|Oregon State Bar Bulletin APRIL 2009|
Heather Van Meter struck gold when she met her mentors as a first-year law student at Willamette University during the mid-1990s. As Oregon Appeals Court Judge Rick Haselton and Keith Swanson, a partner with Swanson, Lathen, Alexander, McCann & Prestwich in Salem, shared nuggets of wisdom with Van Meter about routine practice issues, they also provided her with invaluable lessons about professionalism and ethics, she says.
One that particularly stands out in her mind is when Swanson took her to her first deposition in 1996. Halfway through the process, Swanson realized another defendant should have been included in the lawsuit. He asked the opposing attorney if they wanted to stop so they didn’t have to go through the process twice.
"He didn’t have to do that, it wasn’t anything he was required to do, but it was absolutely the right thing to do as a professional courtesy," she says. "Not only was this attorney taking the time to show me how the deposition process works, but he also — probably without even thinking about it — showed me the professional, courteous thing to do."
Van Meter, now an attorney in Williams Kastner’s Portland office, says she strives for a similar standard of professionalism. "When I am handling cases, I always try to approach it the same way because that’s what I learned as a first-year law student."
Haselton taught her that the best way to show a mentor gratitude is to serve as one for somebody else, a nugget she passes on to her own mentees. "I always say, ‘I had great mentors who helped me get where I am, it’s my job to help you and it’s your job to help the next person,’" she says. "They showed me the importance of mentoring and they are still mentors to me, so it’s a continuing relationship."
One rural Oregon solo practitioner, who asked to remain anonymous, wasn’t as fortunate. Though he had a positive mentorship experience early in his career, he found that, with the exception of one senior lawyer, the commitment to an associate’s professional guidance at a different firm was "sporadic, reluctant and given grudgingly."
"I got to the point where I wasn’t really receiving a lot of mentoring and was teaching myself," he says. "I figured that since I was already taking on the independent role of working through cases without helpful guidance, I might as well have all the benefits of ownership by starting my own firm."
He attributes part of the problem to a generation gap. Though he now has an older mentor who has been generous in sharing his knowledge, he believes that is an anomaly.
"What I’ve noticed is that lawyers 50 and over are horrible mentors," he says. "When you ask a question, they make you feel behind the curve for asking. And there is this element of competition, or a kind of insecurity, that seems to exist with older lawyers. It’s a frustrating thing to run into.
"These negative behaviors just aren’t as prevalent with my contemporaries, who are more apt to engage positively by sharing experiences, suggestions, and approaches than resort to a kind of competitive insecurity that exists with lawyers 50 and up," he adds.
The young attorney has another mentor who is closer to his age and seems a better fit. "He goes out of his way to be helpful and answer my questions. It’s just night and day," he says. "And, as a solo practitioner, I find I get much more help and mentoring from other solo practitioners than I did when I was in a firm. It’s not supposed to be that way."
Many lawyers, Chris Helmer among them, have discovered senior partners at large firms who were more than willing to serve as mentors. Helmer, a partner at Miller Nash and one of the first women partners at a large Portland firm, says fellow partner Dean DeChaine took her under his wing when she joined the firm during the early ’70s. It was a time when the good ol’ boy network served young male attorneys rather than the few women graduating from law school.
"I was lucky because I had a good ol’ boy who didn’t see any difference between me and a young male attorney, although he didn’t say, ‘Hey, I’m going to be your mentor,’" Helmer says. "I don’t think he helped me because I was a woman. He took an interest in me and he just liked me as a person. And he’s a good, kind person who will help anybody."
Now that she’s been practicing for 35 years, the sharing of professional advice is a two-way street and she and DeChaine often bounce ideas off each other. Helmer says she often realizes that strategic decisions she makes on cases stem from tips DeChaine offered. When it comes to professionalism and ethics, her most valuable lessons have been to protect her credibility; don’t over-promise or under-deliver to the court; and treat other attorneys as she would treat a potential friend.
