Learning from a Mentor is More Cost-Effective and Less Painful than Learning from Mistakes
By: Mark E. Best, Esq.
My first mentor in private practice was the managing partner of the firm that hired me. He was always happy to help, no matter how obvious the answers to my questions were to him. He’d drop by my house on random weekends to talk shop over a beer. He’d even answer my calls to his home phone late in the evening. He attended meetings and depositions with me to monitor my progress and to give pointers along the way. He told me often that he was invested in my success, which is why he spent a good deal of unbillable time showing me the ropes. This level of mentorship is atypical for young lawyers, and I’ve never forgotten just how fortunate I was to have been a true apprentice to a talented litigator at the very beginning of my career. But hey, when you follow your father into the legal profession and he gives you a job, that’s what should happen, right?
As a newly minted partner in a law firm with several young, crafty, whip-smart lawyers, I know that if I can deliver the same level of mentorship that I received, the firm’s long-term probability of success will increase. To the experienced attorneys reading this and thinking, “I just don’t have the time for that,” perhaps what you really mean is, “We just don’t have the firm culture for that.” After all, you could spend a few hours each month mentoring instead of billable work, if your firm valued it (and compensated for it accordingly). Kuchler Polk Weiner does just that.
When I eventually left my father’s firm just before his retirement, I came to work with Deb Kuchler. Almost immediately, she took me to a joint defense group meeting consisting of some of the best lawyers in the city of New Orleans representing Fortune 100 clients in toxic exposure litigation. In the hours that followed, I understood little about the enormous complexity of the cases, the players, or the issues—but I watched and I learned. Afterwards, I was surprised when Deb told me to record my time as “non-billable” to ensure the hours would be included in my year-end assessment. I learned that the reciprocal was also common practice—partners would “no charge” their time while attending depositions or conferences with young associates for mentoring purposes.
A short time later, after I’d completed a particularly complex maritime contractual indemnity analysis, Deb insisted that I accompany her and in-house counsel to a pre-suit mediation with eight figures on the line. Again, I watched and I learned—until, without warning, Deb turned to me in the presence of the client and the mediator and said, “I’m sure Mark can tell us the answer to that…” I don’t recall the issue or what I said. The next thing I remember was riding in the car on the way back to the office after a favorable settlement was reached. With the radio playing softly in the background, Deb casually informed the client that although she hadn’t intended to bill for my time at the mediation, she felt my performance warranted compensation. The client agreed. No one else noticed, but it felt like more than coincidence when “I Alone” by Live came on, and a couple of the lyrics seemingly encapsulated what Deb had done:
I’ll read to you here, save your eyes
You’ll need them, your boat is at sea
Your anchor is up, you’ve been swept away
And the greatest of teachers won’t hesitate
To leave you there, by yourself, chained to fate.
There is little I could have said in that separate mediation session that would have adversely affected the outcome. But there was some limited risk to Deb’s relationship with the client if my words had revealed me as unprepared (or worse). Deb decided that this was a safe spot to test me—to leave me alone, chained to fate. And when I passed this test, she positively reinforced the experience by pointedly alerting the client to what I’d done.
I tend to agree with the old adage that law school teaches you how to think like a lawyer, not how to practice law. I don’t recall any classes on how to estimate damages exposure, how to prepare a witness to testify, how to negotiate a settlement, or how to write a proper report to in-house counsel. Out of necessity, young lawyers will inevitably learn to do these things. But if you are not mentoring them, their mistakes will teach them for you, at your cost. The most successful firms are those that do the best job of teaching and learning.