Developing the next generation of lawyers

  • Subtitle: The Accidental Mentor
Written by  Posted Date: September 10, 2012
September marks the real beginning of the lawyer’s year. In Ontario, we open our courts during this month. The cycle also starts getting busy after the summer, as do the law firms and legal departments supporting the nation’s business. For many new lawyers after their call to the bar in June, the end of the summer means both legal mentors and mentees working side by side, in earnest.

In our dreams, everyone embarking on this joint venture would receive advance training in legal apprenticeship. Believe it or not, teaching how to teach and learning how to learn were once the non-academic part of our education. It is not so much we do not have time for mentorship, we no longer know how to do it. Given that this type of training now rarely occurs, the participants should at least be aware of the two opposed perspectives on the function of adult mentorship:

•    It transfers a grand tradition from one generation to the next.
•    It prepares the established organization to venture into the unknown.

Those fortunate enough to visit the Van Gogh Up Close exhibition at the National Gallery this summer have witnessed how competing perspectives can share the same canvas. The most difficult of these is the movement of states of time, one drawing a path to an earlier, historical horizon and the other forward to an emerging act of man or nature. In legal organizations, mentors act out of a need for succession planning, so naturally they tend to look back and recreate. Mentees worry about their own futures, not about the firm or department’s. There could be no perspectives more opposite. Separately, these perspectives are self-interested and can be at bitter odds with each other.

Stuck in the past? What’s the hurry?

On the one hand, any attempt to recreate the past is, intrinsically, a form of failure. A “chip off the old block” is no more than that. The simple transmission of historical knowledge, without the desire to create something new, may be good to sustain a handful of Swiss clockmakers. However, producing a product fewer can afford or need is not the reason why most of us chose to devote our lives to law. The law is in peril of becoming its own anachronism, with an army of new lawyers without clients to serve. The law firm or legal department qua perpetual motion machine is just impossible.

On the other hand, any attempt to escape the past without historical knowledge is, paradoxically, a form of recreating the past. (Ergo, a circuitous form of failure.) Thus, our profession needs mentoring about the past for the proverbial avoidance of repeating it.

Stepping into the path of a learning moment

Take, for example, how every day we make fun of older lawyers and their encounters with late-20th-Century machines (the fax machine lies in wait for the ones sporting reading glasses, and initiates a paper jam). Once the comedy and the pathos wear off, stop to think about the reason why you might find a senior lawyer standing in front of a fax machine, in the first place. Most likely, the lawyer has stepped away from an unplanned telephone call with a client. The client wanted to see the document the lawyer had in front of him. There was a time when clients were too much in awe of lawyers to ask them to do anything. Now, they expect lawyers to do their bidding, and ask without thinking they’re asking. “Okay, I need to see it …” is the same as snapping their fingers.

During the mid-20th Century, if a client wanted a copy of a document, the lawyer would have called in a typist to copy it manually, send it out in the post, and arrange for the client telephone call the next week. Later in the century, the lawyer would still have someone perform the clerical task, the lawyer and client would still wait until office staff performed the distribution of the paper and placed the calls. The fact that a lawyer may now be called upon to copy or fax a document during a lunch hour or after hours means the client won’t wait for the traditional rhythm of a law office.

You and your Millennial friends might enjoy watching an awkward encounter between man and machine (a moment of vindication for all those spelling and grammar corrections). What you should be seeing is a lawyer trying to meet the increasingly haphazard and immediate demands of modern clients. See the intersection of perspectives, and you witness the next lawyer qua service provider in a just-in-time world. Is this the next lawyer you want to become? If you respect the senior lawyer, is this the lawyer you want him to be?

You, the next generation, will have the challenge of managing these expectations after the mentor retires. Laugh at him now, and your successors will one day do the same to you.

You can teach the senior lawyer, diplomatically, by asking to take part in the next time the lawyer speaks with the client. If he agrees, the need to involve you as a junior lawyer introduces a level of co-ordination neither the senior lawyer nor the client previously employed. The need to provide you with some briefing on the next telephone conference will also prompt the need to exchange documents ahead of time, and perhaps even to draw up an informal point-form agenda.

The next call will thus be more successful and provide more value to the client. If there is a document missing from the pre-call exchange, you are on hand to step out and send it to the client via e-mail our secure cloud. Impressed that they could keep talking while you do that, both senior lawyer and client will begin to draw you into their deal or litigation strategy. Before long, the senior lawyer will be organizing most telephone conferences in this way, thanks to you.

The mentoring moment will thus present itself. You can help your mentor navigate the communications expectations of a new generation of clients and other stakeholders. For your part, you want the senior lawyer to give you the “knowledge” about practising law.

The prime value of historical knowledge in this relationship is its role in demystifying the practice of law. “How it’s done” is based on how it was done. But the senior lawyers in the law firm or legal department need your help to understand what the organization needs to do, if it is to succeed after they’re gone.

A good mentor must learn to develop the next lawyer, not to cobble together the last one (in both meanings of the word “last”).

A good mentee has to learn to see the firm or legal department as it could be, if she chose to be that next lawyer.

It is the Van Gogh canvas up close. The perspectives do not collide. They help both viewers find a common path.

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Lee Akazaki

Lee Akazaki is a bilingual civil litigator and a partner at Gilbertson Davis Emerson LLP, with a focus on commercial litigation, insurance and professional liability.  A past-president of the Ontario Bar Association, he advocates for a fearless and independent bar and the advancement of women and equity-seeking groups. His blog, leeakazaki.com, is devoted to mentoring new lawyers. He can be reached at lakazaki@gilbertsondavis.com and on Twitter @LeeAkazaki.

Column: The Accidental Mentor

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