Distinguishing the vintages from the plonk

The development of a great lawyer is much like the creation of a really great bottle of wine. While you need to start with quality raw materials, it’s the processing and nurturing over a longer period of time that eventually bring out the latent qualities that distinguish the exceptional vintages from plonk. Just so with lawyers — what distinguishes most of the greats from the average is the environment in which they learned their skills and the people who taught them.
The best lawyers are often, but not always, good mentors as well. They are generous in sharing their experience and analytical processes, and are sufficiently confident in themselves that they don’t mind sharing the stage or granting praise when it’s due. I had one truly great mentor, Paul J. Pape, and you can read about him in the spring edition of the Advocates’ Journal. But being a great teacher doesn’t come naturally to a lot of type-A personalities — especially those who live by the maxim, “If you want it done right, do it yourself.”

We have to try harder to set a good example and to be generous with our time so that the young lawyers following in our footsteps can learn from our example, and hopefully, not too often, from our mistakes. So I suggest here some tips and pointers for being a better mentor.

Provide clear and comprehensible instructions

As a student (in the days before online research), I was once asked to find a case about a blue car at a “T” intersection. That was the sum total of my instructions. Seriously. Not surprisingly, I didn’t find it.

If you expect to receive meaningful and usable results from a student or junior lawyer, the best practice is to write out your instructions. Give some factual context to the project and the expected results, including the form in which it is to be delivered if it’s a written assignment. Encourage taking the time to review the correspondence and important parts of the file. Or, if you are sending the person to court, be clear that the assigned lawyer understands the scope of their responsibility to the client and the court.

Be explicit about the questions to be answered or the tasks to be undertaken. Set deadlines. In this way, you can be certain that there is no miscommunication or misunderstandings. It provides a reference for both the assigning lawyer and the person undertaking the task regarding what was requested. Written instructions are useful, not just to the person receiving them, but also if (admitted or not) you have poor short-term memory, or are so busy you can’t keep track of what you assigned to whom.

Don’t make assumptions that the assignee knows what you are talking about, what your strategic objectives are, or even what the general state of the law is. If you are clear in your instructions, there is less likelihood that you will be disappointed with the results.

Give immediate and directed feedback

Whether it’s positive, negative, or constructive criticism, your feedback will be most beneficial if it is received during the course of an assignment and immediately after its completion. Give directed and constructive criticism addressing specific areas where the mentee’s performance was good and where it can be improved. Generalized comments such as “you’re fine,” “that was good,” “that’s not what I wanted, do it again,” or “did you just fall off the turnip truck?” are entirely unhelpful.

If the lawyer has made an error, or events have not gone according to plan, then right away discuss what happened, why it happened, and what can be done in the future so, with any luck, it doesn’t happen again. And more importantly, make sure the young lawyer knows that despite the mistake, you are there to support them, and help them resolve whatever problems may arise. Great lawyers aren’t found cowering under their desks; they need to have confidence instilled in them that it’s OK to bring a problem to you for help.

Share the spotlight

Good lawyers also are not made by shutting them in a room with boxes of documents and a computer. Becoming a good lawyer comes from experiential learning. Showing is more effective than telling, and doing is exponentially more effective than seeing.

Sharing means letting the junior share in the assumption of responsibility for the analysis and development of the theory of the case, dealing directly with the client, marshalling the evidence and relevant law, and, most importantly, getting up on their own feet in front of a court or tribunal and taking ownership of the presentation of your client’s case.

With every appearance, your mentee will learn not just from observing what was effective or ineffective in the presentations of other counsel, but from what worked or didn’t work for them. The real experience is inevitably better internalized, replayed, and deconstructed than the virtual experience. And, there’s nothing like the fear of public humiliation to bring out the best performance in a junior barrister.

Set expectations 10-per-cent higher than expected

It’s not surprising that most people will rise to a challenge. If your mentee knows that you expect more than a “once-over lightly” approach to an assignment, then you are likely to get a better result. If an assignment is returned and it’s not as good as you would have hoped for, then tell the mentee (see above), and send them back to make it better. Undoubtedly the next version will be better, and the quality of the finished product on future assignments will be higher, too.

Do not get cranky, toss the work out, do the assignment over again yourself, and then give the student or junior lawyer a bad performance review six months later. Making a great lawyer takes time, it takes direction, and it takes practice. Establishing an environment where the young lawyer has the opportunity to excel, and is given the chances to meet high expectations will, in the long run, reflect well on you, and result in the development of a colleague who you know you can trust and rely upon.

Do as I do

OK, so by this I don’t mean do as I do. In fact, don’t do that. I fail as a role model in my work habits as much as the next lawyer, including working to last-minute deadlines and having boxes and papers piled all over my office. Do as I say, not as I do. And by all that, what I really mean is, set a good example for your mentees. Enough said.

Tell the truth

Here I am not talking about feedback on work product. I assume that everyone will be fair and honest in their performance reviews. What I’m getting at here is all the other intangible stuff, like the truth about the business of law, firm politics, and what it really takes to make it to the next level. A good mentor will explain to junior lawyers what is going on behind the scenes, particularly if those goings on affect the individual — unless you want to create an atmosphere of anxiety and distrust. In that case, go ahead and keep your young lawyers in the dark.

Be, and appear to be, available

Lots of firms extol their “open-door” policies. But in fact, while the door is open, there is an invisible “Do Not Enter” sign hung on the front of the desk.

If you want to be a good mentor, then you need to be available. Put down your pen, or turn away from your computer, and listen to your mentees when they come to you for advice or direction. Don’t tell them to come back later, if at all possible. If you do, tell them to come back soon, fix a time, and stick to it. If they’ve come to you, then in all likelihood they have an immediate need, and you should deal with it while the need is pressing.

In fact, don’t wait for the junior lawyer to come to you. Make some time to go to them, and check in from time to time. Take them for a coffee or lunch and have a chat — not the scary, “We have to discuss something serious, so I am going to take you for an expensive lunch that you won’t enjoy and make you suffer through it” lunch — just something relaxed and casual. Take an interest in their career and in their personal lives. Take some time to share your own experiences. At the end of the day, making your junior lawyers feel appreciated and that they are a valuable contributor to the firm will go a very long way towards the creation of another great lawyer.

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