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Do I really need a mentor? Does the sun rise in the East?

Douglas Lang February 3, 2022

This article originally appeared in the January/February issue of The Bencher, the magazine of the American Inns of Court.

I. Introduction.

The title of this article asks a significant question, “Do I really need a mentor?”, but then I toss out a cavalierly smart-aleck answer. That answer points to what is abundantly clear:  “Yes - you need a mentor!”

Regardless of your age, education, or experience, it is undeniable that you can benefit from the counsel of a mentor. As a lawyer, whether you believe it or not, you do not know what you are doing at the beginning of your career. A mentor can answer questions, give direction, and help you think through things. However, the mentor cannot do “it” for you. As Galileo Galilei famously said, “You cannot teach a man anything. You can only help him discover it within himself.” Ultimately, you need to figure “it” out for yourself.

Before you search for a mentor (no one will read your mind and “bestow” a mentor upon you), you must develop a mindset about the “culture” of the legal profession. Yes, there is a culture. If you do not understand the “culture,” you will be lost.

Accepting the need of being mentored to understand how to “be” a lawyer is very similar to acculturation into another society. Would you, as a total outsider, someone who has not lived in or conducted business in another country understand how to deal with others so as to not offend them, be excluded, or become totally ineffective in that culture?  Similarly, without understanding the “culture” of the legal profession, you could become anathema or just plain ineffective.

Read on so you can begin to understand.  

II. Figuring it out.

  •  a. The culture of the profession. 

In order to “figure it out, that is, what you want out of your life as a lawyer, you need to understand that the legal profession has a distinct “culture.” The “culture” of the law is more than rules.  It is about how things are done, not just how you do things “by the numbers.” Rather, the culture is “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.” [1] You can ignore the values of the culture or you can begin to understand them and become a part of the profession. 

The culture of the profession is distinct from what you experienced in law school. Law school presented a “culture” to which you had to acclimate. The legal academy’s job was to teach you how to “think like a lawyer.”[2] Law school did not teach you how to practice law or how to “act” and conduct yourself in accordance with the dignity of the profession. 

In law school, you heard of the law being referred to as a “profession,” but did a professor, a dean, a lawyer, a law student, or anyone ever discuss with you the meaning of the concept, “profession?” If that concept was discussed, did you consider it?  Did the definition resonate? Here is a relatively modern definition of the legal profession for consideration:

“The legal ‘profession’ refers to lawyers - their training, licensure, ethical responsibilities, client obligations, and other practice-related matters. The profession is about the zealous, ethical representation of individual clients. Lawyers also enter into a social compact to represent society by defending the rule of law. Legal practice is the differentiated legal expertise, judgment, and skills possessed by some - but not all - lawyers. Regulation of the profession should ensure adherence to ethical and practice standards on behalf of individual clients and society at large.”[3]

As a foundation for “figuring it out,” you must understand not only the law and some definition of the “legal profession,” but you must begin to understand the concept of dedication, as stated above, to “a social compact to represent society by defending the rule of law.” That is the focal point of the “culture” of the profession.

You must try to understand how practicing law is not just a business that generates money so you can pay off your student loans. You are not called to be a piece worker.  You are not called to be shark who draws blood at the behest of a client who delivers a retainer. Further, the legal profession is not a union, although we pay annual dues to the state bar or Supreme Court of the jurisdiction. The profession does not compel military-like regiment, although we do have ethical rules of conduct to which we must conform. We are not part of a “group-think” mentality. In representation of clients, counsel must exercise independent judgment in conformity with the law. [4]

  • b. Professionalism.

Professionalism is another term that is tossed about a good deal, but it must be understood in order for a lawyer to become acculturated.  You should want to be regarded as a person who adheres to the standard of “professionalism.” The plain meaning of “professionalism” is found in the dictionary. Merriam-Webster.com defines professionalism as “the skill, good judgment, and polite behavior that is expected from a person who is trained to do a job well.”[5] That term is also described as have at least three critical components about which much has been written and about which you will need to have more than a passing acquaintance. First, is civility. Second, respect for yourself and others.  Third, is competence. 

