by Tracy Gruber
Once again, the Utah State Bar is expanding its membership, admitting over 300 new lawyers in October 2010. Fortunately, these newly-minted members of the bar will not be alone as they embark on the next stage of their professional development. The experienced members of the bar will be there to guide, assist, and mentor the new lawyers through the New Lawyer Training Program (NLTP).
It is difficult for the new lawyer to face the reality that law school does not fully prepare recent graduates to practice law. After all, three years of intensive study, up to $100,000 in expenses, typically in the form of student loans, not to mention the many stressful months of preparing for the bar exam should prepare one for the profession. However, numerous studies continue to demonstrate that despite successfully teaching legal doctrine and analyses, and preparing one to “think like a lawyer,” law schools consistently fall short in providing the skills necessary for new lawyers to practice. The nature of the modern legal education is such that practical legal skills training is not the focus of the law school curriculum. Although this focus is changing with the expansion of law school clinical and externship programs, limited access to these programs for law students has failed to address the problem.
Brigham Young University Professor and member of the Supreme Court Committee on New Lawyer Training, James Backman, recently noted that law students are able to gain access to practical legal training through a variety of avenues, including law school clinical programs, externships, and summer clerkships. See James Backman, Externships and New Lawyer Mentoring: The Practicing Lawyer’s Role in Educating New Lawyers, 24 BYU J. Pub. 65, 73 (2009). However, these experiences are open to a limited number of students due to cost and the exclusive and competitive nature of summer clerkships, where typically only the top twenty percent of students are accepted into these programs. See id. at 73-74.
Although some large national firms attempt to address the training gap by establishing practical legal training programs for new associates, most firms continue to be unwilling to make the financial investment necessary to establish these programs. Moreover, training programs in firms are only open to a small number of new lawyers, particularly during this current economic time when the majority of new lawyers are working in small firms or as solo practitioners with no access to practical legal training. This piecemeal approach to training is insufficient in preparing new lawyers for the practical demands of the profession.
The inadequacy with which the gap in legal training is being addressed has led bars, with the encouragement and support of the judiciary, to develop uniform and regulated mentoring programs for new attorneys. Although there has not been one solution successfully addressing the disconnect between the law school emphasis on legal theory and the skills and experiences needed to handle clients, bars are turning to one-on-one mentoring. Historically, mentoring has been an effective method of training lawyers in the culture, standards, and skills of the profession.
In 2008, the Utah Supreme Court and the Utah State Bar reached a similar conclusion and established the mandatory NLTP. “The Court had concerns that the economic pressures on the legal profession were diminishing the opportunities for young lawyers to receive guidance, supervision and training from more experienced lawyers,” explains Chief Justice Christine Durham. “The Court hopes that the NLTP will help launch productive legal careers and anchor new members of the profession in the fundamental values that a learned profession espouses.” The NLTP represents the practicing bar’s commitment to the next generation of lawyers and an acknowledgement that all new lawyers need guidance in the profession after law school.
The NLTP, which began as a bold idea in new lawyer professional development, is gaining nationwide attention as other bars consider similar programs. The NLTP was modeled after Georgia’s mandatory mentoring program, “Transition Into Law Practice” and Ohio’s optional “Lawyer to Lawyer” mentoring program. The success and positive feedback of the NLTP and mentoring programs in these states has led many jurisdictions to establish mandatory or pilot programs, including Maryland, Oregon, Wyoming, and Arizona, among others.
Members of the Utah State Bar have embraced the NLTP by applying to become approved mentors. Since the NLTP was adopted, over 590 experienced and respected attorneys have been approved as mentors by the Utah Supreme Court. The program matches mentors with new lawyers to participate side-by-side in a series of activities and experiences designed to improve the new lawyer’s transition into the practice of law and more effectively teach ethics, civility, and professionalism.
The mentor and new lawyer relationship is central to the NLTP. Since starting in July 2009, there have been 311 new lawyers paired with 290 court-approved mentors. The program is benefiting both partners in this important relationship. In a recent anonymous survey conducted by the Utah State Bar, a mentor stated, “I feel good about my renewed commitment to the profession through this program.” Similarly positive, a new lawyer remarked, “I was assigned an amazing mentor who has helped introduce me to the local legal community, opened doors for me and helped me to have the confidence to open my solo practice.” (For more feedback see “What Mentors and New Lawyers are Saying” on the next page).
