Mentor a Young Lawyer ... and Learn Something Yourself

The ink was not yet dry on my law license. The attorney with whom I practiced came into my office and told me I would be representing a client in a trial proceeding in criminal court that day. Although one might think I had no time to panic, in the two hours between the discussion and my speeding down the road to court (our offices were about 15 miles away) I had ample time to panic. The statute was an obscure city code ordinance, and it had taken me a bit of time to locate it in the law books. I had never met my client, an elderly man who worked as a maitre d' for a popular restaurant. I had never stepped into a courtroom.

Internally, I was shaking; outwardly I must have appeared calm as my client did not appear terrified when I introduced myself.

The charge that brought my client before the court was urinating in public on a police parking lot. Back in those days, before blood and breathalyzer tests, a urine sample was used to support a charge involving DWI. Unable to control his bladder after several hours of detention, my client could not preserve the proof for the other proposed charge.

Court convened with a sour-faced judge, a seasoned prosecutor, and two witnesses. The case was called, and the prosecutor motioned his first witness to the stand, a young sincere-looking police officer. Inwardly I cursed myself for not having absorbed more evidence and procedure while in school. After testifying, the witness was excused, and the prosecutor called his second witness, an older, experienced police officer. Frantically, realizing my turn was fast approaching, I tried to compose an attack; the questions that I had hurriedly written on the legal pad did not offer much hope.

Then, miraculously, the second witness was excused. It dawned on me that my client had never been identified. I stood and asked the prosecuting attorney if he had rested his case; he nodded a surly assent. Excitedly, I announced to the judge that I moved for a directed verdict (actually, my words may have come out something like "I move that I win.") The judge looked at me, smiled unexpectedly, granted my motion and dismissed the case. The prosecuting attorney had failed to identify my witness, and the judge, for whatever reason had taken pity on a green, shaking, inexperienced lawyer that day. That day the judge became a mentor to me.

I share this story of terror and exhilaration coupled with sheer unadulterated relief for several reasons. I suspect that many of you have had the very same experience in some form or other.

In November, 524 people passed the Tennessee state bar examination. Their schools may have formally educated them, but they are still eager to learn. Recently, the Young Lawyers Division of the Tennessee Bar Association devoted countless hours of planning and preparation for a CLE for newly licensed attorneys " just the type program that I needed years ago when I was so painfully inexperienced.

Generational Differences Do Make a Difference

We have heard a great deal about vast generational differences facing our society and our profession. In my example, I was different because of my age and gender, a young female attorney in a courtroom with all male participants.

Researchers have focused on the differences that exist among generations, specifically the Baby Boomers, the Millennial Generation and Gen X. The boomer generation label is applied to a person born between 1946 and 1964. After World War II, America and Great Britain experienced an unprecedented increase in birth rates, "the Baby Boom." Estimates hold that 76 million American children were born during this time. A great number of experienced attorneys fall within this category, or the immediate generation that followed, Shadow Boomers (generally defined as those born between 1958 and 1964). Characteristically, this generation is described as hard working, independent, and fostering a sense of loyalty.

The millennial generation, defined as those born between 1977 and 1998, also has high numbers, with estimates approximating 75 million. Historically, this generation was raised when the societal pendulum swung back to a focus on family; it is considered to be the most child-centric group that any of us have experienced. It has been written that because attention was focused so directly on people in this group, and on their upbringing, they manifest a self-assuredness that previous generations lacked. Generally, they have a different approach to problem-solving. While previous generations may devote more time to expected work schedules, have patience for promotions, expect to sacrifice vacation or personal time to achieve success in the legal profession, certain studies of employers have noted that this newest generation hitting the job market, the millennials, has a much different perspective. This generation may focus more on flexible work schedules, programs that give them recognition for their efforts, expectations for compensation, promotions and vacations that predecessor generations did not have.

Another large generational group has been identified: Gen X. This generation is also known as the I Generation (for Internet generation), generation Y, digital generation and others. They were born between 1980 and 2000, and are not quite the size of the baby boom generation. This group is characterized as optimistic, talented, well educated, achievement oriented and collaborative. They are multi-taskers.

Don't Define Individual Attorneys by a Group Label

Although analysts assign defined characteristics to each group, the gross stereotype definitions might not fully apply to individuals.

Dr. Steve Joiner, associate director at the Institute for Conflict Management at Lipscomb University, recently presented a well-received program at the TBA's Leadership Conference. He engaged leaders from across the state in dialogue about the generational differences, and more importantly, how to work more productively with them. In the process of writing a book, I suspect that he will continue to bridge the gap between the two groups in our work force.

It is human nature to focus on differences and to disparage those differences. With differences in style, education, expectations and perspectives, however, our challenge is to strengthen our legal profession by working from within. There are many different types of learning and of mentoring. The primary learning method is communication " simple dialogue. There is also inclusion of the younger generations through shared experiences (i.e., shadowing). Importantly, mentoring is also a recognized method that has success. A mentor is someone who is more experienced and takes a special interest in the development of another.
Differences exist. "Generation gaps," by a number of different names, have always existed. Historically, the generation gap was simply the older or more mature versus the younger, less experienced. Now the generation gaps include well-defined characteristics.

Regardless of the names given, the generations that follow more experienced attorneys are eager to learn. Our legal profession has many differences from the usual job arena. We should not define individual attorneys by a group label. Each of us is different " that in part is what attracts us to this honored profession. As attorneys we take an oath to uphold the rule of law, to insure justice in our system, and to represent our clients zealously. To do that well, we all need the benefit of the experience of the generations that precede us and the eagerness of the generations that follow.

You Can Be a Mentor
We all learn by example. Take the time to nurture and help someone who needs some guidance. Help someone grow by sharing your wisdom, your experiences; chances are you will learn something, too.

Mentor an attorney who may struggle with expectations derived from popular television shows rather than real-life experience. Mentoring can be part of your legacy. Teaching by sharing what we have learned opens communication and lessens the perceived differences. That can be the legacy of our profession.

It is all that the young can do for the old, to shock them and keep them up to date.

— George Bernard Shaw