Do I Really Need a Mentor?  (Does the Sun Rise in the East?)

The Bencher—January/February 2022

By Justice (Fmr.) Douglas S. Lang

Regardless of your age, education, or experience, it is undeniable that you can benefit from the counsel of a mentor. A mentor can answer questions, give direction, and help you think through things. However, the mentor cannot do “it” for you. As Galileo Galilei famously said, “You cannot teach a man anything. You can only help him find it within himself.” Ultimately, you need to figure “it” out for yourself.

Before you search for a mentor (no one will read your mind and bestow a mentor upon you), you must learn about the culture of the legal profession. If you do not understand the culture, you will be lost.

The Culture of the Law

The culture of the law is more than rules. It is about how things are done. Merriam-Webster defines culture as “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.” You can ignore the values of the culture of the legal profession or you can work to understand the values and become a part of the profession.

The culture of the profession is distinct from what you experienced in law school. Certainly, law school presented a culture to which you had to acclimate. The legal academy’s job was to teach you how to think like a lawyer. However, law school did not teach you how to practice law or how to conduct yourself in accordance with the dignity of the profession.

Let us begin with the basics. Here is a relatively modern definition of the legal profession, taken from a 2018 Forbes article, “Law Is a Profession and an Industry—It Should Be Regulated that Way”: “The legal ‘profession’ refers to lawyers—their training, licensure, ethical responsibilities, client obligations, and other practice-related matters. The profession is about the zealous, ethical representation of individual clients. Lawyers also enter into a social compact to represent society by defending the rule of law. Legal practice is the differentiated legal expertise, judgment, and skills possessed by some—but not all—lawyers. Regulation of the profession should ensure adherence to ethical and practice standards on behalf of individual clients and society at large.”

You must also begin to understand the concept of dedication, as stated above, to “a social compact to represent society by defending the rule of law.” That is the focal point of the culture of the profession.

You must understand practicing law is not just a business that generates money so you can pay off your student loans. You are not called to be a piece worker. You are not called to be a shark who draws blood at the behest of a client who delivers a retainer. Further, the legal profession is not a union, although we pay annual dues to the state bar or supreme court of the jurisdiction. The profession does not compel military-like regimentation, although we do have ethical rules of conduct to which we must conform. We are not part of a group-think mentality. In representation of clients, counsel must exercise independent judgment in conformity with the law. (See American Bar Association (ABA) Model Rules of Professional Conduct, 1.16.)

Professionalism in the Law

Professionalism is another term tossed about a good deal, but it must be understood for a lawyer to become acculturated. As a lawyer, you should want to be regarded as a person who adheres to the standard of professionalism.

The term “professionalism” is often used without explanation. So, it could become meaningless unless its plain meaning and component parts are considered. Merriam-Webster defines professionalism as “the skill, good judgment, and polite behavior that is expected from a person who is trained to do a job well.” That term is also described as having at least three critical components, about which much has been written and about which you will need to have more than a passing acquaintance. First is civility. Second, respect for yourself and others. Third, competence.

Civility is a term some claim is too vague to enforce or even to grasp its meaning and that “incivility” is really not a problem in our profession or society. However, many courts have made it clear that the concept of civility is not too vague to enforce and incivility is indeed a chronic problem everywhere in the world.

Some commentators suggest civility—and therefore its antithesis, incivility—is an obvious trait once it is observed, similar in a way to what Justice Potter Stewart suggested about pornography: “I know it when I see it.” Importantly, a growing number of state bars and supreme courts include a pledge of civility in the oath of attorney to which all newly licensed lawyers must attest. Many states include an affirmation of civility in their oath of attorney.

Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy of the Supreme Court of the United States presented a true, plain meaning of civility during his 1997 ABA Annual Meeting address. Kennedy said in part, “[Civility] … is not some bumper-sticker slogan, ‘Have you hugged your adversary today?’ Civility is the mark of an accomplished and superb professional, but it is even more than this. It is an end in itself. Civility has deep roots in the idea of respect for the individual.”

Kennedy’s statement leads to the second component, respect. The term “respect” and how it applies in daily interaction between humans is not new. It has its roots in antiquity. (It is a Latin word that originated in 509 BC when Romans founded their republic and kings were driven from the city. Civility appeared over time from the word “civis,” which means citizen or only men with property.)

George Washington compiled 101 rules of civility that he titled Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation: A Book of Etiquette. The very first rule penned by Washington identified “respect” as a building block of “civility” when he said, “Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.”

