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DTCI: Be a good lawyer, but also be a good mentor

November 10, 2010
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By Libby Valos Moss
As I sat in my office trying to decide on a topic for this article, I reached out to my colleagues. Our conversation quickly turned toward the value and importance of a young associate having a good mentor. We tend to get so caught up in our own cases and running our law firms that we overlook the importance of teaching new lawyers. I have been fortunate to have had some great mentors during my career. The following is my list of things I have learned over the years in striving to be a good mentor.

1. Teach advocacy along with civility. While you must advocate zealously for your client, you can do so while being polite, professional, and without making it personal. We all want our new lawyers to learn to be good advocates, but a good mentor can teach one to do so with respect and civility toward opposing counsel.

2. Give praise for a job well done. It can be much easier to point out all the mistakes someone made and overlook the accomplishments. Praising a younger lawyer can go a long way to boost confidence. You do not have to throw a party, give an award, or shout it to the world; a simple “nice job” will do the trick.

3. However, when a mistake has been made, talk directly to the new lawyer about a problem, not behind his or her back. It is so easy to be disappointed with the way a new lawyer has handled something and – instead of talking to him directly – complain to your colleagues. While it may not be the most comfortable conversation, the new lawyer will learn to appreciate your being forthright and direct. He cannot learn from a mistake if he doesn’t know a mistake has been made.

4. Give criticism in a respectful manner. I hear too many horror stories from my colleagues and former classmates about partners yelling, throwing tantrums, and being condescending toward younger associates when pointing out mistakes. Chances are, the new lawyer will only remember the way you acted instead of what was done wrong and how it could be done differently. Your goal should be to teach, not to intimidate, which will certainly result in a better work product the next time you assign a project.

5. Encourage creative thinking. When teaching young associates, don’t just tell them what to do. Sit down and brainstorm with them to identify the problem and assist in reaching a solution that is good for the client. Allowing associates to talk and think through a problem will go a long way toward teaching them independence and that not all lawsuits and/or problems are to be resolved in the same fashion.

6. Teach humility. In the world of law, you will lose some and you will win some. Nobody likes a bad loser or a bad winner. Either way, do it with grace.

Whether you agree with my list or not, try to be a good mentor. Someone may even thank you some day.•

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Ms. Moss is a partner in the Indianapolis office of Kightlinger & Gray and sits on the board of directors of the DTCI. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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