At least once a month, Magistrate Judge Roger Cosbey and law student Christian Allen can be found seated at a table at Don Hall’s Old Gas House Restaurant, a hot spot for the legal community in Fort Wayne. The topic of conversation does not stray too far from legal concepts and procedures, ethical issues, and trials underway at the E. Ross Adair Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse on Harrison Street.
Local attorneys and judges often stop by their table throughout the evening to enjoy a quick chat. For Allen, a student at Indiana Tech Law School, watching those professionals socialize and hearing them talk about issues they are working on has taught him how important personal interaction is to lawyers.
The attorneys and judges, Allen said, are very down-to-earth. Moreover, they love to teach and welcome new people into the profession, he said.
Dinner at Don Hall’s has given Allen insight into being a lawyer that he, and most other law students, would not get in a classroom.
Those are the types of learning experiences Indiana Tech Law School is hoping to foster with its mentor program. At the beginning of their first semester, students are matched with professionals from the legal community who will advise, encourage and guide them through all three years of study.
Dean Peter Alexander launched the idea for the long-term mentoring program when he arrived from Southern Illinois University School of Law. He spent considerable time meeting one-on-one with judges and attorneys, talking about the law school and asking them to be mentors. The effort paid off. For the inaugural year of the law school, more than 80 legal professionals have volunteered to be mentors.
Cosbey, magistrate judge in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, sees some of himself in Allen and wants to provide his mentee with opportunities he did not have as a law student.
Coming from a family that had no connections to the law, Cosbey did not meet a practicing lawyer until he was able to get a summer position working for an attorney after his second year of law school. More than seeing the motions and pleadings for the first time, Cosbey, like Allen, was most impressed by the way the attorney carried himself.
“I think he was a good role model in terms of professionalism,” the magistrate judge said of his mentor. “I think that was probably the most important thing I observed.”
The process of pairing students with their mentors began with questionnaires.
Members of the bench and bar who were interested in being a mentor filled out a form denoting their areas of practice, undergraduate and law school alma maters, and volunteer activities in the community. Likewise, students indicated their interests, such as in criminal law, family law or another area.
Then Ruth de Wit, Alexander’s executive assistant, put all that data into a spreadsheet. She and Alexander then compared interests and backgrounds of students and potential mentors before matching each student with a local professional.
She said the pairing was a “little bit like matchmaking.”
How the relationship develops between the mentor and the student is largely left to the two individuals. The law school asks that the attorneys and judges who volunteer for the program meet at least one time each semester with their students and try to attend a function at the law school.
Rachel Johnston gets excited every time her mentor, attorney Cathy Niemeyer, arrives at the law school to take her to dinner each month. “Best” and “awesome” are words Johnston tosses around to describe Niemeyer.
The dinner topics range from coursework and legal concepts to how to schedule time for workouts and what classes to take next year.
“She actually understands because she’s been there, done that,” Johnston said of Niemeyer. “She’s just there for me as a support. I really appreciate being given the perspective and input from someone who has been to law school and is now a practicing attorney.”
The lunchtime conversations between Allen Circuit Judge Tom Felts and his student, Kyle Noone, probably leave little time to actually eat. Felts is a Republican, Noone is a Democrat; Felts is a trial judge, Noone is the Elwood City Court judge; Felts is a new grandfather; Noone is a new father.
“We have not lacked at all for things to talk about,” Felts said.
An interesting part of the mentorship for Felts has been its impact on him. Discussing judicial philosophy and temperament with his student, and seeing how enthusiastic Noone is about the law, Felts said it has kind of reinvigorated him.
Once a week, Tonya Bankhead sits down with her mentor, Victoria Duke, associate professor of law at Indiana Tech Law School. The two have talked about class assignments, time management, research topics, and ethics in sessions which typically exceed an hour.
“Whatever I need help with, whatever I have going on right now, we talk about,” Bankhead said.
How comfortable and helpful the mentorship has become is not what Bankhead expected. In fact, she admits that she initially hid from Duke, thinking she didn’t have time and didn’t need the assistance.
Bankhead arrived on campus confident she could handle the coursework. She holds a master’s degree in criminal justice so she is familiar with procedures, and she has the writing skills to compose essays.
Quickly, Bankhead realized, law school is “totally different.” Duke has enabled her to navigate those differences and remain comfortable even when she takes a test or turns in legal briefs longer than her classmates’ briefs.
Through watching his mentor conduct trials at the federal courthouse, Allen has broadened his interests beyond criminal law and has begun hoeing a path to his future. He is considering pursuing a law clerk post after graduation and, for this summer, has already secured a position working for a judge in the Illinois 5th District Appellate Court.
Without having a mentor, he said, “I would still think this is the best law school in the world, but the mentor program just really put it over the top and brought everything together.”•