The value of mentoring candidate attorneys

October 28th, 2015
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By the prosecutions and the financial forensic units of the Attorneys Fidelity Fund

The purpose of this article is to reinforce the need for mentoring of candidate attorneys. Attorneys, like any other profession, go through a set of assessments and training in order to be admitted as attorneys and to practice for their own account. One of the training interventions that they go through is serving articles of clerkship, where they obtain practical exposure to practice of law. This exposure is obtained under the guidance or supervision of a principal attorney at the law firm where the articles are served. An alternative though, is available where the training takes place at the law clinics under the supervision of clinicians who are lawyers within those law clinics. Readers are encouraged to read this article together with the following articles:

  • ‘Preparing for the future University law clinics training candidate attorneys’ (2013 (Sept) DR 34).
  • ‘The role of candidate attorneys in the legal profession’ (2014 (July) DR 54).

The future success of the legal fraternity lies on the good foundation that ensures that knowledge and practical experience is rightfully cascaded to candidate attorneys. While this knowledge and practical experience is cascaded, it should also ensure that the character of the candidate attorney is enhanced in the process. The production of highly competent and skilled candidate attorneys is a shared responsibility among various stakeholders in the legal profession. There are many ways that can be pursued to train and prepare candidate attorneys for the practice of law. Mentoring is one of the most critical and effective ways of preparing candidate attorneys for a tough and challenging legal industry.

Entering practice in any profession offers a major challenge to newly qualified practitioners. It is a formative period where the knowledge, skills and attitudes acquired during a programme of education are applied in practice. It is a transition period that can be stressful, as well as challenging, as new demands are made on individuals who are seeking to consolidate their skills. It is therefore a period when a candidate attorney is in need of guidance and support in order to develop confidence and competence.

The concept of continuing support for a period after qualification through mentoring or other methods is well-established in many professions and is being introduced by more and more organisations. Mentoring relationships range from loosely defined, informal collegial associations in which a mentee learns by observation and example to structured, formal agreements between expert and novice co-mentors where each develops professionally through the two-way transfer of experience and perspective. It is for this reason that we devote this article to mentoring of candidate attorneys.

There are a number of definitions for mentoring out there. D Clutterbuck, and D Megginson Mentoring Executives and Directives (Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann 1999) at 3 defines mentoring as an ‘off line help by one person to another in making significant transitions in knowledge, work or thinking’. Another definition by Suzanne Faure, which captures the essence of what we wish to cover in this article says: ‘Mentoring is a supportive learning relationship between a caring individual who shares knowledge, experience and wisdom with another individual who is ready and willing to benefit from this exchange, to enrich their professional journey’ (www.coachingnetwork.org.uk).

We now look at the various elements contained in this definition:

  • A supportive learning relationship – this effectively requires that the mentee and the mentor should establish a relationship. It is important that this relationship is founded on trust. A mentee should be mentored by a person that he or she can trust, looks up to, and believes he or she can learn from over a long period, even beyond the training period.
  • A caring individual – a mentor should not just be an academic or focused on the job alone. It should be someone who has an interest in the overall development of the mentee, beyond just practice. The mentor should be caring enough to want to see the mentee not only becoming a competent and skilful attorney but also being successful in life.
  • Shares knowledge, experience and wisdom – the mentor should be willing to share knowledge that the mentor possesses, share experiences encountered (good and bad) and impart wisdom to the mentee. Knowledge-sharing will help the mentee with the technical development. Good experiences shared will help the mentee want to assimilate that which is good, while bad experiences will warn the mentee on things to avoid that could bring the mentee down. Sharing of wisdom is a critical area as it will put the mentee in a position to differentiate between right and wrong as he or she goes on in the practice of law. These put together will ensure future sustainable growth of the mentee as they begin to practice for their own account.
  • Ready and willing to benefit from this exchange – as the saying goes ‘you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink’. It is important that the mentee is both ready and willing to benefit from the exchange. Readiness means that the mentee is mentally ready to receive what is imparted to him or her. Willingness means where there are areas of improvement, the mentee is willing to change for the better. However, this is an exchange, meaning the mentor also benefits from the relationship. Willingness of the mentee will ensure openness in terms of inquiring, which in turn may assist the mentor in areas that may not have been considered before.
  • Enrich their professional journey – this again talks to both parties benefiting from the relationship.

An essential step in a successful mentoring relationship is for both the mentor and mentee to individually identify, define, and honestly articulate their goals and motives. It is important to note that in a mentoring relationship there is no superiority of one to the other, but a relationship of mutual interest. It is a long-term relationship of openness, it is futuristic, and of mutual benefit.

