Originally Published in the Family Law Section Commentator, Summer 2020 Edition.
Mentorship: An Essential Tool as a Young Associate
By Gina Szapucki, Esq
Ok, you’ve passed the bar. An exam you’ve worked so hard for throughout the years. There is a certain kind of excitement you feel when you first start a new job, especially as a young associate. You lay awake the night before your first day at a law firm thinking about the endless possibilities, challenges you have yet to face, and who you will encounter throughout this journey as a newly admitted lawyer.
As a young associate, you are bombarded with researching specific areas of law you have never practiced in, drafting extensive documents no one ever taught you to write, preparing for special set hearings or drafting simple discovery for a client. Depending on whether you work at a larger law firm or boutique law firm, business-related tasks that are non-billable can also be overwhelming and required. These tasks generally lead to late nights at the office and working weekends as young associates. You begin to ask yourself: How do you e-file documents? How do you properly bill a client and accurately reflect your billable time? How do you manage a client and their expectations? How do you prepare for and conduct final hearings, special set hearings or UMC hearings? In the midst of learning all these tasks, you will find it difficult to maintain a worklife balance.
I quickly realized law school did not prepare us for the “real world” and daily tasks that are required by attorneys, nor did it teach us how to apply the principles we’ve learned in law school as a practicing attorney. Although it takes patience and continued efforts to excel at the actual practice of law, one thing became exceptionally clear: the importance of mentorship. A mentor’s guidance is found in various ways.
A mentor is not always your boss. A mentor can be another associate at the same law firm, a colleague, a friend, or various bar associations and networking groups. A mentor is someone who embraces your growth as a young associate and is willing to assist with challenges faced daily, both in professional and personal environments. Being an Inn of Court member with the Susan Greenberg Family Law American Inn of Court of the Palm Beaches is just one example of how important mentorship is early on in your career. During meetings for young associates, both Debra Welch, Esq. and Cindy Crawford, Esq. communicate and strive to teach us real world professionalism, ethics, and skills in various forms. I am reminded by the examples set at every Inn of Court meeting that their leadership provides us with the proper tools to succeed, but ultimately, it is our job as young associates to learn how to apply those tools.
As a young associate, a mentor is not only about getting advice on those difficult clients or scenarios. From my experience, a good mentor should possess certain characteristics or role model qualities to assist in your journey to success. A mentor should routinely demonstrate a positive mindset and a passion to share their knowledge and expertise. A mentor is approachable. A mentor is ethical.
A mentor is able to effectively communicate their advice and opinions. This can be achieved through daily discussions with colleagues, clients, or courtroom technique. An effective mentor is not just about observing the right qualities; it is also about observing the wrong qualities. A mentor continues to guide young associates to other opportunities that we generally would not be able to obtain early on in our careers. This can be achieved through encouraging our attendance at networking events, organizations, or charity events that we would otherwise be unaware of.
A mentor provides continuous effort to assist us with building a solid foundation of the law. A mentor feels confident that they helped guide young associates in the shaping of their foundations and toolkits.
The best tools that we can receive from mentors are the ones that encourage us to embrace current challenges, new experiences, constructive criticism, and learning how to have a coachable mindset. An example of this can be as simple as learning how to have those hard and frank conversations with your clients. Providing young associates with real world courtroom experience can become an invaluable and foundational experience as we grow into our career. These invaluable experiences can be done by observing special set hearings or trials, allowing a young associate to conduct UMC hearings and direct or cross-examine at least one witness during a special set hearing or trial. This has been my personal experience.
As young associates, we are always striving to learn and observe all the knowledge we can from our mentor. There are certainly a lot of advantages young associates receive from having a mentor. However, it can become a daunting task for our mentors. When a mentor takes the time to assist us with our difficult and complex questions, a mentor is giving up their own time with their own clients and/or cases.
A mentor begins to have a lack of time with their caseload and preparations for hearings. At times, what young associates fail to realize is that mentors are working with inexperienced associates who are still learning that specific area of law. Young associates do not yet have the skill set mentors have. Young associates over-prepare for hearings, re-read petitions, motions, or marital settlement agreements, or simply research smaller issues that a mentor might not need to research. In the beginning, young associates are not well versed on those specific areas of law, and research becomes our best friend to understand these concepts. Building success takes time and dedication by young associates and mentors, alike.
As a young attorney who is building her career, I clearly see the value in having effective mentors. I hope to one day pay back my experiences with the same passion and dedication. In the end, our goal as attorneys is to serve our clients to the best of our ability. In an environment that can feel so challenging to start, mentorship is the guiding light that helps balance the scales. After all, we are the future generation of effective lawyering.
Gina Szapucki is an associate at Ward Damon and concentrates her practice exclusively in the areas of marital & family law. Gina quickly realized she had a passion for helping families while clerking for a family law firm. Prior to joining Ward Damon, she practiced marital & family law at a boutique law firm. Her drive to assist and guide families during challenging times continues to grow. Gina represents clients from all walks of life while zealously advocating for individual’s rights under Florida law.
Gina is originally from New Jersey but has called Florida home for the last 15 years. She is a proud Chi Omega Alumni and in her spare time enjoys traveling, cycling, exploring new restaurants and cuisines.