Promoting Confidence in the Legal Profession Requires Promoting Competence through Mentorship
The Bencher—January/February 2019
By Usman O. Suleman
The field of law is constantly being scrutinized as we move forward in a world more connected than ever. It can be daunting to find one’s place in such a fast-changing world, and those of us entering the field must be prepared as soon as possible. Mentorship is the solution.
Through mentorship, the paragons of the profession can raise up protégés and future members of the law, who will be able to weather whatever storm comes their way. In turn, they will also be well-equipped to raise the generation that comes after them.
Since I began my law school journey in 2016, I have had the fortune of finding mentors who have made my development as painless as I can imagine it. I entered law school knowing I would need guidance, so I sought all means of mentorship I could find. I acquired my first mentor in a conventional manner. I was paired with him through the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity’s mentorship program. I only met with him in person once because a couple months later he returned to his home country. However, he imparted onto me that successful lawyers don’t let uncertainty scare them and that they continue to strive for their dreams.
Finding a mentor is not always the easiest task, but the rewards are invaluable to both parties. Good mentors are typically busy individuals. It may be difficult for them to find time to spend with their mentee, but a good mentee will appreciate that and appreciate the time spent even more. An extremely beloved mentor of mine is Judge Jeannie J. Hong of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. She is very busy but is always willing to find time to meet, hear about my developments, and provide advice on moving forward. A good mentoring relationship requires effort from both individuals.
Due diligence is the trademark of every good lawyer. It is instinct to believe that those who instruct us always know what is best. One of my law professors instructed me after my first semester in law school to review my exams with all my professors. If I had neglected to do so I would have never received the half-grade bump after my professor found that he had failed to provide credit for an answer I had sufficiently provided.
The world of law is unlike many other practices and requires that we unlearn much of what we have been taught. Mentors who can meld mentees into thinking and acting like lawyers are essential to ensuring a successful evolution from lay person to lawyer.
Another mentor told me at our first lunch, “If someone you are hoping to become your mentor asks for you to pick up or split the bill when you meet, they may not be the best mentor.” A mentor does not have to be one-size-fits-all. In fact, he became one of my mentors on the advice of another mentor who felt he would be able to provide additional insight of which she may be unaware.
Effective mentors are those whose actions, if mirrored by their mentees, would be looked upon admirably professionally. Good mentors do not need to be everything to their mentees, but they should—at the most basic level—be role models and exemplify the kind of practitioner who will uphold the integrity of the profession.
The mentor-mentee relationship is not all given by the mentor. Mentees should also contribute to the relationship. Understandably, mentees can be limited in what they can immediately provide to the relationship. In the beginning they should be putting in most of the legwork in setting up times to meet and deciding what to discuss. Because we expect mentors to be busy it falls upon mentees to be tenacious and show perseverance.
With my first mentor I was new to the mentor-mentee dynamic and was, in all honesty, a poor mentee. Good mentees keep their mentors up-to-date with their progress even if an in-person meeting isn’t a viable option. When in-person meetings do happen, the onus is on the mentees to keep the conversation going—at least for the first few meetings. If either person is unable to keep a conversation up through lunch, it is possible that they are not the best match for one another. Not every mentor fits every mentee and vice versa.
Mentors are not just for students. Mentorship can be a boon for already-practicing professionals as well. Firms can make great use of establishing mentor-mentee relationships with newer and senior staff. Such relationships can help improve employee retention and will more than likely increase work quality and productivity. It was at a firm event on mentorship where I met the mentor who drilled into me the quality that I try to define myself by to this very day. Another mentor has told me every time we meet that I need to remember to “be bold.” That boldness has taken me far.
I am currently a student attorney practicing in my school’s Veterans Advocacy Clinic and serving as the president of our student bar association. These demanding roles on top of my academic and work have pushed me to limits I have never been to before. I know for a fact that I am persevering because I was lifted by those who took the time to strengthen and lift me up. As I climb ever higher I will never forget that kindness, and I will always look forward to paying it back in kind.
I would be remiss to not include advice I received before I started law school. During orientation week, my father asked me what area of the law I was interested in practicing. I told him immigration law as that is what he has practiced extensively. Despite his excitement at the news of my decision to go to law school a year before, he told me to keep my options open. I was a bit perplexed at the time, but I am glad that I chose to explore all that the law has to offer.
The same advice applies to mentoring: Keep your options open. Not every mentoring relationship will flourish and blossom beautifully, but they will all yield fruits of wisdom to nourish the incoming generation as we prepare to take our places in the legal community.
Usman O. Suleman is a 3L at the University of Baltimore School of Law where he is currently pursuing a juris doctor with a concentration in family law. He is a member of the James C. Cawood, Jr. American Inn of Court in Annapolis, Maryland.