Mentoring can be richly rewarding for an experienced lawyer, and pivotal for a beginning lawyer’s career
Veteran Ft. Lauderdale attorney Suzanne Driscoll remembers the last routine court proceeding she attended before the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was a motion calendar, and Driscoll was in the courtroom, waiting for her name to be called.
“These two lawyers were interrupting each other, they were very combative,” she said. “The judge literally stood up, walked out in the middle of this, came back about five minutes later, and gave them a tongue lashing like I’ve never seen.”
Driscoll didn’t know the offending lawyers, but “they obviously didn’t have a mentor,” she said.
Driscoll should know. The Shutts & Bowen partner has been a mentor for more than a decade.
For approximately eight years, she served as the mock trial and moot court “coach” for Ft. Lauderdale High School Law Magnet Program. She also served on the board of HANDY (Helping Abused and Neglected Disadvantaged Youth), where she helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for college scholarships for students in foster care.
Driscoll is on break from her outside service activities while she cares for aging parents, but she continues to mentor beginning lawyers.
“At Shutts & Bowen we have a firm-wide initiative,” she said. “It’s a voluntary program. We are always carrying mentees, and I have two right now.”
There’s nothing like the thrill of seeing a mentee succeed, Driscoll said.
“What I get back is always so much greater than what I put into it,” she said. “When you watch them soar, there’s nothing like it.”
In December, The Florida Bar’s Special Committee on Mentoring New Lawyers is expected to complete work on a statewide mentoring program that focuses on beginning lawyers with three or less years of experience and who work in firms with three or fewer lawyers.
President Gary Lesser formed the committee in June after expressing a concern that the pandemic’s impact on the economy is forcing beginning lawyers to launch solo practices straight out of law school, without the guidance of more experienced lawyers.
Driscoll agrees that the timing for a mentoring initiative couldn’t be better.
“If they are first-time lawyers, and they are going to go into practice immediately by themselves, then they are going to be at a significant disadvantage,” she said.
Bar member surveys confirm that Florida lawyers were growing increasingly concerned about a lack of professionalism, a trend Lesser fears the pandemic has only exacerbated.
Driscoll agrees that professionalism is declining.
“Without doubt, my colleagues here have had the same experience,” she said. “You know, you will always have the personality type that will always be combative, but this is something that is very present with new lawyers.”
Special committee Co-Chair Zackary Zuroweste, a former Young Lawyers Division president, recently told the Board of Governors that the committee’s work is already generating widespread interest and offers of help from across the state.
Driscoll isn’t surprised.
Mentoring can be richly rewarding for an experienced lawyer, and pivotal for a beginning lawyer’s career, she said. Shutts & Bowen has a mentoring committee, with a representative in each of the firm’s offices throughout the state, she said. She advises would-be mentors to do some research before signing up for any mentoring program.
“Talk to other lawyers who have served as mentors, so that you understand what you are getting into,” she said. “The worst thing in the world would be to start that relationship, and then not be able to fulfill your commitment.”
Mentees should be prepared to show initiative, she said.
“You as the mentee have the responsibility to nurture that relationship and ask for what you need,” she said. “Even if you’re not sure what you need, you need to maintain contact with that lawyer, who is obviously going to be very busy.”
The Special Committee on Mentoring New Lawyers has spent months researching programs across the country and is aware of the common pitfalls. The committee has identified a vendor with an app-based platform that facilitates scheduling, monitoring, and communication, Zuroweste said. Meanwhile, the committee is designing a curriculum that will guide program participants through “milestones,” and require mentees to complete various “real world” activities.
Driscoll recommends mentoring to anyone who can make the commitment.
Lately, she can feel the rewards just by looking across the hall. One of her mentees, new Shutts & Bowen associate Janeil Morgan, has an office next door to Driscoll in the firm’s Government Practice Group.
Morgan was 15 when the two met. A Jamaica native who moved to Florida with her parents when she was 7, Morgan became the first lawyer in her family after she graduated UF law school in May.
As Morgan became a student leader, and racked up mock trial victories across the country, it was clear she was headed for success, Driscoll said.
“I said to her when she was in high school that she knew the rules of evidence better than many of the lawyers that I have litigated against,” Driscoll said.
At her recent graduation, Morgan said she could never repay the debt she owes her mentor.
But Driscoll disagreed.
“I said sure you can,” Driscoll said. “You pay it forward. You find somebody and give back what you got. That’s what it’s all about.”