How Can I Help? Mentoring Lunches Help Shape Careers

The Bencher—January/February 2022

By Judge John H. Pietrzak

Amy L. Putnam, Esquire, started her legal career in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in 1977 as one of only 12 or so women lawyers in the county. She found no real mentoring opportunities for young lawyers.

Many years later, Putnam read about the American Inns of Court movement and its focus on mentoring. She thought creating an Inn would benefit younger lawyers and help fill the mentoring void she had experienced. She reached out to several colleagues she thought may share a similar interest. Two responded. Together, they founded the James S. Bowman American Inn of Court in 1994 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Putnam has worn many hats in the Bowman Inn:  founding member, Inn president, counselor. She has also served as nominating committee chair and membership committee chair and participated on two bylaws revision committees.

The Bowman Inn went through several iterations of mentoring in its early years, including assigning individual mentor/mentees and creating small practice-focused mentoring groups. Putnam started a monthly mentoring lunch group that included members of her pupillage group and other members she thought would benefit from the lunches. She included older and younger attorneys with the goal that the more experienced lawyers would develop relationships with the younger members. Over time, she included members who had “graduated” from the Inn and who had previously attended her mentoring lunches.

Putnam’s mentoring lunches were intentionally informal. Starting with the new Inn year each September, the group spent the fall just getting to know each other. They talked informally about where they worked and their practice areas. In this way, the lunch attendees were available to each other for questions and discussions and interacted in a more relaxed social setting.

Each January, Putnam would ask attendees if anyone had a question on a particular topic or for a particular member of the lunch group. Typically, the younger lawyers would ask her or another more experienced lawyer how they had gotten to where they were in their career.

Putnam has consistently followed this informal model for her monthly mentoring lunches for more than 20 years and has found that it continues to work. Over the years, attendees of the lunches have reached out to her and other lunch participants to talk one-on-one about various issues for which they needed advice. Several lunch participants who were interviewed for this article said they thought the informal style of the lunches helped them get to know other participants and helped promote discussions among the group in a way that was not possible during more formal Inn meetings.

Each of the three participants interviewed reported slightly different experiences and shared different benefits from their attendance at the mentoring lunches. One participant joined the Bowman Inn as a pupil in 2014 and is still an active member. Putnam invited him to the monthly lunches after he expressed an interest in mentoring. His goal in attending the lunches was to meet as many attorneys as he could on a personal level so that he could learn from them. He didn’t have family members who were attorneys from whom he could learn how to be an attorney. He watched how the group members acted and listened to them talk about themselves and their practices. He paid particular attention to how the members went about their business, what they did and thought, how they described their interactions with clients, how they developed their practices, and all the little things that went into making them professionals. He believes that these interactions helped him develop as an attorney early in his career.

Another lunch regular joined the Bowman Inn in 2012 and graduated out in 2016. He recalled that when he moved to Harrisburg as a young attorney, he didn’t know anyone and had no real professional connections. A friend suggested that he reach out to Putnam, which he did. He remembers that Putnam appreciated how hard it was for a young attorney to get started in a new city. After she sponsored his membership to the Bowman Inn, he attended her lunches as often as he could, rarely missing them. He continued to attend the lunches after graduating from the Inn, at Putnam’s invitation. He developed a mentoring relationship with Putnam right away, which continues to this day. He also benefited from the advice and mentoring he received from other members of the lunches.

This lunch participant experienced some dissatisfaction with his area of practice and at times wondered whether the practice of law was the right path for him. He said that Putnam helped him understand himself better and helped him realize a direction for his interest, even though it has not yet resulted in a change of career path. Putnam put him in touch with people in another legal field to whom he would otherwise not have had access.

The third member of the monthly mentoring lunches interviewed for this article joined the Bowman Inn in 2008 and is still an active member. He started attending Putnam’s lunches when he was a member of her pupillage group, and he considers her to be his mentor. As he has progressed into leadership roles in the Inn, he continued attending the lunches because he believes Putnam sees him as someone the younger members should get to know. His experience mirrors that of the other members interviewed. The lunches provided an intimate opportunity to meet other Inn members in a setting where he was comfortable asking questions. He also learned how other attorneys approached their craft.

He met an older attorney through the mentoring lunches that he also considers to be a mentor. He and this attorney have since served together as co-chairs on at least one Inn committee. He has met with this attorney and with Putnam outside the monthly mentoring lunches to seek their counsel about different job opportunities. He remembers one job specifically that both advised was not the right fit for him at the time. He took their advice and soon was able to accept another job offer that was a much better choice for him. He would not have been available for that job had he not heeded their advice. As perhaps the best compliment to Putnam and her monthly mentoring lunches, this lunch participant now has his own mentoring lunch group with several colleagues.

The lunch participants interviewed for this article did mention one other important benefit that they realized from their participation in these mentoring lunches. They have each faced other lunch attendees as opposing counsel in cases they have handled. Some of these cases were highly contested and involved issues of statewide significance in administrative law. All reported that they had a higher level of trust with each other due to their familiarity from the mentoring lunches. They felt that this level of comfort allowed them to proceed with the cases with less litigation and that their clients ultimately benefitted.

Some of the participants have also made connections through the mentoring lunches that helped guide them through challenging life situations that did not involve work or the practice of law. In that way, the lunches provided benefits beyond the immediate goal, but in ways that developed naturally and were no less beneficial.

One of Putnam’s lunch participants said he believes that Putnam is a “connector,” that she knows a lot of people and can connect people in need with those who can help them.

Putnam believes that if someone is open to being helped, he or she seeks out the mentor. She intentionally tries to put people in situations where they can get to know people who are willing to help. By doing this and being available when others needed her guidance, she has helped to mentor a generation of young Inn members and attorneys. They are returning the favor by putting the lessons they have learned into practice and by mentoring other young attorneys.

In Putnam’s experience, more men than women are open to, and seek, mentoring. She is not sure why that is, but that has been her observation. During mentoring events with the Bowman Inn, she has encouraged women members to be open to, and to seek out, mentoring opportunities.

Putnam has not been able to hold her group mentoring lunches since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but she does continue to keep in touch with some of the attendees by other means or through individual lunches.

Judge John H. Pietrzak is an administrative law judge with the Office of Administrative Law Judge for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. He has been a member of the James S. Bowman American Inn of Court since 2003, serving as Inn President from 2016 to 2018. He currently serves as the co-chair of the Inn’s mentoring committee.

© 2022 Judge John H. Pietrzak. 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.