During the twelve-month NLTP term, mentors and new lawyers work through a comprehensive mentoring plan designed by the new lawyer and his or her mentor using a set of required activities and elective learning opportunities established by the Supreme Court Committee on New Lawyer Training and included in the NLTP Model Mentoring. “The plan is intended to expose new lawyers to a broad variety of activities that are common to the practice while allowing the flexibility to individualize the plan based on the new lawyer’s professional goals and interests,” remarked Margaret Plane, Co-Chair of the Supreme Court Committee on New Lawyer Training. “The ability to individualize the plan helps make the first year CLE requirements meaningful and effective in transitioning new lawyers to the practice.”
The plan includes a broad range of subjects for discussion often overlooked in the pressure of court deadlines and client expectations. These requirements in the plan include the following subjects: introduction to the legal community; ethics and professional conduct; conflicts and confidentiality; work-life balance; and law office management, among other subjects. “A well thought out war story can be an effective teaching tool,” said Rodney Snow, Co-Chair of the Supreme Court Committee on New Lawyer Training,
The NLTP, however, is not designed for a string of war stories or for the repeating of the same. Rather, the NLTP and the mentoring plan are designed to enable new lawyers to safely ask the tough questions about the profession as they are being taught the skills, habits, tools and ideals necessary to practice law competently and with integrity.
As experienced attorney Elaina Maragakis put it, “law school teaches you where the courthouse is but it doesn’t teach which bus to take to get there.” The vision of the Utah Supreme Court and Utah State Bar in establishing the NLTP hopes that new lawyers will learn “which bus to take” to the courthouse and how to competently represent clients, be they working in a firm, business, non-profit or public sector.
What Mentors Are Saying
Upon completion of the NLTP mentoring term, participants are asked to comment on their experience in the program. Recent positive comments from mentors include the following responses:
The NLTP helped me realize I have learned a lot about the practice of law and can pass this knowledge on to those with less experience.
The NLTP allowed me to have greater reflections on my own legal career the good, the bad and the ugly.
I feel good about my renewed commitment to the profession through this program. I have hope for the future with these younger lawyers.
The NLTP helped solidify ethical concepts and issues.
Seeing the practice of law through the eager and fresh eyes of a new lawyer renewed my perspective.
I was forced to learn about some of the USB programs of which I had little or no familiarity.
I felt good about helping someone learn the ropes. [New Lawyer] also introduced me to new concepts/ways of doing things that were not available when I was in law school.
The NLTP required me to review new materials.
The NLTP reminded me of how far I’ve come and what it took to get here which, in turn, reminded me that I needed to be more empathetic and patient with my mentee and new/younger lawyers in general.
The NLTP helped refresh my understanding of some of the issues I do not deal with regularly.
It was great to meet a new lawyer and see the world through his new eyes and not my own jaded view.
The new attorney’s enthusiasm reminded me how exciting the work can be.
What New Lawyers Are Saying
The New Lawyers who were mentored provide similar positive feedback resulting from the experience in the NLTP:
My mentor frequently gave tips on professionalism, ethics and civility when discussing cases, interaction with the courts and other attorneys.
I had the opportunity to work with an experienced criminal defense attorney.
My mentor and I had several discussions regarding professionalism issues that were based primarily on my mentor’s personal experiences. I found these discussions to be helpful and instructive.
My mentor was excellent and helped me to know what is good practice, rather than just acceptable practice.
I was able to meet an expert in my field of practice, learn about his methods, and have an additional resource to turn to.
I was assigned an amazing mentor who helped introduce me to the local legal community, open doors for me and helped me to have the confidence to open my solo practice.
I learned more than I expected.
My mentor pointed out some shortcomings I was committing or inclined to commit.
There is no way I would have gotten the experience I have thus far in my legal development without my mentor.
While most of the tasks in my mentoring plan were tasks I would perform naturally on the job, the sit-down discussions provided good opportunities to receive mentoring I would not otherwise have received.
My mentor and I often discussed how to advance an argument or case without maligning opposing counsel or being offensive to the court.
It helps enormously to have someone whose judgment you trust to use as a sounding board when you’re venturing into uncharted waters.
My mentor was always available for questions I had. Without a mentor I would not have felt confident in going into solo practice alone, applying for and obtaining a public defender contract, and generally feeling capable as a new attorney.
I had a great mentor who understood what it was like to be a new criminal defense attorney.
My mentor was courteous, accommodating, knowledgeable, and enjoyable.