Mentoring During and After the COVID Era

The Bencher—January/February 2022

By Leslie A.T. Haley, Esquire

Mentoring is an age-old cornerstone of entry into the practice of law. Mentoring started in medieval times in England, and while the four English Inns of Court in London still use the same model, mentoring has taken on new dimensions in the United States. In particular, previous mentoring models are being challenged in new ways.

Mentoring—Formal or Informal?

Enhancing a lawyer’s competence to practice or advise on legal matters involves the use of many resources. Every area of the law is constantly changing, which brings competency challenges on an ongoing basis. Creating solid practice-based relationships enhances our ongoing competencies in all practice areas.

The recent emphasis on attorney mental, emotional, and physical well-being is particularly relevant these past two years as we have seen the effects of social isolation on so many. The practice of law, once only done within the formal script of a professional office space, has become more and more virtual and remote and therefore more isolating for lawyers and their clients.

Mentoring has been forced to adjust in ways we never anticipated. The ability to simply engage with another lawyer at the water cooler or a local bar meeting, in the courthouse, or over drinks at the end of a stressful day has all been compromised. The informal ability to share commonalities of your day and trade war stories as you seek advice or assistance has been compromised as well.

The true definition of mentoring has evolved; it is no longer just a formalized and structured program that has oversight and “rules” that define clear roles and responsibilities, although some framework may be helpful.

The pandemic lockdown has brought to light the importance of the more informal (or unidentified) forms of mentoring that have gone on for decades within the practice of law. They have now become more and more important with the advent of remote working, virtual practices, virtual court hearings, and electronic communications. Creating formal or informal legal networks has become a foundation of the legal profession. Never have they been more important or more compromised than since the beginning of this pandemic. Yet, never has it been more important to recreate these dynamic relationship-building networks to support the advancement of the practice and the ethics of our lawyers.

Further, the engagement of lawyers in some type of network (even an online platform) not only enhances our legal skills but also supports our mental and emotional well-being, which is of such significant importance.

Yet for many, a clearly identified and structured mentoring program allows for clearly identified goals and measures of success that allow both parties to steer the mentorship in a mutually agreeable direction and ensures that both parties find value in the relationship. Allowing the relationship to evolve organically is important, but having a general agreement that outlines the goals of the mentorship will help you progress together.

Everyone Gains and Grows

There are three kinds of mentors for lawyers: those who help you do your job better, those who help you advance your career, and those who set good examples and help you learn how to become a positive force in the profession and the community.

Finding a single mentor who can serve all three of those roles is rare. Still, a mentor who is knowledgeable about legal ethics may help mentees do their job better (for example, helping a new litigator understand the limits of which personnel of an entity may be contacted under the “represented person” rule (See RPC 4.2), which, one hopes, would help their career.

Moreover, a legal ethics mentor may help the mentee not only to do the right thing but also to avoid “traps for the unwary” that may ensnare those who rely only on their moral compass or who do not have the knowledge and experience to recognize the ethical risks and requirements of a particular situation.

Moreover, while many principles of legal ethics are based directly on morality, others are based on professionalism and practical experience. For examples, the requirement of candor toward a tribunal (See RPC 3.3) lines up fairly directly with basic moral notions, but the limitations on commingling a lawyer’s and a client’s funds (See RPC 1.15) reflect practical experience and are designed to avert financial mistakes and the placing of temptation in our paths.

Good values alone are not a substitute for knowledge or experience, and a lawyer may learn not only from his or her own life, but also from the advice and the example set by a good mentor. Sometimes a moral compass is not enough, and it may even lead to snap judgments that are wrong.

Looking through the eyes of the mentor, the value of spending some time with a lawyer who is new to the law and younger in age can be not only rewarding but particularly insightful and helpful to those of us who have been around in the practice for several decades. We sometimes miss the “forest for the trees” just because some things become routine. In particular, having a younger and more inexperienced set of eyes look at an issue or pose a question pushes us into a new venue of not only exploration of the matter but also possibly a new excitement to a somewhat boring redundancy.

Further, there is simply no doubt that with the speed of changes in technology there is much to be shared by the next generation of legal practitioners. The technological advancements that they can bring to a conversation or a legal office are a new wave and makes it much easier to embrace when advanced by a colleague who has already tried and tested their value and security.

Two Great Examples

I have been fortunate over the course of my legal career to be engaged in two vibrant and extremely successful mentoring programs. The first exists through my Lewis F. Powell Jr. American Inn of Court here in Richmond, Virginia, where we partner with law students from the University of Richmond School of Law. We pair our practicing bar members with outstanding law students who become engaged in the work and programs of the Inn and the camaraderie and interplay with members of the bar and the judiciary. They partake in our programs and socials and are encouraged by their mentors to visit law firms and court hearings and have the value of introductions into many practice areas of the law.

In addition, I am a member and past president of the Metropolitan Richmond Women’s Bar Association, which has supported a robust mentoring program for over 15 years, pairing members of the association with first-year women law students from the University of Richmond School of Law. This successful program involves many levels of mentoring, from considerations of practice specialization and appropriate internship opportunities, to the more basic discussions and support of life balance with family and children. I have found many of these relationships that started through the organization have existed for decades into practice and have been the foundation for more growth and development for both mentor and mentee. They have also formed the basis and continued growth stream for the bar association itself as we continue to embrace a young and vibrant leadership of women lawyers, many of whom have been groomed from within. These professional relationships often result in lifelong friendships as well.

Let’s Make This Intentional

In light of the impact of this pandemic on the culture of lawyers and therefore the reduction of opportunities for traditional mentoring, the Education of Lawyers Section of the Virginia State Bar, in partnership with the Senior Lawyers Conference, Diversity Conference, Young Lawyers Conference, and Family Law Section, sponsored a virtual continuing legal education program in conjunction with the Virginia State Bar’s annual meeting in June 2021.

The program was centered around this timely topic of mentoring, and a panel of judges, lawyers (both young and more mature in their practice years), and law professors discussed the topic of mentoring. I was honored to be the moderator of the panel and led a lively discussion about the mutual benefits mentoring serves for both the mentor and mentee, the value of having a defined mentoring program, the value of informal mentoring relationships, and the ethical pitfalls one needs to be wary of when engaged in some mentoring relationships.

I think it is vitally important to the professionalism and continued advancement of the legal profession that we continue to highlight mentoring opportunities. And I think it is particularly timely as we continue to advance lawyer well-being. We all know that relationship-building leads to healthy outcomes!

Leslie A.T. Haley, Esquire, is a partner at Park Haley LLP in Richmond, Virginia, where she advises lawyers and law firms on issues related to professional responsibility and legal malpractice issues. She is a member of the Lewis F. Powell Jr. American Inn of Court.

© 2022 Leslie A.T. Haley, Esquire. This article was originally published in the January/February 2022 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the written consent of the American Inns of Court.