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TCL > April 2000 Issue > Mentoring Helps Set a Professional Example

April 2000       Vol. 29, No. 4       Page  17
CBA President's Message to Members

Mentoring Helps Set a Professional Example
by Diane H. Mauriello

Editor’s Note: During this administrative year (July 1999-June 2000), this space will be used for material written by CBA President Bart Mendenhall, as well as other officers of the Colorado Bar Association.This month’s arcticle was written by Diane H. Mauriello,Vail,who is with the firm of Dunn, Abplanalp & Mauriello, P.C., and who is also CBA Vice-President from the Fifth Judicial District.

I was gratified to be able to
answer promptly, and I did.
I said I didn’t know
Mark Twain

Over the past few years, my law firm has hired several associate attorneys who had just passed the bar exam. Each arrived on their first day, enthusiastic, eager, and ready to work. Each possessed strong analytical skills and an ability to locate applicable law. After working on many cases with these lawyers, it became apparent that mastering procedural and practical matters was often a challenge for them. As I have observed each new lawyer struggle with different issues, I have been reminded of how difficult and stressful it is to be a new lawyer and how critical it is to have a mentor.

I find it strange to be in a position in which I am mentoring others because it was only a few years ago that I was a new attorney. As I work to be an effective mentor, I have come to believe that mentoring is an art form and one which may not come to us naturally. I am also increasingly thankful for the senior members of my firm who devoted and still devote time to my questions and concerns. Their patience and understanding instilled in me the principle that helping a new lawyer is valuable and worthwhile.

Areas Where Attorneys Need Assistance

Three major areas in which the new attorney often needs assistance are: (1) procedural matters; (2) practical matters that one learns over time; and (3) another, subtler area, which enables the person who has merely passed the bar to evolve into a real lawyer—to teach by example. "Mentoring" does not mean telling an attorney how to practice law; it means helping him or her to learn to practice law. Although I often find myself "telling rather than teaching," I can suggest the following tips that have been helpful to me.

Procedural Mentoring

Procedural mentoring is the easiest type of assistance and lends itself to structure. Interruptions can be reduced by setting aside a specific time each day to discuss procedural matters with the new lawyer. The time of day can vary to accommodate your schedules, but it needs to take place. Inexperienced attorneys will be more likely to save their questions until that specific time if they know they can then count on your full attention. To eliminate some of the non-law questions, ask your legal assistant to prepare a resource sheet for attorneys, noting names and addresses of outside sources the firm uses: couriers, copying services, process servers, court reporters, surveyors, appraisers, experts, mediators, arbitrators, and names of the judges in the district where you practice, as well the names and telephone numbers of their clerks and reporters. The resource sheet also could include samples of pleadings and documents that lawyers in the office frequently work from, as well as names and telephone numbers of attorneys to whom you refer matters outside your area of expertise.

Ask attorneys you wish to mentor to read and become familiar with the rules governing your type of practice. If that area is civil litigation, have them make reading and learning the Rules of Civil Procedure a priority. Also emphasize that they should do some research on the question before bringing it to you. At a minimum, these attorneys should first have read the applicable rules and statutes. While it may be easy for you to answer a specific question, no one should learn to practice law "by ear." Each attorney needs to learn by doing. One firm I know has an inviolate rule—an attorney can’t pass a "job" on to a legal assistant/paralegal unless the attorney has done it, start to finish, at least once.

Do new lawyers need help with style, phrasing, or substance of a letter or pleading? This is a tougher mentoring job. It is not so hard to tell them what you would say or how you would phrase it—what is difficult is offering constructive criticism that still allows them to develop their own style. Rather than substituting words and phrases, I try to offer suggestions or ideas concerning content and tone. For example, if attorneys present you with letters that are overly strong or too soft, you might suggest that they think about the tone and the response they are trying to elicit, leaving it to them to choose better words. If a complaint is rambling or unclear, you might note, Allege the ultimate fact, or, Colorado is a "notice" state, and let them try again. Offering examples from existing pleadings can be helpful.