"There are many times when you would just as soon slug (an opposing attorney) or hang up on them, but it helps to just take a deep breath. There have been very few times when that approach hasn’t worked," she says. "I think the fact that we are not as likely to run into the same people on cases as we were when I started practicing has an effect on how people treat each other. People think, ‘Well, I’m never going to run into this person again so it doesn’t matter how I act.’ We all know that it does matter."
Growing Bar, Shrinking Manners?
There is little argument that mentors can provide the perspective and guidance that helps reduce unprofessional behavior. Few people have been zeroed in on professionalism among lawyers for as long or as deeply as the Hon. Edwin Peterson, a former chief justice with the Oregon Supreme Court and founder of the bar’s Professionalism Commission. Peterson learned his sense of professionalism from Lamar Tooze Sr., whose four-person firm he joined in 1957.
Among those lessons: Treat others with courtesy, including your opponent’s client; complete tasks on time; and do good, careful, thorough work. Also, if you run into a problem during a trial — such as a looming deadline you fear you may miss — call your opposing attorney because they just may be able to help you out, Peterson says.
Now a law professor at Willamette University, Peterson created the commission after witnessing and hearing about repeated examples of unprofessional behavior in the courts. The most common form, Peterson says, is professional discourtesy.
"It’s mainly during depositions when lawyers bad-mouth other lawyers or judges," he says. "When I was in practice, even though there might be a judge I had no respect for, I was never critical of the judge before my client because I felt it was important that my client have confidence in the system."
While it’s difficult to measure the level of professionalism among Bar members, the commission recently completed its second survey of randomly selected members to gauge current perceptions. (The survey results are pending and will be released soon.)
"My perception, based upon complaints I hear from lawyers, is that as the bar has grown, it has become more impersonal and less professional," Peterson says.
Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge John Wittmayer, Peterson’s colleague on the Professionalism Commission for the last decade, agrees.
"I think it’s gotten worse simply because the bar has grown so much that the personal relationships are less strong than they once were. Lawyers are less apt to encounter each other," he says. "What has made it better is the increased emphasis on professionalism. There are a lot of members within the bar and outside the bar who have been working on this for a long time to help soften the problem."
Another form of unprofessional behavior stems from viewing opposing counsel as the enemy rather than an individual who is simply doing his or her job for the benefit of their client, Wittmayer notes.
"It shows a lack of understanding to see the other lawyer as part of the problem. We have this advocacy system that requires both sides to be strong advocates for their clients. When a lawyer sees opposing counsel as the enemy, they lose objectivity," he says.
As the economic recession dampens hiring opportunities for younger attorneys, many recent law school grads are establishing their own practices. Though larger practices don’t always provide a rich pool of mentorship resources, the situation still invites the question: where will these young attorneys find their mentors?
"I’ve talked to any number of young lawyers who complain that even though they are in a firm, they get very little tutelage," Peterson says. "Members of big and small firms should do more than give lip service to the need for mentoring young lawyers."
Wittmayer, noting that isolation can be dangerous, says mentorship is particularly important for young solo practitioners.
"As young lawyers hang out their shingle and go out on their own they are increasingly vulnerable to issues of professionalism because they have less opportunity to interact with older lawyers, and it’s important to actively seek out opportunities for mentoring," he says. "Mentorship opportunities within large firms are very important, but sometimes a mentor outside of one’s workplace is equally valuable and has a fresh perspective."
Eric McQuilkin, 34, actively sought out mentors when he opened his own practice last year. McQuilkin, a member of the bar’s Pro Bono Subcommittee, says he is among a select group who benefited from his mentorship experience.
"Fortunately I had a great mentor, but it took an effort. Each mentor program seems to offer something slightly different and unique. Some programs are more generalized and welcome you to the profession or the practice of law, but you’re not necessarily paired with someone in your field of interest," he says.
