By George Moore
As we close the books on 2021, let us move forward into 2022 with a positive attitude that we will get past the worst of the pandemic and hopefully our lives will return to what passes these days as normal. Even without the COVID phenomenon, our normal professional lives, particularly for young lawyers, is fraught with anxiety and stress over developing a style and confidence in practice. How to interact with other stakeholders, including clients, and how to navigate the court system with its rules, judges and clerks, are stress for all beginning attorneys. They just don’t teach that stuff in law school. Every lawyer, if being honest, has had that bone-chilling sensation of periodically thinking they don’t have a clue what is going on.
I was lucky, because I was in a large firm with many experienced attorneys to hold my hand and explain how to handle a particular situation. My particular ground -zero moment of professional despair occurred on the second day of my first-ever jury trial. It was in Rockingham County Superior Court, and I was pressed into service due to the sudden illness of the partner handling the case. The game plan was that I was supposed to keep my mouth shut, take notes, and observe. That all changed after a phone call Sunday informing me that I would be picking the jury on Monday morning. To describe the ensuing hours as a panic attack would be too mild of a commentary.
The presiding judge was Wayne Mullavey, who by reputation, had a penchant for harassing young lawyers. Somehow, I survived picking the jury, but had no idea why I was striking some candidates but passing on others. I was apprehensive that a big mistake was just around the corner as the trial commenced. I had visions of causing a mistrial or worse, but the first few of the plaintiff’s witnesses got on and off the stand without incident.
Then on the afternoon of the second day, when I was engaged in a rather ineffectual cross-examination, I perceived physical movement on the bench. A moment later, I heard Judge Mullavey say, in a booming voice with words to the effect: “Hold it right there – stop right this instant.” I turned to see him standing, hands on hips, and then pointing a finger at me and continuing with “Mr. Moore, don’t you even know Rule 59B?” As he glowered at me, with the jury watching, I had to confess that I didn’t know off the top of my head what the rule was that I had obviously violated. He continued, “I suggest you go home tonight and educate yourself on the rule and see me in chambers at 8:45 am tomorrow!”
At that moment, I saw my budding career passing before my eyes and my career in shambles. In my naiveté, I hadn’t even brought the rule book to court. I despairingly got back to the office and was at loose ends as what to do. I was so panicked; I couldn’t even find the rule. Fortunately, I went to my mentor, Don Dufresne. I described what had happened, and Don got a puzzled look on his face and told me not to worry too much because there was no Rule 59B!
He told me that Judge Mullavey had a history of doing things like this to young lawyers and to look at it as a compliment, because he wouldn’t have joked with you if he didn’t like you. It sure didn’t feel like it to me, but Don mentored me to simply be prepared, be myself, and the rest would come. Tell the judge you will comply with the rules in the future. Look at it as a rite of passage.
The next morning in chambers I found the judge with his feet upon his desk with the Clerk of Court, Unwar (Sam) Samaha sitting next to him with a smirk on his face. Judge Mullavey wanted to know if had found and studied the rule. With my new-found confidence, told him I had and would never violate it again. They got a great laugh out of it, and always treated me as a colleague and with respect from that point forward.
The point of this anecdote is that mentoring can play a huge role in the development of young lawyers. Mentors help junior lawyers learn the important skills they need in addition to knowing the law. Mentors can show their mentees how to communicate with different people, in different contexts, for different purposes. They model for starting attorneys the importance of preparation, organization, and time management.
Mentors also help up-and-coming lawyers figure out the best way of doing something or perhaps more importantly why they shouldn’t do something. As time goes on, mentors can help developing lawyers figure out what practice areas they are most suitable for. Not every attorney is a fit for family law and the emotional overload that it usually involves. Many law students go through law school thinking they want to be litigators, without understanding the unique stresses of that particular practice.
Mentors can and do teach by example, taking the young lawyers to client meetings, court hearings, and strategy sessions. They can help develop skills in drafting real-life documents and making oral arguments. The value is the transferring—by experience—what works and what doesn’t. Mentors also get personal satisfaction out of the process.
In sizable law firms, much of this is handled internally as part of an institutionalized training program. However, the majority of starting lawyers in NH are on their own or in a small firm setting where mentoring opportunities are limited or non-existing. One of the things I’m thankful for in 2022 is the development and expansion of the NHBA’s Mentor Advice Program. While many new lawyers have been paired with mentors, we have dozens of senior skilled lawyers who have volunteered their time to be a mentor and are waiting to be matched up with a mentee. So, if you want to have some advice and guidance, and lower your stress level, this program is ready and waiting.
Think of it as a virtual “lawyer down the hall,” someone there to help you as Don Dufresne helped me. It is a big part of the real NH advantage.