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A New Lawyer Needs You
Last December, I had a multiday trial. The case involved a lot of documents so I had a big load of banker’s boxes to get into the courthouse from my vehicle early on the first day of trial. I had just loaded a dolly with boxes and begun pushing it toward the court house doors when I was approached by a polite, well-dressed young man who offered his assistance with the dolly. I asked if he was headed to the courthouse.
When he said he was, I gladly accepted his offer of assistance. As we walked toward the courthouse and chatted, he asked if I was a lawyer and told me that he was going to criminal court, hoping to pick up some “appointments,” meaning of course court appointments to represent those indigent defendants who the public defender’s office could not represent. I asked how long he had been practicing, and he answered that he had just been sworn in about a month ago and had been unable to find a position with a firm. He was trying to make it on his own! I had other similar experiences last year, such as the time I met a new attorney in juvenile court when she asked the judge for permission to observe my client’s child custody trial. In talking to her afterward, I discovered that she was unemployed and at the courthouse to learn what she could by watching others lawyers.
The statistics for new law graduates in the job market have been getting bleaker every year since the class of 2009 graduated. The data recently released by the National Association of Law Placement for the class of 2011 indicates that only 65 percent of those graduates, for whom employment was known, obtained a job for which bar passage was required, and not quite half (49.5 percent) found a job in private practice. It stands to reason that a number of these recent graduates are turning to solo practice out of necessity. One recent University of North Carolina graduate, who immediately went solo after passing the bar, was quoted in a recent online MSNBC article, “Law schools are not equipped to help you start your own firm,” and he noted that everything he learned about starting his own firm was “self-taught.” More alarming was his comment about starting his practice. “Basically I just need a laptop and cell phone and I’m off and running.”
Perhaps you have also encountered one of the many new lawyers who have been unable to find employment after graduating into the worst economy since the Great Depression and have hung up their shingle to practice solo. I cannot imagine how scary that must be! Most of us had a job to go to out of law school that included an older (sometimes crotchety) lawyer whom we could turn to when we simply did not know what to do — either ethically, procedurally, substantively or practically. Unfortunately, that is not the case in today’s legal world. Because of this influx of newly licensed lawyers without jobs in a setting where there is a readily available mentor, we as a profession must step up and offer our assistance.
In 2011, I had the privilege of mentoring a young lawyer. We each made a year-long commitment to the mentoring relationship. We agreed to talk on the phone once a week and meet in person once a month. We picked Friday afternoons to talk, and the burden was on her to call me. We did sometimes text or email out of necessity, but we communicated every week. Our in-person meetings were for early morning coffee. Our conversations ranged from dealing with co-workers and other attorneys to brainstorming about how to handle a specific legal matter to work-life balance issues. The experience was enriching and educational for both of us.
It has been encouraging to learn that many local bar associations have mentoring programs, but this patchwork of programs is not statewide. There is also a proposal from the CLE commission pending before our Supreme Court that would give CLE credit for a detailed mentoring program.
The Tennessee Bar Association wants to work with local bars and the CLE Commission to ensure that every new lawyer in the state who wants a mentor has one. I have appointed a Mentoring Task Force, with Chris Varner as chair and James Crumlin as vice chair, to collect information about all lawyer-mentoring programs that are available in our state so that those who look to the statewide bar for mentoring can easily find a program in their geographical area if one exists. The various programs will be cataloged on www.tba.org with links to them, with the idea that most new lawyers can find a mentor through an already established local bar association program, and those of you who will serve as mentors can likewise find that opportunity through one of those existing programs. I have also asked the Mentoring Task Force to fill in any gaps in the availability of mentoring programs by working with the TBA Young Lawyers Division to strengthen their existing program and do more to facilitate matching new lawyers with more experienced lawyers for mentoring relationships.
Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall said, “None of us has gotten where we are solely by pulling ourselves up from our own bootstraps. We got here because somebody ... bent down and helped us.” What I am asking you, the experienced attorney, to do is this: Think back to all you learned from your early mentors and what a difference that has made in your career, then step up to the plate and volunteer to be a mentor for a year. Do it in memory or in honor of someone who mentored you.
One of my mentors always appears to be as calm, confident and cool as a cucumber — no matter what he encounters in the courtroom or law office. He is also versatile and skilled in different areas of the law. He brings to mind this cool, versatile and healthy (salt and fat-free) cucumber salad recipe.
TBA President JACKIE DIXON is a partner with Weatherly McNally & Dixon PLC in Nashville.