Strategy Discussions

Other lessons arise naturally in discussions with new lawyers about strategy, in "war stories," or in reassurance sessions. Some of the lessons I try to pass on include the following:

• Do not over-identify with your clients and their problems. When all is said and done, it is the client, not you, who [allegedly] committed a crime, is divorcing, or trying to sell the home. To be an effective advocate, a lawyer must remain objective.

• It is not abnormal to awake in the middle of the night worrying about a case. Does this happen less frequently after more years of practice? I imagine the answer is different for everyone. While I am a worrier by nature, I have found that I now wake worrying less frequently, but when I do worry, it is about something significant, and, thus, more terrifying.

• Not all clients tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The new lawyer often struggles with the lesson that a client may have intentionally or unintentionally omitted or slanted a few important facts.

• New lawyers may have difficulty estimating how much time a case will probably take and how much it might cost. Be prepared to give tips on how to estimate what a case might cost. Consider advising the inexperienced lawyer to break the case down. Examples are preparation time for discovery, negotiations, settlement conferences and trial preparation, as well as the time necessary to complete the task itself.

• Help new lawyers to understand the importance of the first meeting with a prospective client, including the need to discuss fees and retainers and the lawyers’ expectations from the client. Impart that it is necessary to be diligent and firm in collecting for legal services. As a new lawyer, I was flabbergasted to learn that some clients don’t pay their bills within thirty days—and some don’t pay at all!

• Some new (and old) attorneys do not like to deliver unpleasant news. Stress that it is not wise to put off giving bad news to a client. Procrastinating doesn’t make it easier. Waiting doesn’t make it go away. Suggest that new lawyers take time to gather their courage and frame their thoughts; then they should do it.

• A polite reminder that it is important to be courteous to staff, whether it be office employees or court clerks, is often helpful. The staff and clerks have the ability to make any attorney’s life either very difficult or very pleasant.

• Impart that client management is important. It is critical to return calls promptly and to meet deadlines established by the lawyer and client. Be prompt for appointments.

• A simple thing that may seem basic, but might not have occurred to new lawyers, is to suggest they bring a tablet for clients to write on during a trial so they can ask clients to write down any questions or comments they have to discuss during breaks. This way, the lawyer remains in control without the embarrassment of a noisy client who continuously whispers such things as "She’s lying!" during testimony from the opposing witness.

Teach By Example

The third, subtler form of mentoring, is teaching by example. Work to set a professional example in your own dealings with lawyers, clients, and the courts, such as the following:

• Suggest that it is not necessary to threaten an unreasonable or uncooperative attorney. Help your new associates determine what the next legal and ethical step is. Treat "difficult" opposing counsel courteously, professionally, and firmly. Help them to understand that it is often wise not to let their ego "rise to the bait," because it can escalate the dispute.

• Let new lawyers know that they should trust their stomachs. If something feels unethical, it probably is.

• Model behavior so new lawyers understand that nothing counts so much as a reputation for being fair, honest, trustworthy, ethical, and able.

• Finally, urge new lawyers to be active in professional associations. It helps acquaint them with colleagues and provides support.


While I may not have the answers to all the questions I am asked and am still learning daily, I realize that being a mentor is worth the interruptions and time. New lawyers are incredibly thankful for guidance, and observing them take pride in their work and seeing a successful outcome come from their efforts is extremely rewarding.

You never outgrow your mentor. From my first day in this office, and even now, if I have a big win or a small one, the first thing I do is call my mentor to let him know. I feel he is partially responsible for it. Without his help, I would not be the lawyer I am—or the one I hope to be. Following in my mentor’s footsteps, I remind myself that new lawyers often are sweating through days of trying to please partners, clients, counsel, judges, and the jury, all while trying to figure out where the courthouse is. A few minutes of my time is not a big sacrifice. It’s a good investment.

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