Mentoring: Bridging the Gap Between Bar and Academy

One day in February of 2009, Mary Dienhart, then a second-year law student, spent the day driving to Rochester with her mentor, Minnesota Supreme Court Associate Justice Paul Anderson, where he was to give a Rotary Club speech. “He spent the entire time answering my questions and giving me advice,” Dienhart said. She described the…

One day in February of 2009, Mary Dienhart, then a second-year law student, spent the day driving to Rochester with her mentor, Minnesota Supreme Court Associate Justice Paul Anderson, where he was to give a Rotary Club speech.

“He spent the entire time answering my questions and giving me advice,” Dienhart said. She described the day spent with the justice in conversation and exchange of ideas as the highlight of her mentorship. “It was one of the many times I realized how lucky I was to have Justice Anderson as a mentor,” she said.

Dienhart said that Anderson described mentoring as “having one hand reaching up and the other reaching down. The hand reaching up, you extend to those people who are your mentors and who are there to help pull you up the ladder. The hand reaching down is there to help pull up those whom you are mentoring. I will always keep this image in mind and do my best to help pull others up the ladder I hope to climb.”

Developing a mutual relationship in which mentor and protégé learn from one another in and out of the courtroom and the law office is at the heart of the Mentor Externship Program at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.

Dienhart spent hours observing Anderson in court, in discussions in his chambers, at meetings and at speeches in the community. While the legal knowledge she gained was crucial, the professional relationship she developed and the inspiration she received from the justice’s work made the experience great, she said.

“The first time I went to meet him in his chambers, he could tell I was nervous and he told me I should always remember that judges are people, too,” she recalled. “I really enjoyed observing Justice Anderson’s dedication and commitment to being of service to others and, specifically, the legal community. Observing his kind of commitment was not something I expected to see but that I truly admired.”

Anderson’s current protégé, first-year law student Krista Griffith has had similar experiences. In addition to her courtroom observations, she said, “I have had the opportunity to interact with him on a personal level. I enjoyed discussing everything from issues of faith to stories that influenced him on his personal and professional journeys. Since I was drawn to St. Thomas because of my understanding of law as a vocation, I was interested in finding outlets to discuss issues relating to the intersection of faith, morality and law both inside and outside the classroom. I appreciate Justice Anderson’s direct and thoughtful responses to these questions, as well as the stories he used to illustrate his points.”The Mentor Externship Program allows students to both understand and appreciate that relationships are critical to the practice of law. Whether a student is paired with a Supreme Court justice, a transactional lawyer,  litigator or an executive director for a nonprofit, she learns how to manage a relationship with a lawyer or judge, while she witnesses how her mentor manages relationships with clients,    colleagues, adversaries and others in the justice system.

A Leader Among Law Mentorship ProgramsNow in its ninth year, the program is acknowledged nationally as a leader among law mentorship programs. The program twice has been recognized by the American Bar Association. In 2005, the program received the E. Smythe Gambrell Professionalism Award, which recognizes projects contributing to the understanding of professionalism among attorneys. That same year, it was one of three national finalists for the ABA award on innovations in teaching professionalism.

The program has three specific objectives: foster the highest levels of professionalism in students, create an experiential window into which they view the world and create activities in which students reflect and integrate their experiences. Through these three objectives, students are encouraged to explore the various relationships in law. In addition, students are encouraged to better understand how to manage relationships with mentors, peers, potential clients, legal systems and communities.

Other law schools and law mentor programs look to the Mentor Externship Program as a model. “I have closely observed the St. Thomas Mentor Externship Program for some time,” noted Keith Faulkner, vice dean for administration and external relations at Campbell University’s Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law. “The mentor externship experience is a real complement to St. Thomas’ program of legal education and an excellent model for other schools to follow.”

Melvin F. Wright, executive director of the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism, added: “Many of our law schools educate students regarding the law, but after graduation they are not yet ready to practice law. They need a mentor, someone they can turn to for guidance, war stories and friendship. The easiest thing you can do practicing law may not seem so easy, if you have never done it before. A good mentor can help. It is also my experience that a good mentor is not just there during the first couple of years but will be there throughout the  protégé’s legal career.”

All 479 students at the School of Law have mentors for each of their three years: 15 hours are required for first-year law students and 25 hours for upper-level students. Program requirements include: discussing specific topics and experiencing specific legal activities with the mentor; logging all of those activities online using software the law school created to mimic billing and attending a class in which an array of professional issues and skills are addressed, such as networking and relationship in law, time management and goal setting and civility in the legal profession. In the fall semester alone, 91 students observed an appellate argument, 45 students watched a civil motion and 44 students observed a lawyer-client meeting.

The 471 mentors paired with a student (a few have more than one student) this year included five justices of the state Supreme Court and 42 state and federal court judges. The pool of mentors also includes 123 different practice areas and 92 mentors in public interest practice or government service. Thirty-nine percent of the mentors are women, a higher percentage than in the profession overall. Because they have enjoyed their experiences, 80 percent of the mentors agree to mentor again the following year.

