How Do Lawyers Become Citizen Lawyers? Here’s what a couple of mentorship pairs have gained in the Mentor Program
by John Baker
Young lawyer Natalie Lynch last year was looking for a mentor in a small firm with a general practice. Through the Denver Bar Association’s new Mentor Program, she found that and much more in mentor Jane Ebisch.
"Jane called once to chat and her call was a godsend. I was in the midst of a panic attack and she told me exactly where to find exactly what I needed," said Lynch. "She followed up later with an e-mail reminding me that partners ask associates hard questions because they are hard questions. She is better than any blood pressure medicine."
Well before the advent of modern-day blood pressure meds, in 1789 Thomas Jefferson founded William & Mary Law School to train "citizen lawyers" to work for the common good. But times have changed, and law schools’ curricula are crowded with ever-expanding subjects. Today, most citizen lawyers learn their practice on the job, from role models and mentors. This is where the DBA’s new Mentor Program comes in.
Besides helping with legal questions, Ebisch gives Lynch something else. Lynch recalls, "I was pregnant and scared, which I realize sounds cliché. I had worked really hard to start my career but the company I worked for had fired everyone who became a mom. As a result, I had no mentors in the company and not many outside. I can always use a new friend, but this program gave me the opportunity to pick the type of friend I needed at that point in my life."
Ebisch says the mentorship has "refreshed" her perspective. "I had forgotten how hard it is to be a young lawyer and a young mother at the same time."
Ebisch and Lynch are among 50 mentor-mentee pairs matched by Nancy Cohen’s Mentor Program in its inaugural year. In the spring of 2009, then-DBA President Mark Fogg helped launch the program to connect new lawyers with role models. The committee had initially expected to connect approximately 20-25 pairs.
"In these tough economic times, more and more lawyers open up their own offices and have little opportunity to work with appropriate role models or learn from experienced mentors. Our program provides them those opportunities," said Cohen.
How the Mentoring Program Works
The roles of the mentors and the mentees in the program are almost as diverse as the Denver legal community. Mentee wishes were honored, whenever possible, to be matched with mentors by type of practice, by specialty of practice or by gender or ethnicity.
Pairs committed to work together for an entire year, from June 2009 to June 2010. During the year, the pairs have kept in touch, participating in a variety of activities ranging from joint CLE programs to social activities. The pairs were encouraged to co-counsel a pro bono case from Metro Volunteer Lawyers. However, program guidelines prohibit mentees from pressing mentors for specific legal advice on the mentee’s cases or to "hit up" the mentor for a job.
There are other mentorship success stories, too. For example, Hilary Anderson, an associate from Burns, Figa & Will, was looking for a role model who was a woman attorney in litigation. Vicki Johnson is the current president of the Colorado Women’s Bar Association and has an active trial practice at Davis Graham & Stubbs.
"From a personal standpoint, I have gained not only a great friend but someone who has helped me keep things in perspective. It’s easy to get wrapped up in all work and no play or things that seem incredibly critical but in reality will be forgotten," said Anderson. "I have gained a wealth of knowledge from Vicki about growing my career as a lawyer, including focus points for the next few years as a young associate. Vicki is an excellent role model and has gone the extra mile to introduce me to numerous tools she uses to expand her knowledge, refine her skills and maintain a client base and network."
Johnson said she, too, gets a great deal out of being a mentor. "It helps me to remember the experiences of a newer attorney so that I can better relate with the associates who work with me. I also really admire Hilary for her positive approach to work and her life. She works really hard and cares very much about doing a good job. It’s a great reminder that the work we do, although hard, is challenging and interesting to attorneys at all levels."
How Can You Become a Mentor or a Mentee?
Because of success stories like these during the past year under Nancy Cohen’s leadership, and with the hard work of the 2009-2010 DBA Mentoring Committee, the program is getting ready for another successful year of mentorships. Committee members, include Ingrid A. Briant, Nancy L. Cohen, Olivia C. De Blasio, Mark A. Fogg, Valerie A. Garcia, Thomas L. Kanan, Jr., Suzanne Lambdin, Elizabeth Lewis, Caren Stacy, Leia G. Ursery, Dianne A. Van Voorhees and me.
The committee is recruiting for the 2010-2011 Mentoring Program class. Look at www.denbar.org for applications. This year’s program will begin with a gala orientation party on June 24. If you need a mentor, sign up. If you want to mentor a new lawyer, sign up!