|Oregon State Bar Bulletin JUNE 2012|
When the Oregon State Bar launched its New Lawyer Mentoring Program a year ago, bar leaders were confident it was a strong program, developed by a task force dedicated to upholding professionalism. It quickly drew volunteer mentors who were committed to sharing their experiences — both good and bad — with new attorneys.
But what would the new lawyers themselves think of the program? With law school and the bar exam already under their belt, would they welcome a mandatory year-long mentorship as well? Not at first for some but, as four new lawyers recently shared, any initial push-back they felt has long since disappeared. And as for the volunteers, would their eagerness be rewarded?
Genesis of the NLMP
The bar’s goal in initiating the mentoring program for new lawyers was to provide personalized guidance for new members as they establish their practice. The program also seeks to maintain Oregon’s national reputation as a bar where professionalism, civility and collegiality are the norm rather than the exception.
Development of the program began with the recognition that opportunities for mentorship may no longer arise as naturally as in years past. The recession and corresponding lack of jobs have forced many new lawyers to establish solo practices. In addition, the state bar’s growth means it can be more challenging to introduce new attorneys to the legal community and guide them through the transition to law practice.
Paul De Muniz, immediate past chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, says he got involved in developing the mentorship program because he believes Oregon has a unique legal culture and he hopes to preserve that. As he searched for models for Oregon’s program, he talked with chief justices in other states about what worked and what did not.
Developed over the course of about 18 months, Oregon’s program is loosely modeled after similar programs in Georgia and Utah. This state’s program differs, however, in that it emphasizes a flexible approach in which mentors and new lawyers take the core curriculum and shape it to best meet the needs of the new lawyer.
“This is uniquely an Oregon program because it is geared toward the idea of professionalism,” De Muniz says. “As lawyers, in the truest sense of what we do, our job is to resolve conflict, not create it.”
Program’s Introduction Elicits
Range of Reactions
Medford attorney Justin Idiart is among the first class of mentorship program participants, and he admits he was not at all happy about the program when he first learned about it.
“In the beginning I was kind of upset, to tell you the truth,” he says. “I had to pay for the program and I had to meet monthly with a mentor on top of everything else I had already done in law school.”
Idiart began working in his older brother’s law firm, Idiart Law Group, seven years before deciding to go to law school, and clerked for two summers for Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Dan Harris during law school. While attending the University of Oregon’s law school, Idiart commuted to Eugene from Medford, where he and his wife were raising four children. The youngest was born a week before he started law school.
After graduating from law school in December 2010, Idiart passed the bar exam the following February. Though he was disgruntled at the prospect of the mentoring program, he was curious to see who the bar would select as his mentor. Idiart, who specializes in personal injury law and Social Security disability claims, was pleasantly surprised to have Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Tim Gerking as his mentor.
Gerking practiced insurance defense before joining the bench, and the fact that he once sat on the other side of the table from Idiart in terms of practice specialties makes the mentorship especially valuable for Idiart.
“It’s been really nice because I’ve been able to pick his brain, and I don’t think I would have been able to do that without the mentoring program,” Idiart says, adding he expects his relationship with Gerking to continue beyond the formal mentoring phase. “He told me that throughout my career, if I ever needed someone to talk to I could talk to him. I really appreciate that offer.”
Idiart, who previously has served as a mentor for high school kids through various programs, says he sees himself volunteering for the New Lawyer Mentoring Program as he gains more experience in the profession.
At the other end of the initial-reaction spectrum, Hillsboro attorney Sarah Laidlaw applauded the program when she first learned about it. Laidlaw, an associate with Corbridge & Kroll and an Arizona native, worked in criminal defense for the Maricopa County Public Defender’s Office, the Arizona Justice Project and the federal public defender’s office before moving to Oregon.
Even with that previous experience, along with several internships related to legal work, Laidlaw says she was glad to have someone to show her the ropes when she passed the bar exam last February.
