Mentoring Then and Now

Melvin Simensky, Co-Chair
The New York County Lawyers’ Association

When mentoring was first used in a legal context, it described two main circumstances which also prevail today. One is the establishment of an amicable relationship between a senior attorney and young people such as high-schoolers interested in later pursuing a legal career. The second main use of mentoring is to assist and counsel persons already attorneys as they consider making a professional career change. These latter counsel are often called “Lawyers in Transition.”

Although these circumstances are different, the mentoring principles which apply are the same. Both see mentoring as a “process by which the mentor and mentee work together to identify and help the mentee [ attain his or her] professional goals. Abbott, “The lawyers Guide to Mentoring.” (National Assoc for Placement, Inc., 2000} p.17. The functions mentors provide their mentees can range from providing support, helping , inspiring , caring, validating , empathizing , encouraging , long and short term career advice, dispensing wisdom and developing a personal connection. Id at 21.

Attorneys mentoring high school students have translated these principles into actual events, such as participation in The Thurgood Marshall Summer Law Internship Program established years ago by the New York City Bar. This is an intensive program which places high achieving inner city high school students with legal employers for the summer, and provides them with additional programming before, during and after the summer to help them prepare for a legal career. “Students are selected to participate in the Program based [less upon psychological traits suitable to lawyering] than upon personal interviews and demonstrated high school academic excellence…Job assignments in firms vary depending on the needs of the employer, but typically include assisting paralegals, filing, record keeping, assisting library and back-office personnel, data entry and document and exhibit organization.”

In addition to their employment, the summer interns are required to participate in several mentorship activities. One is the law firms providing all interns with one-one resume and cover-letter learning. Another activity is presenting the interns with orientation activities, such as providing them with an understanding of workplace attire. Still another mentoring function puts the interns at Columbia Law School where they are exposed to the Socratic learning method. The interns also attend a panel discussion of 4 attorneys talking about their career paths, and provide the interns with advice for attaining one’s professional goals. Id.

Besides the mentorship of The Thurgood Marshall Summer Law Internship Program, there are thousands of students, lawyers and judges who yearly engage in high school mentoring activities sponsored by the Justice Resource Center in New York City. For example, there is the New York office of the law firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, who every year serves as mentors to the Bronx High School of Science mock trial team. The Bronx Science trial team meets weekly with the Akin Gump mentors, to learn how to conduct direct and cross examinations, deliver opening and closing statements, and master the hearsay rules and other rules of evidence. At the end of the moot court trial team season, “as a reward for their dedication and hard work, the Bronx Science team and its attorney-mentors celebrate with a trip to Yankee stadium…For many of the students, it is their first baseball game and an incredibly memorable event.” “Law Cluster Notes and Mentor Roll Call.”

The example of Damaris Hernandez demonstrates the great value and influence mentoring can exert over a human being’s life. Damaris who is 36 is the first Latina partner in one of the most prestigious and elite law firms in the world, Cravath, Swaine & Moore. That “achievement is an acknowledgement of [Damaris’] talent and hard work. But the story of her route to the top” also demonstates the importance of mentoring that the partners of the firm bestowed on her.  Andrew Ross Sorkin, “Law Firm’s First Latina Partner, with Boost from N.Y.U. Program.

While in law school, Damaris and a select coterie of other under privileged students were admitted to a financial and mentoring program at N.Y.U. Law School that paid for all of the group’s law school expenses and provided the group with important mentoring experiences.

Each of Damaris’ colleagues had the chance to develop close personal relationships with the program’s founders. The founders make themselves available for questions and advice, “hold dinners for students at their New York apartment, invite business and legal leaders for regular talks and host each scholar for at least one Thanksgiving at their Virginia residence. Id.