"I’m very grateful to have a great coach right now and it’s unbelievably different to have someone who sincerely cares about your professional development. It really helps you deal with your anxiety about starting out alone," McQuilkin adds. "From administrative and business issues to more substantive aspects, you’re juggling a lot and learning a lot. Everybody wants to do a good job, and it’s hard not to have a complete panic attack unless you have someone telling you you’re doing a good job."
A Wealth of Opportunities
These days, there are a growing number of formal mentorship programs offered through law schools as well as the Oregon State Bar, the Multnomah Bar Association (MBA), Oregon Women Lawyers and other professional organizations. Elizabeth Kafel opened her solo practice last year after a 15-year career in the high-tech industry and says she is indebted to mentors she met through the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association, the MBA and the bar.
"Everybody has been really helpful, and they are all great for different reasons," Kafel says, adding their advice ranges from issues about the legal process to recommendations about CLE programs and trials she should observe to hone her litigation skills. "I ask a lot of questions, including some stupid ones, but everyone I’ve worked with is so patient and incredibly generous with their time."
When Van Meter became a lawyer in 1998, she joined the American Inns of Court, a nationwide program made up of judges, attorneys, law professors and law students. As secretary of the executive committee for the Owen Panner American Inn of Court, Van Meter helps organize programs that foster ethics, skills and professionalism among Oregon legal professionals.
"Newer attorneys get the opportunity to speak and ask questions in a non-threatening environment, and if they make a mistake it’s OK because they are among friends," she says. "Frankly, some of the senior attorneys and judges learn a lot from the younger attorneys about how the newer generation views the practice of law, so it goes both ways."
Such formal programs continue to be valuable for professional development, though informal mentorships often are just as successful, Wittmayer says.
"The first lawyer I ever met was the father of a friend of mine in high school, and that lawyer is the reason I went into law school and maybe even college. My mom cleaned houses, my dad was a car mechanic and they didn’t go to college, so there was no expectation that I would go to college and certainly nothing beyond that. This lawyer was a mentor to me even before I knew it," he says.
Wittmayer became a mentor through a formal program, and at first took on the responsibility of initiating contact with his mentees, who often were reluctant to contact him first. As Wittmayer’s workload increased, he became less assertive about initiating contact and soon felt like he wasn’t holding up his end of the bargain. However, the opportunities to serve as a mentor that arose through personal relationships had more positive results for both sides, he says.
"There have been dozens of serendipitous opportunities that arise and those are the opportunities that excite me. I have, frankly, faded in my enthusiasm for the more formal programs and I find the informal mentorships much more meaningful," Wittmayer says.
Among the lessons he passes on that he learned from his mentors: Guard your reputation zealously because you live and die by your credibility; be scrupulously honest with adverse council and the court; and be willing to concede weaknesses because that adds credibility to your strong points.
Wittmayer, Peterson, Helmer and Van Meter each say that serving as a mentor is among their most rewarding personal accomplishments. Peterson, Willamette law school’s Mentor of the Year in 1994-95, often works with two or three students each year and says the friendships forged most often are everlasting.
"In November 2007, my wife and I traveled through California and visited several former mentees. I continue to have relationships with these young lawyers and their growing families. It’s a wonderful experience for me," he says.
Helmer, who teaches an international arbitration and litigation class at Lewis & Clark College’s law school, says she often mentors and becomes friends with at least a couple of students each term.
"It’s easy to get involved in the matters of clients and cases, and if you don’t have the opportunity to sit down and have a relationship with these people you’re really missing out. It feels really good," she says. "It’s a different kind of feeling good when you see someone who feels more confident or better because they talked with you."
Van Meter says she thinks of her mentors every time she works with a new attorney, though she admits her service is not completely altruistic.
"I’m paying Judge Haselton back for all of the mentoring he gave me, and I also mentor because it makes me feel very good personally," she says. "For me, it’s almost selfish because I feel really good about helping the next group of people get into the profession and find their way, whatever form that takes."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
© 2009 Melody Finnemore