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Mentoring movement to focus on voluntary efforts

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Mentoring movement to focus on voluntary efforts

Senior Editor

A plan to require formal mentoring for all new lawyers that had been gaining momentum in Florida has now been stopped in its tracks.

Instead, largely because of the dire economy, the thrust will be to use volunteer bars, inns of courts, and sections to offer mentors only to those who ask.

News of the shift in direction spread at The Florida Bar’s Midyear Meeting in Miami, during a gathering of the Commission on Professionalism and the Standing Committee on Professionalism. A subcommittee on “accountability” passed a two-part motion to continue long-term support for the required mentoring program as proposed, but in the short-term work with groups to develop voluntary mentoring.

“Mentoring is a great tool to assist new attorneys in their transition to the practice of law,” Chief Justice Peggy Quince, the current chair of the Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, said. “However, required mentoring has serious implications for the mentor and the mentee and should not be undertaken without a thorough and vetted approach.”

“We were victims of timing,”said Miami lawyer Michael Josephs, chair of the Joint Committee on Mentoring. “With the budget issues in the forefront, the shrinking of money that’s available to the courts, there is little on the horizon for programs that require large sums of money to fund. And this is an intense program.”

Still, Josephs said he was shocked by the move away from a formal mentoring requirement, noting, “We had the Young Lawyers Division, presidents of the Bar, Supreme Court justices, federal judges, all voting in favor of it.”

He referred to a year ago, in March 2008, when the commission had unanimously adopted by acclamation the recommendation of the Joint Committee on Mentoring: Every new lawyer in Florida will be paired with a mentor “as a required element of the transition from law school to practice.”

The next step was to seek approval from the Bar Board of Governors, but, in the meantime, the plan got derailed.

The estimate for the cost of the program, Josephs said, was in the neighborhood of $200,000.

“In times like we’re living in, there are other priorities. So we’re going to do the best we can circulating this program, getting it broad-based on a voluntary basis. And hopefully, in the next year or two, after it is seen how great it works, we will be given again the opportunity to operate it as a part of a required program of the Bar,” Josephs said.

Stalling the plan to require mentoring for new lawyers also came as a surprise to Raoul Cantero, who chaired the Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism in 2007 while serving as a justice.

“It’s a disappointment because we had a unanimous recommendation from the committee that (former Bar President) Frank Angones and I had jointly appointed, including former Bar presidents and Supreme Court justices,” said Cantero, now in private practice in Miami.

“They agreed a mentoring program was vital for young lawyers. We knew there was going to be a problem with funding, but we thought with fees we could charge new attorneys for the mentoring program, we could recover the costs.”

Young Lawyers Division President Jewel White Cole, who served on Josephs’ committee and helped create materials for the program said, “I was a little disappointed not to see something come of it, as well. But we will seize the opportunity and make it happen another way.

“Where we are at now is a little shift, not necessarily what we would like to see happen, which is a required component for new lawyers,” Cole said.

“Court funding is a huge thing for the courts to think about, and this requires a rule change. It was not a good climate, and we’re all hit by the downturn in the economy. That factors into: How would you set up a framework to monitor it and be in compliance? At the same time, we continue to hear from young lawyers that they would like it.. . . I visit a lot of affiliates throughout the state and a lot say we are dying to have something to establish this framework for us,” Cole said.

“What Michael Josephs and I have been noodling on is to establish some voluntary programs — whether voluntary bars, inns of court, or a section of the Bar — and set it up throughout the state and show people that it works.”

At the Midyear Meeting, YLD President-elect R.J. Haughey said: “I feel I was mentored well in my law firm. But the perception is there is a distinct group of people who would like a mentor and don’t know where to ask for one. . . I’d love to say to our constituents in the YLD, ‘If you want a mentor, you’ve got one. Just ask.’ Even if it’s as simple as a referral to voluntary groups.”

Cantero first presented the idea of required mentoring for new lawyers to the Bar Board of Governors on June 1, 2007, when he announced the Supreme Court’s Commission on Professionalism and the Bar were establishing a joint committee to study the matter. At a retreat in the spring of 2007, the commission heard a report on the State Bar of Georgia’s first-in-the-nation required mentoring program for its new bar members.

At its first meeting in September 2007, Josephs was chosen to chair the Joint Committee on Mentoring because of his extensive experience.

The impetus was that more than 2,000 new lawyers enter the profession in Florida each year. Fresh out of law school, young lawyers landing government jobs or positions at large firms have built-in benefits of mentors in offices down the hallway to answer questions and lead the way.

But, as then Bar President Angones said: “Some young people who are graduating today, unfortunately, they are going out and starting out on their own. They have not the most basic idea of how to start a trust account and how to deal with it.”

Josephs set about working to build a case for a need to mentor all new lawyers. In a February 29, 2008, memo to commission members, Josephs cited the findings of various studies, as well as anecdotal and intuitive “evidence.”

New lawyers are not the group with the most discipline problems. Disciplined lawyers usually have been practicing for at least seven years, Josephs said.

But the committee concluded that the most efficient way to prevent future bad behavior is to start fresh with first-year lawyers — especially when young lawyers go straight from law school to practicing law in situations where there are not built-in mentors, such as at large law firms or government lawyer offices.

Carl Zahner, director of The Florida Bar’s Henry Latimer Center for Professionalism, confirmed that after making an informal presentation to the Bar’s Program Evaluation Committee, the discussion “never got down to actual money, but what it would take the Bar to do it ourselves.”

Considering the economic crisis, Zahner said, “The wisdom was we may not want to do it that way. We’re not giving up on it, but we’re trying to do it in a little different way.”

Instead, materials created by Josephs and Cole will be provided to voluntary groups interested in providing mentoring, which may or may not progress to required mentoring of new lawyers in the future.

While the program was designed only to be required of new graduates, Josephs said, he believes some people misunderstood. Mentors, he stressed, would only be “those people who gladly serve.”

“My personal feeling is the only way we will ever get the right people to participate — in terms of mentees and protégées — is to have it required, because initially the people who need it the most are the ones who want to spend the least time on it,” Josephs said.

“I think any time you are imposing requirements on lawyers, especially those who have just gotten out of school, it’s a concern — and it should be a concern. But I think this program is so important that it is difficult for a young lawyer to see its wisdom. Some things that are good for you have to be force-fed. You know, the castor oil your mom gave you when you were growing up didn’t taste good, but it was good for you.”

Asked if he will still champion the mentoring effort in its shifted form, Josephs referred to the UF Gators national championship football team and its stellar quarterback: “I’m like Tim Tebow. I’m always back. I’ll never quit.”

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