“I think it’s a really fantastic idea. It should have been implemented a long time ago and I think every state should do it,” she says. “I came out of law school with a lot of hands-on experience because I did a lot of internships, clerkships and pro bono work. A lot of students don’t have time to do all of that stuff, and having a mentor allows you to connect with people who are working in your field, which is really important. You can learn all you want from classes and books, but it’s also important to have that real-world experience and that’s what the mentorship allows you to do.”
Laidlaw, who practices criminal defense, personal injury litigation and consumer bankruptcy law, says the program has been essential for her as an experienced lawyer practicing in a new state. She frequently relies on her mentor, Greg Scholl, managing director of Metropolitan Public Defenders in Hillsboro, to answer questions about Oregon law.
“He has a lot of experience, he’s very well connected and he’s an excellent attorney. I feel very secure going to him with any questions I have. That’s another aspect of the mentorship program — having a safe place where you can ask questions that may be dumb,” Laidlaw says. “He’s also really easy to talk to. Some people are just good teachers in the way they communicate with you, and he is one of those people.”
As part of their mentorship agreement, Scholl has taken Laidlaw to see firsthand how the drug court and other legal institutions operate, and he has introduced her to others in his professional network. They began the mentorship by going through the curriculum and devising a plan for getting it done most effectively.
“Sometimes pieces of the curriculum seemed like they would be pointless, but it creates conversations between Greg and I that turn out to be very important to how I practice the law,” Laidlaw says. “There is the piece on how to treat clients and that might seem obvious: You help them and treat them with respect. But just going through examples with Greg about interactions he’s had with different clients has reinforced that.”
Program Focuses on Finding the Perfect Match
Wilsonville sole practitioner Kelly Rupp passed the bar exam in February 2011 after graduating from Lewis & Clark Law School in December 2010. For her, a legal career goes beyond a professional pursuit.
“There has been adversity in my life and those around me, and that sort of personalizes the desire to have the power to achieve different outcomes or be able to help people without that education and background,” she says.
Rupp looked forward to participating in the program because she knew she could use the support after having worked full time to help support her husband and three children — the youngest of whom was born six weeks before her last law school finals — and earning her law degree in the evenings.
“You have these ideas about what being a lawyer will be like, but they don’t always match up with reality. I thought the mentoring program was a great way to fill in the gaps you don’t get from law school courses,” she says. “I think a lot of new attorneys don’t really know what (practice area) they like because practice and law school are so divergent.”
The economy forced Rupp, like many other new solos, to establish a general practice that includes trust litigation, employment law, family law, wills and trusts, and advising businesses. This diversity in practice areas made it difficult to pinpoint exactly who she needed as a mentor the first couple of matches. After revising her application, Rupp found the mentor she needed in Dan Duyck, a partner at Portland’s Whipple & Duyck.
“It’s a good fit for what I’m doing, and a lot of it is really just subtleties you don’t consider,” she says. “This is a community of people, and Dan keeps an eye out for me as a whole.”
Among the most crucial lessons she has learned from Duyck, Rupp says, is his candor and guidance when it comes to posting items in listserves.
“He will flag things and tell me when I’m divulging too much client information or point out that I should reword something so I don’t look bad,” she says, adding she expects her partnership with Duyck to evolve into a long-term mentoring relationship.
Rupp notes that she already is involved in mentoring law students and supports the concept as both a learner and a teacher.
“I signed up for every mentor program in school and the OWLs mentor program,” she says. “I just think you can get so much from somebody else’s mistakes and their experiences, more than you can from educational material alone.”
Mentors Get As Well As Give
Among the early surprises of the program is the sense that the mentors, in some cases, appear to be learning and benefiting from the program as much as the new lawyers. Paul Levy, general counsel in the Office of Public Defense Services’ Contract and Business Services Division in Salem, volunteered as a mentor to see firsthand what the program was like. He explains that a sense of duty and curiosity led him to connect with a new lawyer who, as Levy puts it, may be teaching Levy as much as he is learning.
