“Being a lawyer,” says Glen Hickerson, “is not an easy job.” For rookies just getting into the profession, it’s something for which not even the best university education can quite prepare you.
Knowing that, most law societies across the country established mentoring programs decades ago. Through them, long-established lawyers can typically be paired with new calls to the bar. In a professional osmosis over lunches, coffees and the like, mentors can share their legal wisdom with mentees over the course of months or years.
Now, however, the Law Society of Alberta has added a new online twist to mentoring that is more like Tinder than traditional long-term mentoring relationships. Launched Jan. 16, Mentor Express lets lawyers wanting some quick career advice to match themselves with one or more mentors for a single one-hour meeting by browsing an online list of experienced lawyers and their specialties.
Fifty lawyers signed up to be part of Mentor Express, with each committing to undertake at least 10 meetings — a total of 500 sessions for which prospective Alberta mentees can sign up. “Think of it like speed-dating for improving your legal practice,” laughs Hickerson. A partner with Wilson Laycraft, a 14-lawyer boutique firm in Calgary, Hickerson is one of the lawyers available through Mentor Express.
The impetus for Mentor Express, says Cori Ghitter, director of professionalism and policy at the LSA, came from feedback for its Mentor Connect program, which has long been fostering longer-term mentor-mentee relationships in the Alberta legal community. “We had great uptake in the Mentor Connect program,” says Ghitter. “But we came to see that not all lawyers interested in being mentors have the amount of time to give through a typical mentoring relationship.”
The LSA realized the new software it began using for managing its other mentoring programs could be used to set up a speedy system where a mentee could find a variety of mentors to convene with for single meetings on specific issues. That would also reduce the time burden on mentors as well.
Hickerson, a commercial litigator practising for 25 years now, has been a more traditional-style mentor before. When Mentor Express was launched, the law society asked him to take part in a pilot program to test run the concept.
“I wish I’d had something like this when I was wet behind the years,” says Hickerson. Doing law well, he explains, “is something you have to work at every day. Lawyers don’t have the greatest reputation in society.” He’d like to see that change, so one motivation for his mentoring is to help improve the quality of the profession overall.
During the pilot, Hickerson met up for coffee with a different mentee on two occasions. He likes to hold the sessions in informal places such as cafés. “There is a bit of a confessional aspect to this” for the mentees, he says. “So, it helps to not sit in an office or a big boardroom with photos of partners a hundred years old.”
One mentee he met up with through the Mentor Express pilot was a junior lawyer with a mixed wills and estates and real estate practice in a Calgary suburb. That lawyer was fretting over a civil litigation file absorbing much of his resources. Without an assistant, he wasn’t sure how to manage the time the file was going to need.
The problem with such litigation files, Hickerson told the mentee, is that nothing may happen for a long time. “Then something like discovery suddenly comes up, and you’d better be thinking about that file and nothing else. That’s hard for a guy in that sort of mixed practice to manage that one file.”
The mentee bounced an idea off Hickerson: He knew a lawyer who might just be able to lend him an assistant part-time if needed. A good idea, replied Hickerson — as long as the mentee could give his lawyer-friend a reasonable heads up as to when he would need that assistant. Essentially, recounts Hickerson, much of mentoring is not so much about telling mentees what to do as it is about shoring up their confidence at times.
There are benefits for the mentors, too, he adds. “Oftentimes, when someone talks to you about a problem, you might be dealing with something similar in your own practice. Talking things out with [a mentee] might help you solve something in your own practice. The other thing is there is some reasonably good evidence that mentoring someone else helps you become more resilient.”
With all 500 Mentor Express sessions taken up in a matter of days after launch, Ghitter says, the LSA is “definitely open to expanding and adding more mentors. But for now, we want to let this run a while first, see how many of those appointments actually get taken up. Then we will do some followup with mentors and mentees and make sure it’s all working as we hope.”