Musings on Mentoring

By Jane Salem, staff attorney, Nashville

It’s May. I get sentimental this time of year at graduations.

Some people cry at weddings, but I prefer graduations. I’m just very inspired by young people walking across a stage and celebrating hard work and success. Especially now, when schooling became a whole lot more complicated by a pandemic not too long ago.

In two years, I will get to attend a law school graduation ceremony that will surely require lots of tissues for me.

That’s because early last summer, I was invited to join the Belmont University College of Law Inns of Court. I was unsure how anyone there had ever heard of me or why I was considered “mentor material.” I have a job in law that I love, so by my definition, I’m a success. But probably by some others’ standards, it’s marginal success. I make a comfortable but modest living. Also, I haven’t worked fulltime for my entire career, and most of my experience was in a nontraditional field. I only took and passed the Tennessee bar exam six years ago.

Despite my misgivings about my suitability for this role, I said yes. I’m so glad that I did.

Inn members attend monthly continuing legal education programs, and some present them for the group as well. So its purpose, in part, is member education. But the main focus is exposing the students to various career options and one-on-one mentoring.

In September, I was randomly paired with two 1Ls, both of whom I liked instantly, and I hope they feel the same. My conversations with them, and just being present in a building of classrooms, immediately transported me back to the ‘90s and my own law school experience.

Attorneys, do you remember being called on for the very first time? How about trying to outline? Preparing for that first set of exams, a/k/a the “three-hour writing contests”? Getting that first set of grades, and equating your entire sense of self-worth on them? Trying to understand future interests, or the first week of constitutional law? How about looking for a job as a clerk or summer associate, putting on that suit and trying to look as grown-up as possible?

These are just some of the more terrifying memories that came flooding back to me. My mentees have experienced all that already, nine months in. Plus, they have the added stress I didn’t have of social media.

Law school is hard. And it culminates with perhaps one of the most difficult professional challenges lawyers face, the bar exam. I often think it’s just a miracle that any of us survive.

I guess what qualifies me to be a mentor isn’t the fact that I was top of my class (nope, smack dab in the middle). I wasn’t invited to join law review, nor did I try to write on one (too many summer music festivals and other fun to be had!). And I’ve never worked at a large law firm (small firm, then legal publishing, now the state).

But you know what I do have? Wrinkles, a little more self-confidence, work experience, and perspective. And most importantly, I’m a parent. I’m used to building people up.

My mentees have shared their fears about getting good grades. The curve is difficult at Belmont, and the pressure is intense, although arguably, that’s true with every law school. Still, I’ve told them that after the first job, no one asks anymore. Concern over grades is certainly warranted but temporary.

So you didn’t get that clerkship or job you wanted? Oh, I know rejection well! But I also know the excitement of finally landing a job that I really wanted. Argh, it’s trite, but things work out how they’re supposed to.

“I’m exhausted.” The unfortunate news here is, we’re a profession of workaholics. Despite the occasional push for attorney wellness, billable hours and rainmaking are constant pressures. It’s even harder if you have a family. I guess my only response on this one is, get used to it. Or, make it a priority to find a job that will allow you some balance and sleep. Those jobs are out there; I found one.

“I got an A on my legal writing assignment!” “I made the Dean’s List!” “Yayyyy!

“This professor is horrible when you get called on.” That’s awful. Here’s where mom mode kicks in again; I get angry when people are mean to my children, too. However, the legal profession, sadly, tolerates a few terrible bullies. Don’t let them destroy you. Call them out whenever you can. Don’t become one.

In sum, I’ve problem-solved with them. I’ve helped with cover letters and made introductions. I’ve bought lunch, beers, and coffee—lots of coffee. Mostly, I’ve listened to them, and reassured them that this, too, shall pass. Those words were some of my own Mom’s best comfort.

The cool thing is, they’ve been a sounding board to me, too. This pandemic has been rough on us all. They’ve listened to me talk about that and the impact it’s had on my children. They’ve made me laugh, and encouraged me. Their energy and positivity, despite what they’re going through, are phenomenal. They actually consider my advice. Then there’s the Belmont Law t-shirt one of them gave me for Christmas, even though she’s broke. What kindness.

You know where I’m going with this…that when you volunteer for something, you tend to get back more than you give. Again, trite, but true.

So, if you’re ever asked to be a mentor, say yes. We all get by with a little help from our friends. And young people/new lawyers, get a mentor. There might be some free coffee and decent advice in it for you.

Congratulations to all who navigated the first year of law school. Life gets much better as a 2L and 3L, and suddenly you’re a lawyer. In hindsight, it happens pretty fast, and if you’re lucky, you make some lifelong friends along the way.

And congratulations to all 2022 graduates!

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