As someone who is edging closer and closer to the end of her legal career, I was asked to provide some wisdom with the women lawyers who are just embarking on their careers. So here goes. The best advice I can give is to find the mentor that’s right for you. That’s what I did when I started private practice over 33 years ago; it’s what I did when I joined the bench 18 years ago; and it’s what I did every time I rotated to a new assignment on the bench.
How you find a mentor depends upon your environment. I practiced for 15 years at a large law firm before joining the bench in 2000. I sought out partners who I admired, who I wanted to learn from, and whose work ethic and work product I wanted to emulate. There weren’t many female litigators at the firm 33 years ago, let alone female litigators focused on commercial litigation, so my mentors were two male partners at the firm. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I hit the jackpot with these two.
The persons I selected to be my mentors (yes, I picked them) couldn’t have been more different personality wise. But both were outstanding writers and advocates; persons I wanted to learn from, whose opinions and advice I respected, and who I knew could make me a better lawyer. I sought out opportunities to work with them. Because I was always hanging around and working on their cases, they ultimately resigned themselves to the inevitable, took me under their wing, and assumed the role of mentor. To this day, one of those individuals is still someone I turn to on a regular basis for advice and counsel. I have no doubt that I would be doing the same with the other individual if he were still alive. I will freely admit that what successes I have had in my career are in part because of the mentorship I received from those two individuals.
I have had some wonderful mentors on the bench as well. The common thread, whether it be private practice or on the bench, has been me seeking out a person or persons that I thought represented the best in the profession; someone I wanted to therefore emulate and learn from. And that is what I would encourage all young attorneys to do. Find a person or persons who are very good at what they do, are willing to share their wisdom with you, including constructive criticisms when necessary, and help you develop your skills and talents.
Admittedly finding a mentor when you are just starting out, let alone the right one, can be much more difficult if you are a solo practitioner or in a small firm. It can still be done; you will just have to work harder to do it. For those of you who are either on your own or in a small firm, I would recommend you get involved in organizations that will expose you to possible mentors, such as the Arizona Women Lawyers Association, Hayzel B. Daniels Bar Association, Arizona Asian American Bar Association, or Los Abogados Hispanic Bar Association. Join an Inn of Court or get involved with the state, county or a local bar association, particularly any sections, committees or groups within those organizations that are relevant to your practice area.
Admittedly finding a mentor when you are just starting out, let alone the right one, can be much more difficult if you are a solo practitioner or in a small firm. It can still be done; you will just have to work harder to do it.
And when I say get involved, I mean get involved. Don’t just join the organization. To find that mentor who is right for you and to get the most out of the membership experience, you need to get involved.
If there is someone whose legal skills you particularly admire, perhaps they were an adjunct professor at your law school, then find out when they have an oral argument, trial or evidentiary hearing and go to court and watch. There are very few hearings or proceedings in the Superior Court that aren’t open to the public. To this day I still enjoy watching good attorneys apply their trade, whether it’s an oral argument to the court, the examination of a witness or an opening statement or closing argument to the jury.
As John Donne said nearly 400 years ago, “No man is an island.” If you try and go it alone chances are you won’t be as good as you could have been or get the most out of your career. Go out there and find your mentor – that person or persons you want to learn from and who you will still be turning to 33 years later for advice and insights. And, when you are more seasoned don’t forget to return the favor by being a mentor for someone who is just starting out. Both you and this great profession will be better for it if you do. Judge Janet Barton