“I have really enjoyed the mentoring relationship. I hope that it has been a benefit to my mentee, and I’m sure he’s gracious and kind enough to say that it has been. I’ve certainly gotten a lot out of it,” Levy says.
The mentor role has challenged Levy to verbalize his perspective on the legal profession and the practice of law — often easier said than done — and it has paired him with a young, Latino man from Southern California, whose background, life experiences, culture and interests are very different from Levy’s.
“I have enjoyed being exposed to that,” he says. “His interests include a lot of reading about the theory of law and law practice, which I’m not drawn to read about, but I am interested in talking about it.”
Levy and his new lawyer have focused much of their time on discussion of ethical issues, he says, and it’s been a valuable reinforcement for both. Levy was also able to introduce the young man to then-Chief Justice De Muniz, and the pair talked for over an hour. “I know the mentee enjoyed that enormously and for me it was a wonderful opportunity,” he says.
Angela Kuhn, assistant attorney in charge at the Department of Justice’s Civil Enforcement Division, volunteered to mentor a new hire who previously worked as a law clerk there.
“Even without the program I would have been her mentor, but this just gave us a different structure,” she says.
Kuhn says the curriculum requirements initially were a bit daunting, particularly with aspects that she is not familiar with, such as the Professional Liability Fund and client trust accounts.
“As we’ve worked through it it’s been a lot of fun and a great learning experience for me, too,” she says.
Serving as a mentor also has encouraged Kuhn to reconnect with her legal community as she takes the new lawyer to county bar lunches and meetings to meet people outside of her immediate practice circles.
“We’ve met civil judges and attorneys that I normally wouldn’t have pushed myself to meet because there was no need to,” Kuhn says.
Kuhn was able to play a role recently in helping her new lawyer prepare for her first permanency hearing.
“I didn’t tell her what witnesses she should call or what exhibits she should have. But she talked through the witnesses and exhibits, including what order the witnesses should appear. It sounds pretty basic, but it’s really not,” she says. Being a part of that process, and seeing it again through new eyes, has been among the most rewarding aspects of the relationship, Kuhn says.
“Kind of a Forced
Opportunity to Network”
(in a Good Way)
Like Wilsonville’s Rupp, new Bend attorney Joe Harder also became an attorney for personal reasons.
“In my personal life I saw injustice where somebody in my family or close to me wasn’t treated fairly because they didn’t understand the system,” he says. “I never wanted to feel powerless or have anyone I know feel powerless.”
Harder, an Oregon native, graduated from the University of Denver’s law school in 2010 and passed the Oregon bar exam in February 2011. He says he supported the New Lawyer Mentoring Program from the start because it seemed like a reassuring resource for new attorneys trying to succeed in a competitive field and facing a depressed job market.
“I was excited about it because I saw it as kind of a forced opportunity to network, and mentorship is a great way to get exposed to other attorneys,” he says.
Harder, who practices civil litigation and family law with Albertazzi Law Firm, is preparing to change mentors because of his recent move to Bend. Harder says he was fortunate to have a strong first mentor in Lake Oswego attorney Roderick Boutin.
“I was pretty lucky because my mentor practiced civil litigation on his own and also is a pro tem judge, so I got to learn from him as both an attorney and a judge,” he says. “He took me around to the courthouse and introduced me to the other judges, which I think is great for a new attorney because it helps demystify the whole process.”
Among other invaluable skills, Boutin has instructed Harder in dealing with difficult clients and the business of running a law practice. Harder also has worked with Boutin and another attorney within his firm to complete the curriculum requirements. Many of the topics, particularly ethical issues, seem to come up organically, making the curriculum more of a checklist than a rigid plan, he says.
An estimated 300 new attorneys took part in the New Lawyer Mentoring Program during its first year and were completing it as this article went to press, making way for the second class of newly licensed lawyers to begin building relationships with their mentors.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
© 2012 Melody Finnemore