Civility is a term some claim is too vague to enforce or even to grasp its meaning and that “incivility” is really not a problem in our profession or society.[6] Many courts have made it clear that the concept of civility is not too vague to enforce and incivility is indeed a chronic problem everywhere in the world.[7] Some commentators suggest civility, therefore, its antithesis incivility, is an obvious trait once it is observed, similar in a way to what Justice Potter Stewart suggested about pornography, “I know it when I see it.”[8] Importantly, a growing number of state bars and supreme courts include a pledge of civility in the oath of attorney to which all newly licensed lawyers must attest.[9] Many states include an affirmation of civility in their oath of attorney. 

However, a true plain meaning definition of civility was offered by Justice Anthony Kennedy, of the United States Supreme Court. Justice Kennedy said in part, “[Civility . . .] is not some bumper-sticker slogan, ‘Have you hugged your adversary today?’  Civility is the mark of an accomplished and superb professional, but it is even more than this. It is an end in itself. Civility has deep roots in the idea of respect for the individual."[10]

Justice Kennedy’s statement leads to the second component, “respect.”  The term “respect” and how it applies in daily interaction between humans is not new.  It has its roots in antiquity.[11] However, our own George Washington compiled 101 rules of civility he titled, Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation: A Book of Etiquette.[12] The very first rule penned by George Washington identified “respect” as a building block of “civility” when he said.

"Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.”[13]

The meaning of that term “respect” should be obvious, but the dictionary provides a general, plain meaning; “high or special regard.”[14] However, Professor David Luban offers a vivid image of the concept of “respect” in the practice of law as “upholding human dignity.” He sees “upholding human dignity” as having two components: “First, [] upholding human dignity is what makes the practice of law worthwhile; and second, that adversary excesses are wrong when they assault human dignity instead of upholding it.”[15]

The third component is competence.  Model Rule of Professional Responsibility 1.1, provides as follows:

“Competence. A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.”

This rule is in plain English and straight forward. It also implies that one must strive for performance above the lowest acceptable level; that is well above the line between competence and incompetence. So, it follows that one cannot be competent in the representation of one’s client if one is not civil, respectful, and does not uphold human dignity. It is obvious that a lawyer cannot competently pursue a client’s cause if the adversary, the court, or the jury see a ruthless, conniving, uncivil advocate. Would it not be reasonable to assume the client is of the same ilk as the lawyer? As Justice Stewart might have said about competence, “I know it when I see it.”

III. Finding a mentor.

With the above discussion in mind, consider what you think you need to learn from a mentor. Do you want to learn skill and judgment? Of course. Do you want to learn how to be an effective practitioner and advocate, one to whom judges, adversaries, and juries deem credible?  The answer is “yes,” of course.  Do you want to learn how to thrive in the legal “culture?” Again, “yes.” So let the search begin.

Most people starting out in a profession really do not know how to find a mentor or what kind of a person to connect with. To figure that out, a beginning lawyer needs to do at least two things. First, recognize you need a mentor. Second, do research about legal mentoring.

The research is straight forward. Start with a search engine and type in “legal mentoring,” or any number of other descriptive terms. When page after page of resources show up, browse a bit and read some articles. Then, access the website for the National Legal Mentoring Consortium. (NLMC).[16] The NLMC offers abundant resources including a listing of the state and local bar associations that offer mentoring programs. Those programs range from those that are mandatory where a beginning lawyer must complete a twelve month structured program with a designated mentor, to one-on-one voluntary programs where one is matched with a volunteer mentor. That website also includes materials that will help a beginning lawyer with ideas about how to find a mentor and how to get one. 

IV. What do I want from mentoring? - “What I need is someone who will make me do what I can.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Finding a mentor is not the beginning. 

a. The first Step-Do Some Soul Searching-Know Yourself-As Best You Can.

