things about your work. Can I see some of your memos so I can emulate them?" Overall, let them know you want to learn from them. Reach out through email, LinkedIn, or other resources. Many are willing to help.
The Family Law Section elist (firstname.lastname@example.org) allows for widespread distribution of information to many section members. It is a great place to ask questions, receive resources for law-related professional referrals, and discuss issues or topics of interest with experienced family law attorneys all over Wisconsin. Join via WisBar.org on the elists webpage – you will need to be a section member.
Think of people you connected with during your job interviews. If the law firm you interviewed with liked you when they interviewed you, their recommendations helped bring you into the organization in the first place. That makes them potential mentors – even if you did not decide to work there.
Check in with your law school. Go back to your career services or alumni office for advice. If you have worked closely with the career office during your time in law school, they want you to succeed, and so does the alumni office. Ask for some names of alumni known for their mentoring abilities, or ask for a list of local graduates. Do some research, and make the connections yourself. Even if you are working in a different city than your alma mater, graduates of your school are likely to take an interest in your development and success. Reach out to them.
Attend webinars, seminars and networking events. With in-person events canceled or postponed, many networking groups are hosting virtual seminars, panels, and other social events, that create opportunities to network with existing contacts and forge new connections. New family law attorneys should seek out these virtual events and make an effort to connect with speakers or other attendees via LinkedIn or email after the event is over.
Conclusion: This Is Mission Critical
Finding mentors is critical to a new family law attorney’s development and later success throughout their career. The relationship serves different roles in developing and promoting the attorney, and it will serve as a sounding board as they rise through the ranks.
While mentorships take time to develop and maintain a relationship, the benefits are tenfold, and new family law attorneys should make this a priority in their practice.