Bar News - February 19, 2014
Opinion: Mentor Relationships Play Key Role in Attorney Readiness
By: Leah A. Plunkett
When it comes to law schools, there are a lot of critics these days. The essence of the criticism is that students are paying for something that law schools aren’t giving them: the ability to practice law upon graduation.
|Leah A. Plunkett
As lawyers do, let’s unpack this language: What does it mean to be ready to be a lawyer? Does it mean that you can first-chair a first-degree homicide case your very first day on the job, for instance, or that you can be a valuable member of a trial team preparing that case under the expert guidance of a senior attorney? I vote for the second definition.
In law school, students get a vital foundation of substantive knowledge, legal skills, and professional ethics. Students leave ready to practice, but a vital part of that practice readiness is the self-awareness to know they need strong mentorship as they start out, whether from attorneys in their own offices or other members of the bar.
But recent grads can’t find what doesn’t exist. Seasoned attorneys must be willing to “pay it forward,” to help show newbies the ropes, the same way someone showed them when they first started – or perhaps the way they wish someone had. In turn, new attorneys must hold up their end of the bargain, “paying it back” by demonstrating their trustworthiness, talent, and respect for those who have taken them under their wing.
This apprenticeship model has deep and noble roots in our profession. Unfortunately, on the national level, this model has withered somewhat in the wake of the Great Recession as scarce resources have put pressure on legal employers not to hire new attorneys or train them rigorously. Of course, such a reaction by many – although not all – employers is understandable. But after a certain point, hunkering down makes it difficult to steward the practice of law for the future.
Fortunately, New Hampshire’s own story is very different. Seasoned lawyers here have always continued to take seriously their obligation to “pay it forward.” The private and public sectors alike have not only kept their doors open to hiring new attorneys, they have also provided them with guidance and support. Indeed, they have done the same with law students.
At UNH Law, more than 80 percent of upper-level students do at least one field placement – in New Hampshire and beyond – gaining experience from conference rooms and courtrooms. UNH Law students also benefit from clinical offerings in half-a-dozen areas, including criminal and administrative law. These real-world experiences have gained national recognition: National Jurist recently put the UNH Law clinical program in the national top 10. The law school was also recognized recently by the American Bar Association’s Student Lawyer magazine for its innovative “attorney mooting” program.
Experienced members of our bar are also regular visitors to the law school for other programs. For example, this year UNH Law has offered a new series of luncheons on professionalism where students engage in sophisticated dialogues with experienced attorneys about how best to cultivate a personal credo of basic decency, respect for self and others, and goodwill that should infuse a law student’s or lawyer’s conduct in all areas of her or his education and employment. NH Supreme Court Justice Gary Hicks and attorney Heather Krans were the inaugural speakers in the series.
This is the cycle that keeps our profession strong. New lawyers start by “paying it back,” demonstrating their value to their employer and their gratitude for a spot in the workplace. Experienced attorneys “pay it forward,” giving these newbies guidance and a chance to flourish. When the rookies become veterans, the cycle continues – making us all more thoughtful, innovative, and committed lawyers in the service of our clients.
Leah A. Plunkett is an associate professor of legal skills & director of the Academic Success Program at UNH School of Law. She also does research with the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. The views expressed in this piece are entirely her own and not necessarily those of UNH Law.
Editor’s Note: The NHBA New Lawyers Committee Mentor Program is currently seeking mentors. Contact Rosemarie Atwood at 603-715-3279 to find out more.