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VOL. 117 | NO. 204 | Thursday, November 13, 2003

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Mentors Help New Lawyers Ease Into Profession


The Daily News

When J.V. Thompson took a job with Jackson, Tenn., law firm Rainey, Kizer, Reviere & Bell PLC last summer, he knew he wouldnt just be thrown into the fire. For one thing, he had worked as a summer associate with the firm the previous year.

A spring graduate of the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, Thompson also knew he would be paired with a partner to help him get his feet wet.

They did a good job of matching up personalities and work styles, Thompson said. They make sure you can do it.

Making the leap. Thompson began his work with Rainey Kizer the largest firm in Jackson, with 31 attorneys in July. The firm hosted events, including a family picnic outing, to help Thompson and two other new hires make the transition from law school to a firm.

Those informal events are important, especially when a new associate, like Thompson, is moving to a new area. But its the knowledge and advice gleaned from more experienced associates and members that most helps ease the transition to a firm, Memphis-area lawyers said.

No dumb questions. Although Rainey Kizers policy doesnt include a formal mentoring program, the firm has found that its buddy system works. And the firm is not alone, as most law firms have some sort of program in place to ease the transition for new lawyers from the simple friend down the hall to an assigned mentor.

Memphis firm Burch, Porter & Johnson PLLC uses mentors.

Often times, attorneys graduate from law school and they dont have much practical experience about the practice of law, said Susan M. Clark, an attorney with Burch Porter who, as a part of the firms management committee, helps in associate development.

Thats one element: how do you file an order, how do you do this or that in the courts, she said. Maybe the most important aspect of a formal mentor program is the inevitable dumb question.

Samuel F. Phillips, an associate with Burch Porter since fall 2002, likes that aspect of the firms mentoring system.

The way Ive used my mentor is just to ask him questions I think are stupid and I dont want to ask other people, Phillips said. I feel like everything I tell the mentor is going to end with that person. It can be anything from, Man, I cant seem to find out how to file this thing, to, I dont really know what this attorney expects from me. That type of thing.

Easing the burden. Answers to those simple questions are important, but having someone who can help new lawyers adjust to their heavy workloads also can be key.

New associates can get overwhelmed with the workload, Phillips said. Ive gone to the mentor at least once to say, Hey, can you turn off the work faucet for a little bit? I dont know how they do that, but it seemed like it worked until I got caught back up.

Not all firms have mentoring programs in place, however. Although attorneys at smaller firms typically can get by with the help of other associates, attorneys who have ventured out on their own sometimes find a lack of guidance.

Community help. Thats where organizations and industry seminars can help.

The Memphis Bar Association is looking into starting a mentoring program of its own. The first step in that direction came last week when the organization hosted a seminar, Making the Transition: Law School to Litigation, aimed at new associates.

Through its continuing legal education committee, the MBA brought in judges from most area courts and attorneys associated with them to give advice.

Its a way for the new practitioners to hear some very practical information related to the practice of litigation in Shelby County, said Shannon S. Fite, a lawyer on the CLE committee. I think its extremely important because in law school, you dont really get a lot of practical tips. Once youve come into the practice in Shelby County, it helps a lot to talk to practitioners, people that have been around this area practicing for a number of years.

Starting slow. Fites own firm, Glankler Brown PLLC, doesnt have a formal mentoring program, but it does take measures to ease the transition for new associates.

They give you time to settle in, which is good, said Van Davis Turner Jr., an associate at the firm since September. I think its always good to be at a firm like Glankler Brown where you have a wealth of experienced people that have done just about everything.

Starts in school. Turner said the preparation he received while attending law school at the University of Tennessee also helped him make a smooth transition into the profession. He participated in a semester-long program in which students handled pro bono cases.
That was a pretty good opportunity to get my feet wet, he said.

As do most law schools, the University of Memphis offers programs designed to help graduates prepare to enter the profession. In addition to having alumni provide students with job information, the school offers a mentoring program.

Between our brown-bag seminars, job fairs and regular programs, we try to broaden that aspect for them so theyre not broadsided, said Charles B. DeWitt III, the schools assistant dean for external relations.


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