Enlisting Outstanding Lawyers and JudgesAdministrative leadership has been critical to the program’s success, and is one of many distinguishing features. “Lots of schools have a ‘take a student to lunch’ program and then they don’t see each other again. That’s not what we wanted,” said U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz, a former St. Thomas law professor who launched the idea for the program.

“I was reflecting on what law schools could do to educate students to become more ethical attorneys,” he said. “What shaped my values was not so much what mentors said but in the example they set for me.”

Schiltz’s original idea has evolved over time with each of the subsequent program leaders: Professor Neil Hamilton, who heads the law school’s Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions, Assistant Dean Lisa Montpetit Brabbit and the program’s current director, Dave Bateson. Each director continued to build and shape the program in response to student and mentor feedback, while, at the same time, strengthening the critical elements of quality control. To date, more than 3,500 pairs have participated in the program.

Schiltz said that when he became a federal judge (in 2006) and met lawyers, “they would rave about the program. A lot has been written about the gap between the bar and the academy. There’s a real interest by the bar about being made part of the process of educating the next generation of lawyers. The program gave them a concrete way to do that, to participate in a hands-on way. That’s very rare.”

The response from the Twin Cities’ legal community has been remarkable. The time attorneys invest as mentors amounts to millions of dollars they could have billed. For judges, it comes out of their own time. The commitment from mentors also attracts attention from other lawyers and judges around the country who seek to build a similar program and replicate the School of Law model.

Since the law school had its first graduating class in 2004, the program leaders had to approach graduates of other law schools to find a pool of mentors. “We don’t want it to be just an alumni program,” Brabbit said. “We want a program that draws on diversity in all its forms.” Bateson said he inherited a strong mentor list and has built on it the same way Brabbit and Hamilton did: one call and one personal e-mail at a time. “We do not use mass e-mails,” he said. “Personal connection and outreach mean a lot to our mentors. Personal outreach also helps us to guarantee that our mentors are a good fit. We work hard to get into the community to identify and connect with possible mentors.”

Dean Tom Mengler couldn’t be more pleased with the Mentor Externship Program. “The significant investment in resources has allowed the project to exceed our expectations,” he said. “It has not only accomplished the development of professionals, but we’ve permeated the legal community by enlisting outstanding lawyers and judges to serve as mentors. The program really is a flagship for the School of Law.”

The law school’s vision, Mengler explained, is to develop a law student into an outstanding professional in the context of an institution of faith, to encourage students to draw on their faith and values.

“We help students ask the question: What is my purpose in life and how does becoming a lawyer help me serve that purpose?” Mengler said. “Being a lawyer is not just a job. It’s a calling. That’s how we view it. It’s a vocation. We want students to make progress as a professional and a person in three years. We will encourage a relationship with a lawyer or a judge who cares about a student’s development.”

Understanding the Rhythm of a Law PracticeThe School of Law’s commitment to professional identity development begins the day the student starts law school. The director matches first-year students with attorneys who can address issues that first-year students discuss in their classes, such as torts or civil procedures. With second- and third-year students, particular interests and professional goals become the basis for the pairing.

“I had wonderful mentors in my law firm as a new lawyer,” Bateson said about his former employer, Rider Bennett. “When St. Thomas opened and announced this mentor program, I volunteered. Now when I recruit mentors, I tell them how much I got out of mentoring and what a rewarding experience it can be to volunteer.”The program helps students understand the nature of a law practice – the rhythm, as Bateson calls it. “Is it compatible with your lifestyle?” he asked. “You can have a candid conversation with your mentor about the nature of the work and the workload.”

Ultimately, the program helps a law student make the transition to become a professional. “Nobody wins when a lawyer is not adequately prepared,” Bateson pointed out. “It’s not good for anyone: the clients, the court system and the people on the other side.”

Hamilton says the Mentor Externship Program builds upon the social contract among generations in which those more experienced find  purpose by helping the newer generations. “The program allows the more senior members of the profession to share important ideals and traditions through mentoring and modeling and one-on-one discussion in a way that textbooks and classrooms cannot,” he explained.

Mentors also recognize the impact mentors had on their own professional formation. “In high school and college I had a number of mentors like former Gov. Harold LeVander, former Macalester professor G. Theodore Mitau and former U of M Law School Dean Robert Stein,” said Justice Anderson. “I believe in mentors. I believe in heroes. I made a promise to myself that if I could ever give back, I would.”

Teaching and Learning TogetherSam Myers is a School of Law mentor who specializes in immigration and employment law in a private practice. He recalled that as a young lawyer just out of the Coast Guard, he settled in the Twin Cities: “I went to 100 different places and only five people took the time to talk to me. One was the general counsel to General Mills. He let me come in during the middle of the day and was very engaging and made suggestions. I felt that’s the way you’re supposed to be in a collegial profession. You’re supposed to help others and you’re sure as heck supposed to help people who are law students.”

He talks to his protégés about values, professionalism and why they chose law school. “Both sides learn a lot,” he said. “Students ought to come out of it with a very good sense of what a lawyer does every day. Students learn practical answers to questions they might think too dumb to ask.

