Most law students and new lawyers know it's critical to have a mentor, but how can they find one? Lawyers are busy, the economy is bad, and it's easy to feel adrift. In this and future columns, I'm going to share what new and aspiring lawyers need to know, without a bunch of fluff that doesn't add value.
What qualifies me to write as a mentor? During three decades of practice, I've won and lost a lot of cases and been on both sides of the desk, as an employee and a boss. I see a lot of resumes as managing partner of my firm's Dallas office. I'm a member of the American Inns of Court, a group that devotes time to mentoring. I spend a fair amount of time with 3Ls and new lawyers seeking counsel on their careers.
I get emails -- lots of them -- from the future-lawyers cohort. They ask if I can help them. Some of them are looking for advice, and some are looking for help finding a job. But the devil is in the details. Here are five things a new lawyer or lawyer-to-be should do when approaching another attorney for guidance.
• No. 1: Be humble. No one wants to be treated as an item on a checklist or a mere means to an end. If someone asks to meet me as if he is setting up a job interview and is seeking something more than information, I politely decline.
What can surmount that initial barrier? Humility. Before seeking a meeting with an established attorney, law students or recent grads should ask themselves why they're interested in the veteran lawyer's practice area -- specifically, not in barroom generalities.
Then, they should explain why the senior attorney can be of help and ask whether it's possible to meet for coffee. The primary goal of the meeting is information, not a job offer. Most lawyers will agree to a meeting when approached this way.
• No. 2: Time is our most valuable possession. When I give an opening statement, I tell the jury that their time is valuable and I will not waste it. The same thing is true of a meeting. The law student or new lawyer should come prepared with questions -- not run-of-the-mill, fungible, generic questions but specific, knowledge-seeking, pertinent questions.
I like to meet on weekends at a breakfast place in Dallas that I have gone to for the past 11 years. A few months ago, I met there with a 3L who was ready with a list of questions: What do you know about these law firms? Should I have one resume or several, depending on the type of firm I apply to? Can you look at my resume and tell me what you think? (I will cover resumes in a future column.)
She had it all outlined on a sheet of paper. Sure, we talked pleasantly about other matters -- family, the weather, law school -- but she asked for my time and she structured our meeting so it was not wasted. I told her at the end she could use my name when she contacted other attorneys. Had she come unprepared, I would not have been so forthcoming with her regarding use of my most valuable asset.
• No. 3: If you say something is important, treat it as if it is important. That comment is courtesy of my mother. So, if the lawyer-to-be tells the senior lawyer with whom he meets that he is interested in securities law or employment law or health law, he should be prepared to back it up with discussion of the latest developments in the field, plus relevant blogs followed and articles read. In other words, he should be prepared to engage.
Recall the Katie Couric interview of then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin when Palin ran for vice president. When Couric asked what Palin read, the governor was unable to answer the question. I mention this not as a political statement but as a practical one: It's always best to show love for something instead of saying it.
• No. 4: Create contact capital. Here is a universal truth for job-seekers: The first person approached likely will not be hiring. But that person's law school pal may know someone, who knows someone else, who does have a position open. Getting a job is, at least initially, not about interviews but about creating "contact capital."
As the late Steve Jobs said in a February 1996 interview with Wired magazine, "Creativity is just connecting things. … A lot of people in our industry haven't had very diverse experiences. So they don't have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem."
It's exactly the same with looking for a job: Contacts are the dots. Sooner or later, enough dots will lead to sufficient connections and trigger critical mass. Interviews will then come.
• No. 5: Stay in touch. It is nice to get a thank-you note or an email after an informational interview. But that is no longer enough. Send a holiday card. Follow the lawyer on Twitter. Email a link to an article that may interest him.
Why is this important? As Alexander Solzhenitsyn wryly remarked, "The Universe has as many different centers as there are living beings in it." Practicing lawyers meet many new faces and will forget them in the absence of continuing contact. Maintaining that contact is the student's or recent graduate's job -- not mine.
Doing so pays off. One lawyer I met at my breakfast place started a blog and sends me links from time to time. Another follows me on Twitter and re-tweets some of my posts. Whom do I remember? I have already sent some business to the first and hope to do so to the second.
An aspiring lawyer who is prepared to do the five things above should not hesitate to contact a senior lawyer for advice. Texans expect no more from others than they expect of themselves. Lawyers will give of their time if approached with the right message.
And here is a secret for those senior lawyers fielding requests for meetings like these: I often leave the weekend breakfast feeling better about the law because of an up-and-coming lawyer's interest, enthusiasm and positive energy. Life lesson: The more you give, the more you get.
Michael P. Maslanka is the managing partner of the Dallas office of Constangy, Brooks & Smith. He is board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. His podcasts and "Work Matters" blog can be found at www.texaslawyer.com. His email address is email@example.com.