Oh, Where Have All the Mentors Gone?

Darryl Singer, a lawyer and popular Continuing Professional Development presenter, laments the under-use of mentoring in the legal profession. He shares more than 20 years’ experience with the “dying art” of mentoring, with Paralegal SCOPE Magazine readers.

In the legal profession, as in many other professions, mentorship, where a senior member of the profession takes on a protégé, is a dying art.

Sadly, the focus on newly minted professionals is their ability to generate billings, as opposed to instilling in them the foundations for long-term success. Even articling, historically an integral part of legal training in Ontario, may go the way of the dodo bird in the next few years. And no such articling-equivalent program is mandated for paralegals.

For those who do article in a law firm or intern in a paralegal practice, the experience is more often an exercise in clerical tasks than a continuation of one’s legal education.

I know of very few firms anymore that are prepared to allow a student or junior the privilege of sitting and observing a day or two of a serious trial or complicated motion, preferring instead to keep her in the office cranking out piecework on files for which she has no context. This is a short-term, profit-driven decision on the part of the employer at the sacrifice of longer-term benefits to both the student and the firm.

Learning by Doing

The value of allowing your young charges a certain number of free days to just follow you around and observe cannot be overstated. And I do mean observe. Not take notes or chase down some last-minute research, but just sit and take it all in. You learn by doing. But before you can try to do, you must learn by watching. Law school and paralegal diploma programs, while giving graduates of such degrees a basic grounding in the law, do not teach one how to be an effective advocate, how to generate and manage clients, or any of the other skill sets required to be successful in the legal profession.

During my articles, more than 20 years ago, I dare say I learned more in two days in the gallery of a courtroom at the old 145 Queen Street West family court observing an acrimonious divorce trial (are there any other kind?) than I did in three years of law school.

The wealthy but estranged spouses were represented on one side by my mentor, the late (all too soon, sadly) H. Douglas Stewart, Q.C. and the esteemed Malcolm Kronby. I was afforded the opportunity to witness up close and personal: the style and substance of oral advocacy at its finest; the art of simple but effective cross-examination; the obvious and not-so-obvious benefits of knowing your case inside-out and backward; as well as a perfect interplay of fearless advocacy and courtroom decorum; not to mention the civility with which each litigator treated his adversary and his adversary’s client.

If what I see of young legal professionals in court and at discoveries lately is any indication, I can infer that all too often this sort of mentoring is not part of most firms’ articling programs.

Benefits Outweigh Costs

True, being an effective mentor comes at a short-term financial cost. It takes you away from otherwise billable hours. It means there are times where you could have your inexperienced employee at her desk cranking out routine but billable work but instead you take them to court with you. However, in the long run this will pay high dividends to your firm, your clients, and you personally, not to mention the profession at large.

The importance of mentoring should not be lost on the paralegal profession. Since the licensing process elevated your profession to Law Society licensee status, the standards expected by the public who retain you, of the lawyers who refer you work, and of yourselves, is and should be greater than ever.

To those of you who have some senior level of experience I implore you to find the time to mentor.

Take on a co-op student or intern from one of the paralegal diploma programs and actually invest some of your time to ensure they gain some real value from their time under your wing. Hire a junior if you can afford to. Join the Law Society mentoring panel.

Some of these options will not cost you in terms of a salary, but if you wish to make the internship effective it will cost you significantly in terms of time. I assure you it will be worth it. Remember that your mentee will observe not only your advocacy skills and client management skills but also your general demeanor.

Professional Obligations

In fact, having an articling student monitoring my every move makes me more conscious about my conduct. For that matter, we influence all those we come into contact throughout our business day, for better or worse.

Ensuring that we uphold the highest standards of professionalism, integrity, civility, and competence and passing those attributes on to the younger generation ought to be a personal and professional obligation of all licencees.

At a minimum, we all owe that to each other and the public who place their trust in our hands. After all, good mentoring, not unlike good parenting, is more about leading by example.

Darryl Singer is a Toronto litigator who currently mentors two articling students.

by Elizabeth Published on Paralegal Scope Magazine