Why Every Law Student Needs a Mentor

Law school will teach you how to think like a lawyer, but it won’t teach you how to practice law.

Even though law schools are providing more skills-based classes, nothing beats getting practical insight from a mentor.

Learn things you won’t learn in law school

Law school teaches you lots of great things. Mostly, it teaches you how to think, talk, and act like a lawyer. Although law school curriculums are starting to include more practical skill classes (which I recommend), the majority of classes are substantive, not skills-based.

That’s why having a mentor is so important. Instead of doing a mock deposition with your classmates, you can watch a practicing attorney take or defend one. Even better, you can pick their brain before and after to see how they prepare and how they thought it went.

A good mentor should give tell you¬†how to succeed in law school, how to move past bad law school grades, and how to make the most of your law school experience. Perhaps most importantly, they will pass on little bits of knowledge that can’t be described or categorized—but they are pieces of wisdom you will rely on for your entire career.

Learn how things (don’t) work

Not only is it important to watch lawyers do things the right way, it’s perhaps more valuable to watch them do it the wrong way. I’m not suggesting you find yourself a terrible mentor, and I’m not suggesting that most attorneys are incompetent.

I am suggesting, however, that even the best attorneys second-guess themselves and wish they could do ____ differently during a case. Watching them make those decisions and then analyze what went right (and wrong) is invaluable. One, you will benefit from their mistake and will hopefully not make the same decision when you are an attorney. Two, you will learn why it’s called the practice of law, not the perfection of law.

When you realize that even the best attorneys make mistakes, that should make you even more wary and protect against making those same mistakes.

Your mentor will not give you a job, but their colleague might

You should never approach a networking opportunity (like a mentor relationship) as a networking opportunity. The second you give off a whiff of “I don’t care about anything you say, I’m just trying to get a job” you are a dead duck. Most people, especially attorneys, will pick up on that.

Your goals should be to learn stuff, ask real questions, and prove that you have what it takes to be a lawyer. You can do that without begging or hinting for a job. Just like lawyers pick up on someone digging for a job, they also pick up on someone who is genuinely interested in learning, working hard, and making themselves a better lawyer.

There’s always a chance your mentor will hire you, but don’t assume that. What you should assume, however, is that they will tell all their lawyer friends about how great/lousy/annoying/schmarmy/hard-working you were. Make the most of that potential for good PR.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/neilio/246141039/)

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  • http://blog.simplejustice.us shg

    Though brief and maybe a bit fuzzy, a good piece of advice. I’m a huge believer in the need for mentors for young lawyers (moreso than law students, as most aren’t really ready to be mentored yet).

    I would add one critical thought: a mentor isn’t there to rub your tummy and tell you how wonderful you are. That’s your mommy’s job. A good mentor will tell you when you’re right and when you’re wrong, when you’re headed in a good direction and when you’re blowing it big time. He will hurt your feelings sometimes. If he doesn’t, he’s not challenging you.

    If you’re looking for validation, then a mentor isn’t the way to go. If you’re looking to become a lawyer, then suck it up, take the good with the bad and learn.

    • http://consumerlawyer.mn/cgi-sys/suspendedpage.cgi Randall Ryder

      Like usual, very helpful commentary and thoughts. Two questions: (1) did you have a mentor as a law student/young attorney; and (2) are you currently mentoring anyone?

      • http://blog.simplejustice.us shg

        Yes, and yes. At the very end of law school, and as I entered practice, I had a mentor 20 years my senior. He smacked me around quite a bit, as I was a typical precocious, snot-nosed kid who thought he knew it all because I had yet to realize how much there was to know, and how none of the answers were either as clear or simple as I childishly thought they were.

        And, it’s worth adding that Josh Camson’s subsequent post here, that what mentors have to say isn’t necessarily gospel, is also true and important. A good mentor will readily admit, if not teach, that he may have his way, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way or the perfect way. Nobody, not baby lawyer nor mentor, has all the answers.

  • http://consumerlawyer.mn/cgi-sys/suspendedpage.cgi Randall Ryder

    Sounds like a great experience—seriously. I agree with Josh’s point as well—I touched on it in here, but Josh expands upon it to a greater extent.