Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Reminders of the Value of Mentoring

I had an interesting experience at the WCI this year. During the final round of the Zehmer Moot Court competition, one of the four finalists cited this blog in her oral argument. I learned later that more than one team cited this blog in the appellate brief they prepared. Disclaimer: I have nothing at all to do with grading the moot court briefs. As Mae West said "flattery will get you everywhere," but not in this case.

The Moot Court competition is a critical part of the WCI Conference. It occurs mostly on Sunday, with semi-finals and finals on Monday. By 2:00 Monday, it was all over except putting away the equipment to prepare for next year. Certainly, there are programs presented at WCI that are more important, more attendee specific, perhaps more useful in learning nuts and bolts, attaining take-aways for future use. But, this program is critical. It serves a purpose like no other. It educates law students, exposes them to one of the most intriguing areas of the law, and helps them grow as lawyers and advocates.

There were winners. Possibly you have not heard that Mississippi College School of Law took home the honors this year. I mentioned it to a few of you perhaps?  I was very tempted to ask to pose for a picture with the winning team, from my alma mater. I rethought it though. This was their day, their victory, and the more I thought about it, the less I was willing to risk imposing upon their moment. But, that did not diminish my pride in their effort, dedication, and success.

There were winners, but there were no losers. The eighteen participating teams each gained experience and knowledge (they say "experience is what you get when you did not get what you wanted"). We all have experiences in life when we do not feel like we won. We have to learn the skill of focusing on the experience, growing, to be able to saddle up and ride again the next time. And these contestants are simply amazing. Amazing in their focus, their poise, and their resilience.

I write this blog because I enjoy it. I am gratified by the many who stop me at meetings and conferences and express thanks and admiration for these ramblings. Writing these posts has been cathartic and challenging for me. Writing has been my Achilles heal for most of my life. But I enjoy thinking that someone out there has benefited from my effort.

At the WCI each year, at 5:00 on Monday, the National Association of Workers' Compensation Judiciary (NAWCJ) gathers for a welcome reception at the close of a very education-packed first day. It is a chance to meet and greet the many judges and regulators from across America who come to the NAWCJ each August for the only Judiciary College in America focused on workers' compensation.

I was standing just inside the door of the reception this year when Judge David Torrey of Pennsylvania arrived. He had in tow his moot court team from University of Pittsburgh School of Law (pictured below). I was close to speechless when Judge Torrey explained that his team was there to meet me. In their preparation for the contest, they too had come across these ramblings. They claimed that somewhere herein they had found some measure of guidance or help. As they say, perhaps you really can learn as much from a bad example (writer) as you can from a good one. Perhaps they just proved that.

I have long been aware of Judge Torrey's work teaching workers' compensation at Pitt. He is a prolific author, an acclaimed expert in workers' compensation, and an accomplished adjudicator. But these pale in my estimation. What is truly noteworthy about this teacher and coach is that he has found the time to focus on helping people attracted to this education and profession. Judge Torrey is a mentor, and there is a long list of students who I am certain reflect thankfully and fondly on his assistance, challenges, corrections, and encouragements.

One of the great failings of the modern legal profession, in my humble opinion, is the demise of mentorship. Gone are the days of taking a student or new lawyer one under one's wing and providing hints, tips, guidance and advice. The mentorship role used to be widespread and perhaps even common, but I see it less and less. I see new lawyers being left to learn from experience, and too often failure. They used to learn from more experienced attorneys who took time from the business of the practice law to spend time teaching the practice of law. 

Some are perhaps driven from that mentor role by fear of allegations of favoritism or discrimination. Others are dissuaded from mentoring by the ever-increasing burdens of making a living in the practice of law. It is undoubtedly a challenge finding the time for family, career, and education. Attorneys, like many professionals, are always struggling to juggle it all. Adding a mentee to the mix is certainly an additional burden. And it seems that life is all to ready and willing to throw us additional burdens, even when we do not ask or even expect them.

I have had a few examples to follow in the legal profession. Some good and some perhaps not so much. But, as mentioned, we can learn as much from bad examples as good. Decades ago, I brought my own computer to work. I had found that my PC enhanced my work method and efficiency. A senior partner noticed and advised me that I needed to "choose whether you are going to be a secretary or an attorney." He knew EVERYTHING. And, if you ever doubted it, you could simply ask him and he would tell you. I learned a great deal from him about how not to be a lawyer, how not to exploit clients, how not to manage, and how not to treat people. You can indeed learn a great deal from a bad example.

But I had real mentors also. I was fortunate early to have a lawyer that allowed me to attend depositions and hearings as a "second chair." I was able to see activities, and then to engage in a "post-mortem" afterwards; there is a real benefit in discussing what you thought you saw, what you perceived as worthwhile or not, what you might have tried to do or tried to do differently. Those activities do not generate income, and they take your time from generating income. But, they are an invaluable investment. They generate experience and knowledge. They build confidence and community. Every new lawyer needs every bit of both that can be attained. 

I had the honor to work with and against some exceptional attorneys. One of the great venues for advice and mentoring in my career turned out to be mediation. As that concept took hold, there were many grey-headed attorneys that embraced that practice and I was fortunate to encounter them. People like Robert Williams and Jack Langdon were well versed in the law and the practice. They had the bumps and bruises to evidence decades of practice, and were willing to share their thoughts, perceptions and suggestions.  I was fortunate to encounter professionals like them willing to share their mentorship with me over those years. 

At the WCI I also had the chance to sit quietly with an official from another state. Our conversation turned to asking what is the value of these conferences? From my perspective it is simple. Certainly, there is much to be gained in the classrooms. But, I think there is as much or more to be gained in talking with peers and regulators, and industry experts. They are the source of great wisdom and intriguing questions. They share my challenges and their commiseration and encouragement are as important to me today as such conversations were with my earlier career mentors.

And that leads me to the ultimate conclusion for this post, mentoring is not necessarily a top-down process. Mentoring is not necessarily something that we only need as young professionals. Mentoring is a life-long process of learning, growing, and understanding. And, it turns out that we get just as much from the experience of being a mentor as that of being a mentee. I would suggest that having knowledge is worthwhile, but that this pales compared to the value of sharing that knowledge. 

I am proud of professionals like Judge Torrey. The dedication to mentoring and teaching in our modern practice is admirable. His students are lucky to have his presence and perceptions, but ultimately I suspect that he learns as much from them as they learn from him. I hope that in your practice or profession you are fortunate enough to find people with whom you can interact, share, and grow. I hope that you will find mentors to guide you, and that you find people to whom you can provide guidance. Mentoring is, simply stated, a benefit to which everyone should aspire. 

My congratulations again to all the teams that participated in the 2016 Zehmer Moot Court Competition. Thanks to all the coaches, administrators, judges, and more that mentor and inspire America's tomorrow. I hope you find the time to make a similar difference in someone's professional life. You will get a great deal out of it if you put a great deal into it. 

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