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Legally Speaking


Issue: December, 2007
Author: Gay V. Woodhouse

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From the President . . .

On Veterans’ Day, I received a call from a bankruptcy attorney from North Carolina asking if I could help her paralegal’s daughter who had been arrested the day before on a domestic violence charge. After hearing only a few facts of the case, I volunteered to go to the jail to see the daughter and call the mother back. Two days later, mother and daughter were returning to North Carolina with the legal issues resolved and the daughter was on her way to get some much needed help in a nurturing and supportive environment.

Why did I instantly want to do this? Why did I feel compelled to volunteer even before getting my retainer in the bank? I think it stems in part from wanting to be a knight in shining armor, to jump into the fray and help people who cannot help themselves, to look in the mirror at the end of the day knowing that I helped someone.

This column appeals to the basic desire in attorneys I know who want to help others. The Lawyer Mentoring Committee which is Co-Chaired by Tom Long and Natalie Winegar is looking for people throughout the state to act as mentors for newly admitted attorneys, called protégés, who need an attorney they can trust to assist them through the process of learning how to become great lawyers. The actual time commitment is not that great - the mentoring guidelines ask that the mentor spend one hour per quarter in a face-to-face with the protégé and be available as needed between those meetings.

At a meeting with Tom Long and Natalie Winegar last week, Tom asked what incentive we could give to the mentors. We learned that we could not give continuing legal education credits or pro bono credit for this work; however, I assured Tom that we would have no shortage of attorneys who would be willing to serve as mentors.

Here are some of the reasons I believe Wyoming attorneys will want to participate as mentors in the Lawyer Mentoring Program:

1) When we help new lawyers learn to practice skillfully, it improves the image of lawyers universally;
2) It’s a way to pass on what has freely been given to us;
3) It gives us a sense of being needed;
4) Let’s face it - it’s flattering to have someone ask us for advice;
5) We have a sense of gratification when we see someone grow knowing that we played a part in that growth;
6) It builds better relationships with the Bench for all of us when we help our younger colleagues avoid pitfalls in the courtroom;
7) We can pass along our respect for the law and its practice;
8) It gives us a captive audience for our war stories.
9) We might learn something in the process!

Some time ago I read that the way to determine what we are really “called” to do in life is to find that one thing that makes time go away—something in which you are totally lost in the effort. That’s the way I feel about practicing law. However, I didn’t always feel this way.

In 2001 when I left the Attorney General’s Office for solo private practice, I frequently lay awake at night worrying about how I would make ends meet and how I would be able to learn all the things I needed to know to survive in a solo general practice. Finally, as a way to reduce this anxiety, I decided to adopt the “lifeline” concept from the game show, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” I decided that I would call a “lifeline” when I was concerned about what to do in a given situation. I was amazed at how helpful my unwitting lifelines were. They always promptly returned my calls. They spent time discussing a particular statute or case, they invited me to meet face-to-face to discuss issues, and they even called me back nights and weekends! It was phenomenal! Most surprisingly, they did not say, “Gay, that is the most idiotic question I’ve ever heard!” or “Don’t you remember that from law school?” Most of the time, they said, “That’s a good question, let me think about it.” One of the attorneys I called frequently started teasing me about presenting him with a “mini bar exam” every time I called. What a relief it was for me to learn that there were people who had been out in the trenches of private practice while I was safely in my government jobs who were ready, willing and able to help me sort through issues.

Fortunately for me, I had been an attorney for a number of years and knew who to call. Even though it was difficult at first, after the kind reception I received, it became easier. Our newer members may not know who to call or even if they do, they may not have the nerve to do so. Even attorneys practicing in larger firms may find it difficult to ask a more experienced attorney questions they think might be considered stupid. The mentor does not have to know all of the answers, but simply needs to act as a guide and a confidant.

For those of us who love the practice of law, being a mentor serves as a way in which we can help younger attorneys learn how to enjoy the practice. It is a way for us to give back. I don’t think any of us can say that we got where we are without being mentored. We may not have had a formal program like the Lawyer Mentoring Committee, but we had many attorneys and judges who took the time to guide us along our path.

Working with the Lawyer Mentoring Committee as a mentor or a protégé fits in with the inward and outward goals for this year. It helps us continue to develop high levels of professionalism from within our membership and as a result it helps us grow lawyers who leave a good impression on the public and who enjoy being of service in the profession.

Anyone wishing for more information regarding this opportunity should contact the Bar office at (307) 632-9061.

Copyright © 2007 – Wyoming State Bar