Practice Makes (Practice) Perfect

Mentor Program combines practical experience, philosophical issues

It makes sense that a practicing professional would be able to show a novice how to do something: how to hammer a nail efficiently, say. But, why? Most of us take the why of our professional lives for granted, doing what we have been taught to do the way we have been taught to do it.

UST Law strives to do something different through a unique Mentor Program that will pair incoming students with practicing mentors for the full three years of their law school careers.

"The Mentor Program at St. Thomas is distinctive," said Dean David Link. "I’m not aware of another law school in America that has anything quite as extensive and pervasive. The point is not simply to expose students to a number of people and tasks — although we will do that — but also to help students think hard about the type of lawyer they want to be. Our mentors will show students how to be a lawyer but also why to be a lawyer."

Neil Hamilton, a practicing attorney in Minneapolis and Indianapolis before beginning his career in teaching, will lead the Mentor Program.

"Like medicine, law is one of the so-called learned professions," he said. "Through our Mentor Program, we hope to affirm the aspirational aspect of what it means to be a member of a learned profession."

"There is a very practical side to this aspect of the curriculum," said A. Ray McCoy, dean of students, who earned a J.D. at the University of Minnesota in 1993. "Graduating students should know how to initiate a lawsuit and where the courthouse is — things they can learn ‘on the job’ through the Mentor Program. They will be practice-ready. They will be good practitioners."

To gain that practical experience, students will begin meeting with a mentor during their first week of classes and continue that relationship throughout their three years of legal training. By directly observing the practice of law, students will gain a real-life context for topics that arise in the classroom.

As an example, said Hamilton, for Civil Procedure, a required first-year course, a mentor might arrange for a student to see part of a deposition and the arguments on a discovery motion and a motion for summary judgment. The mentors will arrange for other members of the bar to introduce students to their work so that, over the three years, they will be exposed to different areas of practice and the spectrum of work that lawyers do. As the budding lawyers advance through the curriculum, the complexity of the tasks they will be asked to perform will increase.

Link characterized the mentors as role models. He cited a 1992 report by the American Bar Association Task Force on Law Schools and the Profession that identified 10 skills and four values that are essential to the good practice of law. The skills include problem solving, legal analysis and reasoning, research, factual investigation, communication, counseling, negotiation, litigation and alternative dispute-resolution procedures, organization and management, and recognizing and resolving ethical issues. Fundamental values identified were: providing competent representation; promoting justice, fairness and morality; striving to improve the profession; and professional self-development.

"It’s easy to teach the skills in law school," Link said, "but it’s much harder to pass on the values. That’s the real importance of this Mentor Program."

The opportunity to examine these values in practice goes to the "why" questions of being an attorney. While in the field, students will be exposed to the kind of ethical issues that practitioners face and they will see, first-hand, how lawyers address these issues.

"There are philosophical questions at hand," said Link. "A lawyer has to ask him- or herself, ‘Am I taking this deposition to determine the facts or as a delay tactic to bury my opponent in paper?’" Questions such as this will give students a context in which to consider their own faith and values, added McCoy.

"Traditionally, law school is a disintegrating experience, where students are taught to separate their faith and personal beliefs from their practice," said Hamilton. In dialogue with their mentors and by sharing with others in a seminar course, students will have the opportunity to integrate their personal and professional lives.

This reflection should be of value to the mentors as well as to the students.

Tom DiPasquale, a 1981 graduate of William Mitchell College of Law and a member of the 3M legal team, values his role as a mentor to junior attorneys within his department.

"A good mentor is a good listener, operates with integrity and fairness and is sincere," he explained. "When you mentor, you are more conscious of those things. When someone is observing you in a setting, that consciousness helps you grow as a person."

"Mentoring generates a lot of conversation," Hamilton said. "When students bring questions to their mentors for discussion, the mentors will have to think about those issues. Through the students and their questions, we [in the School of Law] will be introducing new literature to the legal community."

In the end, this new approach to education should benefit the legal community.

"All professions — not just law — are struggling with these issues. Doctors, lawyers, architects — we all wonder how to seek the high aspirations of our chosen field in the face of the current focus on money and the bottom line," said Hamilton. "Our students will have a head start on finding their path."