The meaning of respect should be obvious, but the Merriam-Webster dictionary provides a general, plain meaning: “high or special regard.” However, Georgetown Law Professor David Luban went further in his 2005 article “Lawyers as Upholders of Human Dignity (When They Aren’t Busy Assaulting It).” He offered a vivid image of the concept of respect in the practice of law as “upholding human dignity.” He sees this as having two components: “First, upholding human dignity is what makes the practice of law worthwhile, and second, that adversary excesses are wrong when they assault human dignity instead of upholding it.”

The third component is competence. ABA Model Rule of Professional Responsibility 1.1, states: “Competence. A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness, and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.”

This rule is in plain English and straightforward. Yet, the rule implies that one must strive for performance above the lowest acceptable competence level; that is well above the line between minimal competence and incompetence. So, it follows that one cannot be competent in the representation of one’s client if one is not civil and respectful and does not uphold human dignity. It is obvious that a lawyer cannot competently pursue a client’s cause if the lawyer does just enough to get by, while displaying an uncivil attitude and demeanor so that the adversary, the court, or the jury see a ruthless, conniving, uncivil advocate.

Finding a Mentor

With the above in mind, consider what you think you need to learn from a mentor. Do you want to learn skill and judgment? Of course. Do you want to learn how to be an effective practitioner and advocate, one judges, adversaries, and juries deem credible? Yes, of course. Do you want to learn how to thrive in the legal culture? Again, yes. So, let the search begin.

Most people starting out in a profession really do not know how to find a mentor or what kind of a person to connect with. To figure that out, a beginning lawyer needs to do at least two things. First, recognize you need a mentor. Second, do research about legal mentoring.

The research is straightforward. Search “legal mentoring” online to read a few articles. Then, visit the National Legal Mentoring Consortium. (NLMC). NLMC offers abundant resources, including a list of state and local bar associations that offer mentoring programs. The programs range from mandatory ones in which a beginning lawyer must complete a 12-month structured program with a designated mentor, to one-on-one voluntary programs in which a mentee is matched with a volunteer mentor. That website also includes materials that will help a beginning lawyer figure out how to find a mentor.

Finding a mentor is not the beginning. Before that, you must do some self-evaluation. Think through these steps and write down your answers:

1. Do some soul searching; get to know yourself.

  • What do you want out of your life?
  • Do you have a model life in mind?
  • Does a person you really know personify that model?
  • What are the qualities in life that are important or not important to you?

2. What kind of mentor do you want or need?

  • What is the issue for which you need a mentor? You should have mentors for different needs, such as bar association work, community work, how to get clients, how to deal with clients (especially how to decide not to take on a client or how to fire a client), how to deal with jerks, and how to deal with judges.
  • Should success and ethics be foremost?
  • Who is it that you know that fits that bill?
  • To find a mentor, consider the local bar association. Join the young lawyers organization.
  • Research the person you are thinking of asking to be your mentor. (Is this person successful, respected, civil, and competent? Have you seen this person do anything in the way of law practice or leadership?)

3. Make the ask.

  • Get to know the potential mentor before you ask.
  • Set up lunch or coffee and have a frank discussion.
  • You may not need to actually ask, “Will you be my mentor?” But you will need to ask, “May I call upon you periodically to seek advice?”
  • Make it clear that you want to be able to bounce things off this person and you are not asking for a job.

4. Follow up.

  • It is up to you to set up the times and places to meet.
  • Call or email with suggested times or places.
  • Make it easy for the mentor to meet; suggest a place in the mentor’s building or vicinity.

5. Prepare for your mentor meeting.

  • Have specific questions in mind.
  • Do not complain about issues.
  • Ask for direction on issues.
  • Ask for direction on how to become involved in bar association and community organizations.
  • Ask how to get to know clients and how to make the “ask” for business.
  • Evaluate the process and whether it is worth the time or whether you need another mentor.

Pass It On—Be a Mentor to Someone

“I am not a teacher, but an awakener.” —Robert Frost

The term “giving back” is often used by successful people who are thankful for their success. They want to do something for others who are trying to find their way. When you have developed a path that includes tenacious representation of your clients but is founded upon respect, civility, and professionalism, you can, as Robert Frost said, be an “awakener.”

Justice Douglas S. Lang (Ret.) is Senior Counsel at Thompson Coburn, LLP in Dallas, Texas. Previously, he served for more than 16 years on the Texas Fifth District Court of Appeals. Lang has served as a member of the American Inns of Court Board of Trustees and is a past president of the William “Mac” Taylor American Inn of Court where he has been a member for more than 30 years.

© 2022 Justice Douglas S. Lang (Ret.). This article was originally published online-only as part of 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.