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Kung Fu & Mentorship — Huh?

This post by Bob Morris, Esq. originally appeared on the State Bar of South Dakota Project Rural Practice blog on January 27, 2014. Bob was president of the State Bar of South Dakota from 2009-2010.

When you see the words “Kung Fu” – what first comes to your mind? Of course, what first comes to mind depends upon the generation you grew up in. If you were over 10 in the early 70’s (I know I am seriously dating myself) two things may come to mind: the song – “Kung Fu Fighting” or the TV show – Kung Fu. If you are much younger (except for Pat Goetzinger of course) the first thing that may come to your mind is the movie – Kung Fu Panda.

When you see the word Mentorship – what first comes to mind? To many veteran lawyers reflecting on when he/she was a Young Lawyer, it meant spending time with a more senior lawyer in a law firm learning first-hand about the law, procedure, law office management, and other areas of learning. To a Young Lawyer today, does it mean the same thing? Probably not. Why? Because the practice of law has changed. Because the business of law has changed. Because the profession has changed.

In spite of the “because,” mentorship can, should, and must exist in today’s legal profession. In fact, if you are a Young Lawyer reading this – mentorship can, should, and must be part of your personal experience as an individual. If you are a Veteran Lawyer reading this – mentorship can, should, and must be part of your giving back to your profession. Mentorship makes our profession better.

Without mentorship, the level of legal abilities expected by clients will not meet expectations. Without it, we will lose lawyers – who ultimately could have become leaders and outstanding lawyers – because of becoming frustrated with the practice and business of law. Without it, access to legal services by those who need such services will suffer.

What I speak of has been referenced as the “Mentoring Gap.” In his article in January/February 2011 issue of The Bencher, Michael Duncan references an explanation by author and journalist Peggy Noonan. She noted in her Wall Street Journal article, citing the 50th anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird, that “there’s kind of an emerging mentoring gap going on in America right now. You see it in a generalized absence of the wise old politician/lawyer/leader/editor who helps the young along, who teaches them the ropes and ways and traditions of a craft.” So how can the “gap” be closed? By doing, not by talking about doing. Of course mentorship may be different things to different people. That is fine. But you must still do. If you are a State Bar leader, you must do. See Minting a Tradition: Young Lawyer Coin Program Takes Off (pg. 14 of the Fall 2010 South Dakotan Lawyer. If you are a Young Lawyer, you must decide what mentorship opportunities exist and do. If you are a Veteran Lawyer, you must volunteer as a Mentor and do.

A Mentor can teach; a Mentor can be a sounding board; a Mentor can provide examples of leadership; a Mentor can help you find your path; and lastly, a Mentor can be a friend. In our profession I believe an opportunity exists for two types of mentorship – vertical mentorship and horizontal mentorship.

My idea of vertical mentorship is the mentorship one experiences within a law firm. It is usually provided by a more senior lawyer who takes a Young Lawyer associate under his or her wing so to speak. The Young Lawyer not only learns about the practice of law but also about the law firm, the expectations of the law firm, and what it takes for advancement “vertically” in the law firm.

Horizontal mentorship, on the other hand, is mentorship that the solo lawyer receives or the associate receives from mentors in the profession. This type of mentorship is very important. It builds relationships between the Young Lawyer and lawyers within the legal community – however large or small. Such mentorship fosters civility in the profession.

To be honest with you, regardless of where you practice law, there should be no barrier to experiencing mentorship. Face-to-face mentoring is always the best, but not always possible on a regular basis in this busy legal world we work in. Distance may also be a factor. But technology exists that surely helps close the “gap.” Cell phones, Skype, FaceTime, and other audio/visual technology help foster mentorship by making communication easier. You just have to do – not talk about doing.

I would be remiss if I did not comment on the ultimate form of mentorship – sponsorship. Sponsorship should be important to all Young Lawyers, but should be especially important to female Young Lawyers. How many female judges do you see in your state? How many female Supreme Court justices do you have in your state? How many female senior partners do you see in your law firm or other law firms?

Sponsorship is undertaken by a Mentor who has established a trusted and long-term mentorship relationship with a Young Lawyer. The Sponsor can advocate for the Mentee; can assist the Mentee in meeting key individuals that will assist in career advancement. A Sponsor Mentor who trusts you, who is confident in your abilities, and who believes in you, can – if not open the door wide – at least open the door enough so you can take the opportunity to open it wide yourself.

How does one make connections with potential mentors, sponsors or mentees? One way is through the resources provided for you as a State Bar member. This month South Dakota was the first state to launch ALPS Attorney Match, a way lawyers across the state can make these meaningful connections. This free resource is an easy and effective way that you can “do” something about mentoring.

So by now the “Huh?” in the title of this piece has hit you. What does Kung Fu have to do with Mentorship? Bear with me.

From October 1972 to April 1975, the TV show Kung Fu was my favorite. It was my American Idol, The Bachelor, or The Bachelorette. The series was about the adventures of Kwai Chang Caine (played by David Carradine) who was a Shaolin Monk who traveled the Old American West. Kwai had spiritual skills in addition to martial arts skills. Kwai’s teacher and mentor was Master Po.

When Kwai found himself in situations that caused him to have to make good decisions and act upon them, he experienced flashbacks of the teaching and lessons he received from Master Po, his mentor. These flashbacks provided the guidance and fortitude he needed to address his situation and deal with it.

I was reminded of Kung Fu when I read the draft of Pat Goetzinger’s blog piece which is the companion to my submission. Pat recognizes his long time mentor, Fred Cozad. I know the affection Pat has for Fred and his wife Luella. At times he will recall fondly, something that Fred has said or done in the past that has molded Pat as a lawyer and as person. I know that he has flashbacks, when encountering situations in his life, of the teaching and mentorship of Fred. I too have experienced flashbacks concerning the mentorship I have received from mentors.

Both Pat and I have been the beneficiaries of great mentorship over the twenty-five years we have been practicing law. We have both accomplished many things in our professional and personal lives because of mentorship. Probably more than either of us could have imagined while we were sitting in front of the TV in the early 1970’s watching Kung Fu.

Related Posts:

Project Rural Practice: New Frontiers

Private Practice and the Many, Varied Opportunities that Await

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