“They learn a way to practice law as an ethical person,” Myers continued. “What if you have a conflict of interest? Do you withdraw from the case or having a conference with clients?”

Because Myers has a small office, his protégés sometimes get practical hands-on experience. Such was the case with two of his protégés, Marie Reigstad, 3L, and Katie Perleberg, 2L. They worked on a pro bono case he was handling. “It felt good to actually use the writing and research skills I learned in classes,” Reigstad said.In addition to the work and the hours spent observing Myers, Perleberg said she talked to him about leading a balanced life. “I learned that it is possible to have a life beyond the day-to-day job of a lawyer,” she said. “Sam is very involved in the area law schools, instructs in many CLEs, does a lot of pro bono work and has hobbies outside the legal world. He really seems to achieve balance in his life and encourages his employees to strive toward that, as well.”

Reigstad’s mentor relationship will continue as she moves to the next stages of her career. Having the chance to see Reigstad’s professionalism and promising legal skills, Myers called her in for an interview with him and his colleague. After graduating in May, she became an associate in his firm. “I couldn’t be more thrilled,” she said.

Mark Ponsolle, an assistant Ramsey County attorney in charge of the human services division, offers an extensive list of experiences for his protégés including observing paternity cases, civil commitment cases, depositions, appellate arguments at the Supreme Court or Appeals Court, county board meetings and legislative hearings at which he or an associate may testify. “After testifying, I remind them that democracy isn’t always pretty, but it usually works,” he explained. “Someone like me, the son of a bottler at a brewery, has to be listened to (by the legislators) for five or 10 minutes. They (the students) appreciate the democratic process which is unique from the rest of the world.”

Thirty-plus years into the practice of law, Ponsolle maintains his enthusiasm. “I need to give back, and I enjoy it so much,” he said. “I enjoy the interaction with the law students. I’m amazed how smart they are. They’re so curious, they want to do well and they feed me energy.”

Ponsolle said the Mentor Externship Program bridges the gap between what students read in a book and what really happens in the practice of law. “In law school, they read a case, but they don’t see how it plays out. Without the program, you’re hit with stuff you’ve never seen before.” He added that the          St. Thomas program includes a “beautiful” component that other programs and clinics don’t have. “Students can ask real questions of real lawyers in a non-interview, non-employment and non-threatening situation: How do I handle this? How do I see ethics?”

Karen Hatfield, a civil litigator in the 18-member firm of Hansen, Dordell, Bradt, Odlaug & Bradt in Arden Hills, Minn., and Menomonie, Wis., takes her protégés to arbitrations, depositions and trials, including one in which she represented a homeowner in a slip-and-fall case. “The plaintiff was very dramatic and he made it fun to watch,” Hatfield said. Her protégé, Terisa Syvertsen, 3L, “got to see the styles and interactions of a lot of different attorneys and the judge. My mentee was just as fired up as I was at the trial.”

Recalling her own experiences with a mentor, Hatfield said, “They can teach you law in the classroom, but it’s not the same as being inside a courtroom. What you can’t teach is where the jury sits, and where to position yourself in the courtroom. You don’t see what it’s like to have that real pressure, for example, when someone’s civil liberties are on the line or a great deal of money is at stake.”

For her part, Syvertsen, who has had Hatfield as a mentor for two years, said, “I have learned that being a lawyer takes dedication and hard work, both outside of work and while at work. Karen is a very family-oriented person while remaining dedicated to her job responsibilities and her role at the firm. She has taught me the value in balancing personal life with work. She is a role model to me.”Planting ‘Seeds’ That Bear FruitThe mentor externship allows students to grow and develop in their unique ways, true to their own core values. As a result, every student and every mentor has a unique experience. The program’s founders and the people who run the program now hope those experiences will make them better attorneys and better people.Krista Griffith said that the time she spent with Justice Anderson “has equipped me to become a more effective lawyer. I appreciated his willingness to challenge my responses to his questions on numerous topics, such as my beliefs regarding the intersection of faith and law. These conversations stretched me and provided me with an outlet to discuss concepts that arose in classes, reflect on how such beliefs might impact legal practice and learn to articulate a coherent position on these matters.”In addition to the mentoring that Justice Anderson provides to a student like Griffith, the program has its own responsibility and commitment to help each student advance. Program administrators review each student entry in the mentor log – more than 7,000 entries each year. This exercise accomplishes two goals: first, reviewing each log provides necessary quality control, and second, commenting on student entries allows program administrators to further shape the experience through feedback and perspective.

Bateson, who reviews the experiences and conversations logged in the program, keeps the big picture in mind.

“I see what our mentors and students accomplish together and I realize we’re planting seeds,” Bateson said. “Each of the seeds grows differently and bears fruit at different times, but they all eventually flourish.”

Author: Doug Stone, of Doug Stone Communications, L.L.C., is a former journalist at the StarTribune, where he covered legal affairs, and at WCCO-TV, where he was assistant news director. He also was the late Sen. Paul Wellstone’s first press secretary in Washington, D.C.

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