While a principal attorney in a law firm or a clinician in a law clinic may not necessarily be officially the mentor to a candidate attorney that he or she is supervising, they should strive for a relationship that will build the candidate. In big and small law firms, a candidate attorney may be assigned a specific mentor and this person will be vital to their growth and personal development. In sole proprietary firms, by default, the sole proprietor assumes the role of a mentor to the candidate attorney. Unfortunately, often some attorneys with the responsibility to mentor do not recognise that they are bestowed an important and great responsibility, not only to the mentee but to the profession and to the nation as a whole. These mentors have a huge responsibility in ensuring that the mentee acquires knowledge, a lot of experience in areas such as –

  • the day-to-day operations of the practice;
  • preparation and review of trust accounting records;
  • financial management for the business;
  • identification and mitigation of risks to the firm;
  • client relationship management;
  • strategic business management; and
  • business development, above and beyond developing their legal skills and/or practising same.

Mentors should lead by example as they are seen as role models and they should always be cognisant of their actions as these create the most lasting impressions. Candidate attorneys will hold on to and remember the behaviour and actions of the practising attorneys-in-charge of their mentoring and will assimilate what they see and learn.

Principal attorneys responsible for mentoring must be credible, honest and uphold high values at all times so as to make a significant impact in the lives of their mentees. It is often seen that new attorneys in the field may have unrealistic expectations. These expectations range, from among others, making it to the top in no time, acquiring assets within a short space of time, going on expensive holidays, etcetera. It is the duty of the mentors to openly share with their mentees, within this relationship, the realities of running a business and thus manage the expectations. Candidate attorneys need to take into cognisance that there are no guarantees in business, there will be good and bad times. The economy in which a business is run changes. Mentors should, therefore, warn the candidate attorneys to always create reserves during good times to cater for the bad times when the business is not doing well. This should, to a large extent, eliminate theft of trust monies. A high number of theft claims is experienced by the Attorneys Fidelity Fund (AFF).

Benefits from good mentoring relationships

There are major benefits to be derived from good mentoring relationships and these are outlined by Judy McKimm, Carol Jollie and Mark Hatter ‘Mentoring: Theory and Practice’ 2007 (www.faculty.londondeanery.ac.uk) in the table below:

Mentor Mentee

• Improves awareness of own learning gaps.

• Develops ability to give and take criticism.

• Develops up-to-date organisational and professional knowledge.

• Offers networking opportunities.

• Improves leadership, organisational and communication skills.

• Develops ability to challenge, stimulate and reflect.

• Raises profile within organisation.

• Increases job satisfaction.

• Offers opportunity to pass on knowledge and experience.

• Provides stimulation.

• May offer career advancement opportunities.

• Transfer of legal skills.

• Analyse and develop trends affecting practical legal training and legal practice.

• Develops legal, critical analytical and reflective skills.

• Develops organisational and professional knowledge.

• Develops own practice.

• Develops or reinforces self-confidence and willingness to take risks.

• Develops ability to accept criticism.

• Develop professional ethics and practice same.

• Supports through transition.

• May accelerate professional development.

• Develops autonomy and independence.

• Increases maturity.

• Broadens horizons.

• Increases job satisfaction.

• Reduces reality shock.

• Offers opportunities for effective role modelling.

• Encourages ongoing learning and developing and identifying learning opportunities.

• Develops increased reflective practitioner skills.

• Offers individualised one-to-one teaching and opportunities for experiential learning.

• Offers help with problem solving.

• Practical and thorough understanding of attorneys’ trust account environment.

 

Risks and impact to various stakeholders where no mentoring has been provided

If candidate attorneys are not properly mentored while serving articles, it may give rise to a lot of risks in future and these might have a devastating impact on a number of stakeholders in the legal profession and the nation as a whole. Some of the risks and consequences include, but are not limited to:

  • Inexperienced, incompetent and non-credible attorneys may be deployed to the legal profession due to lack of proper guidance and mentoring.
  • Inability to successfully operate practising firms in a financially sound manner.
  • Increased number of qualified audit reports that may be received by law societies due to lack of understanding and appreciation for the preparation and review of trust accounting records.
  • Increased number of unemployed law practitioners and severe pressure on the economy.
  • Increased theft claims to the AFF denting the reputation for the profession.
  • Increased negligence claims to the Attorneys Insurance Indemnity Fund.
  • Increased number of defaulting attorneys in the country.
  • Reduced number of credible attorneys in the profession resulting in reputation risks for the profession.
  • Being suspended from practice because of failure to comply with rules of the law societies.
  • Being criminally charged for theft of trust money, etcetera.

Conclusion

It is of utmost importance for mentoring of candidate attorneys to be taken seriously, and where possible formalised. As already alluded to in foregoing paragraphs, this will assist the attorneys themselves, the profession and the nation as a whole. Mentorship of candidate attorneys should not be optional but mandatory to all candidate attorneys under articles of clerkship. Legal Education and Development (LEAD) has taken the initiative to register attorneys who wish to provide mentorship to others. Practitioners who wish to register as mentors are therefore encouraged to register with LEAD, and candidate attorneys looking for mentors are equally encouraged to make use of that database of mentors in legal practice.

Make the best of the relationship, and watch yourself making strides.

The prosecutions and the financial forensic units of the Attorneys Fidelity Fund in Centurion.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2015 (Nov) DR 20.

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