  1. Write out what you think you want out of your life.
  2. Do you have a model life in mind? 
  3. Is the model realistic?
  4. Does a person you really know personify that model?  If so, why? 
  5. What are the qualities in life that are important to you?
  6. What are the things that you do not think are important?
  7. Do you know what things change as you live your life?

b. Second step-what kind of mentor do you want/need?

  1. What is the issue or subject for which you need a mentor?  You should have mentors for difference needs, i.e., bar work, community work, how to get clients, how to deal with clients (especially how to decide not to take on a client or how to fire a client), how do I deal with jerks, how do I deal with judges.
  2. Should success and Ethics be foremost?
  3. Who is it that you know that fits that bill?
  4. If you do not know such a person, you have to search.
  5. Where to search-consider the local bar association.  Join the “young lawyers’” organization. See how they do it; Mentors do not have to be “older types,” but that does not hurt.
  6. Research the person you are thinking of asking to be your mentor.

a. Is this person successful, respected, “civil,” “competent?” 

b. Have you seen this person do anything in the way of law practice or leadership?

c. Caveat: do not pick a “jerk,” a “slacker,” or a person who is “all talk.”  Remember, Justice Potter Stewart, “I know it when I see it.”

c. Third step-the ask.

  1. Get to know the potential mentor before you ask.
  2. Set up lunch or coffee and have a frank discussion.
  3. You may not need to actually ask, “Will you be my mentor?”  But you will need to ask, “May I call upon you periodically to seek advice?” “Could we set up time to have a cup of coffee a couple of times a month?”
  4. Make it clear, you just want to be able to bounce things off of this person, you are not asking for a job.

d. Fourth step - follow up.

  1. It is up to you to set up the times and places to meet.
  2. Call or email with suggested times or places.
  3. Make it easy for the mentor to meet - suggest a place in the mentor’s building or vicinity.

e. Fifth step-use of the mentor meeting.

  1. Have some specific questions in mind.
  2. Do not whine.
  3. Ask for direction on issues.
  4. Ask for direction on how to become involved in bar association and community organizations.
  5. Ask how one goes about getting clients and how to make the “ask” for business.
  6. Evaluate the process and whether it is worth the time or whether you need another mentor. 

V. Conclusion:  Pass it on-be a mentor to someone-“I am not a teacher, but an awakener.” — Robert Frost

The term “giving back” is often used by successful people who are thankful for their success and want to do something for others as they find their way. One of the most tragic things one can witness is to see a newly minted lawyer make mistakes. Not just mistakes in judgment. That is to be expected. However, a new lawyer who thinks that the way to success is to pursue tactics that are purportedly “zealous,” but lack rational behavior and tempering. That lawyer who starts down the path of incivility needs help.  When you have developed a path that includes tenacious representation of your clients, but is founded upon respect, civility, and professionalism, you can, as Robert Frost said, be an “awakener.”  

Justice Douglas Lang is the co-chair of Thompson Coburn's firmwide Appellate Group. Justice Lang served for 16 years on the Fifth District Court of Appeals in Dallas.

[1] Merriam-Webster.com, Last accessed September 20, 2021.

[2] The classic novel and later movie about the trials of law school, The Paper Chase, presented the intimidating Professor Kingsfield when he famously confronted his terrified first year contracts class with this dose of reality, “You teach yourselves the law, but I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush; you leave thinking like a lawyer.” JOHN JAY OSBORN, JR., The Paper Chase (Special Anniversary ed., 2003); THE PAPER CHASE (Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. 1973).

[3]  Michael Cohen, “Law Is a Profession and an Industry -- It Should Be Regulated That Way,” Forbes, May 29, 2018, Last accessed September 20, 2021. (Emphasis original). 

