Bar News - November 23, 2007
The Gift that Keeps on Giving: The Mentor-Associate Relationship
By: Craig Sander
New Hampshire attorney Michael Furlong was faced with a problem. Last year he learned that he would soon be working on a case to be heard in the United States District Court in Concord. Furlong had little Federal practice experience at the time and had nowhere to turn. A sole practitioner, he had no colleagues in the office that could offer help. Luckily, he heard about a mentor program at the New Hampshire Bar Association.
“I called the Bar Association and received a letter with a mentor’s contact information, so I called and set up a time to meet with him,” Furlong says. “[Our meeting] was a chance to be completely candid and in return to be critiqued honestly.”
Attorney Furlong’s predicament is not an unusual one. Every day, new attorneys face struggles and challenges for the first time in their careers. That’s where mentors come in. Or at least, that’s where they should come in, says Bruce Felmly, a mentor and 35-year veteran attorney with McLane, Graf, Raulerson and Middleton.
“There’s a crying need on the part of new lawyers [for mentors] and I’m a firm believer in filling that need,” Felmly says.
The New Hampshire Bar Association Mentor Program, established and sponsored by the NHBA New Lawyers’ Committee, has been filling that need for new attorneys since 1999. In the program, associate attorneys (those who have been in practice for less than three years) are joined with an experienced attorney (one with five or more years experience) for a one-year period.
During that time the mentor volunteers to be available to the associate, free of charge, in an effort to provide advice and counseling on the everyday problems that affect new lawyers.
“Having the opportunity to openly discuss my weaknesses with a seasoned trial attorney proved extremely helpful,” Furlong says. “He gave objective comments on trial strategy and litigation issues in a very straightforward manner.”
Felmly has mentored not only at his own firm, but is also considered a founding father of the NHBA’s mentor program. During his career, he has helped nearly 20 associates find their way through the maze that young attorneys sometimes encounter in the early years of their careers. That is why he decided to try to bring a mentor-associate dynamic to a wider group of attorneys.
“The NHBA mentor program developed out of my experience with our in-house program. I had been doing it for some time and I thought it would be great if we could get something like that for the entire legal community,” he says.
One of Felmly’s first associates in the NHBA program, NH Attorney Brian Withers, says that dynamic can be enormously beneficial, provided both parties are willing to make it work. Withers sought out a mentor as a “later-in-life” attorney in search of a better understanding of New Hampshire law. He was very pleased with his experience and with the help he received from Felmly.
“It’s up to both parties to make it work. The mentor has to take the role seriously and be responsive to the associate’s concerns, however slight they may seem to the mentor,” Withers says. “As the associate you have to be willing to open up and share concerns, share your possibility of making (or having made) a mistake with your mentor and be willing to ask questions”
And Felmly, too, believes that new attorneys need an outlet for questions that they may have, which they may be uncomfortable bringing to a direct supervisor. He happily brought in an analogy involving a Boston sports team recently in the headlines.
“Consider a new player on the Red Sox roster. He can play baseball well enough to make the team. But he may have questions like, ‘Is it bad form to put a lock on my locker?’ or general team etiquette questions that may make his rookie status apparent,” Felmly says. “The mentor’s role is to answer those basic questions of process and procedure. It can also include basic advice on a case, dealing with difficult clients or colleagues, and things that are often overlooked by a seasoned attorney.”
But despite the help that Bruce has given to the associates under his guidance, he says that there is always a need for more. That can pose a problem, he says, when there aren’t enough volunteer mentors to go around. Felmly believes that the benefits gained from the mentor should be more than enough to bring seasoned attorneys to the table.
“I think that we in the legal community have a natural feeling and sense that we have to give back,” Felmly says. “The Bar Association does the organizing, and it is fun to deal with those that, generally, are of another generational mindset.”
Those involved with the NHBA Mentor Program say that there is no better way for a junior attorney to learn than to watch and work with those that have already broken through the roadblocks to become responsible, effective, and leading law practitioners.