[4]  See Model Rules of Professional Conduct, 1.16, “[A] lawyer shall not represent a client or, where representation has commenced, shall withdraw from the representation of a client if: (1) the representation will result in violation of the rules of professional conduct or other law . . . .” Cmt. 8, “A lawyer may withdraw if the client refuses to abide by the terms of an agreement relating to the representation, such as an agreement concerning fees or court costs or an agreement limiting the objectives of the representation.”  See also, Model Rule 4.1, “In the course of representing a client a lawyer shall not knowingly: (a) make a false statement of material fact or law to a third person; or (b) fail to disclose a material fact to a third person when disclosure is necessary to avoid assisting a criminal or fraudulent act by a client, unless disclosure is prohibited by Rule 1.6.”

[5]  https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/professionalism. Last accessed September 21, 2021.

[6]  Amy R. Mashburn, Making Civility Democratic, 47 HOUS. L. REV. 1147, 1221–22 (2011), See also, Amy R. Mashburn, “Professionalism as Class Ideology: Civility Codes and Bar Hierarchy, 28 VAL. U. L. REV. 657, 663 (1994).

[7]  See Dondi Props. Corp. v. Commerce Sav. & Loan Ass’n, 121 F.R.D 284, 290 (N.D. Tex. 1988) (emphasizing the importance of upholding ethical standards); In re Anonymous Member of the S.C. Bar, 709 S.E.2d 633, 638 (S.C. 2011) (stating the civility oath is meant to protect “the administration of justice and integrity of the lawyer-client relationship”); PNS Stores, Inc. v. Rivera, 379 S.W.3d 267, 276–77 (Tex. 2012) (highlighting the Texas Lawyer’s Creed was implemented due incivility concerns); see also Huggins v. Coatesville Area Sch. Dist., No. 07-4917, 2009 WL 2973044, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 16, 2009) (acknowledging the limitations of ethical standards while still emphasizing their importance);  Healix Infusion Therapy, Inc. v. Helix Health, LLC, No., 2008 WL 1883546, at *12 (S.D. Tex. Apr. 25, 2008) (mem. op.) (rebuking the attorneys for a lack of civility). Cf. South Carolina that has enacted enforceable conduct rules that enforce the oath of attorney including the pledge of civility. See, In re Anonymous Member of the S.C. Bar, 709 S.E.2d 636, 636–38 (2011), (“To be admitted, the applicant must subscribe the following oath or affirmation” and reciting the South Carolina “lawyer’s oath.” (citing S.C. APP. CT. R. 402(k).

[8]  Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184, 197 (1963) (Stewart, J., concurring).

[9]  The “Oath of Attorney” includes another important description of a lawyer’s responsibilities and requires the lawyer to state he will “honestly demean” himself and he will conduct himself “with integrity and civility in dealing and communicating with the court and all parties.” See Texas’ Oath of Attorney; TEX. GOV’T CODE ANN. § 82.037(a) (West 2015). While every lawyer must recite that oath when sworn in as a member of the Texas Bar, the “oath” stands alone without the support of a statue or rule that provides for its enforcement.

[10]  Louis H. Pollak, Professional Attitude, 84 A.B.A. J., Aug. 1988, at 66, (quoting Justice Anthony Kennedy’s address to the 1997 ABA Annual Meeting on Aug. 5, 1997).

[11]  “It is a Latin word that originated in 509 BC[] when Romans founded their republic, and kings were driven from the city. Civility appeared over time from the word civis, which means citizen, that is, only men with property. It matured into civitas, meaning the rights and duties of citizenship, and then civilitas appeared, meaning the art and
science of citizenship.” Larry Schaefer, “History and Civility,” 40 The NAMTA Journal, 103 (Winter 2015).

[12] George Washington, Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation: a Book of Etiquette, Williamsburg, VA: Beaver Press, 1971.

[13] Id.  

[14] Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Last accessed September 21, 2021..

[15]  David Luban, “Lawyers as Upholders of Human Dignity (When They Aren't Busy Assaulting It),” 2005 U. ILL. L. REV. 815-845 (2005).

[16]  National Legal Mentoring Consortium; last accessed September 16, 2021.  See also, Annabel Acton, Why You Need A Mentor And How To Get One, Forbes, Jul 25, 2017, Last Accessed September 16, 2021.