Dan Harper is vice president, corporate counsel and secretary for Océ North America, Inc., a Canon Group Co. He is also president of the Chicago Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel. The views expressed herein are the opinions of the author and do not reflect the position or viewpoint of Océ North America Inc., Canon Inc. or any of the Océ or Canon companies.
Mentor: a wise and trusted counselor or teacher; an influential senior sponsor or supporter.
The definition of mentor certainly lends itself to my perception of what a good lawyer should be – wise (of course), a counselor and certainly influential. So then, as lawyers in positions of influence should we not devote some amount of our precious time to mentoring young people who express an interest in the law? How do we create a pipeline of good, honest, ethical, smart and intelligent lawyers to take our place when our time is done? We take advantage of our position today to ensure a future for our profession tomorrow. We teach. We mold students. We take advantage of opportunities to show them what lawyering is all about and guide them as they make decisions about their futures.
Today, I had such an opportunity. I had the wonderful good fortune to serve as a mentor to a young man from an “underserved” school district. His teacher, who is involved in ACC’s StreetLaw program, contacted ACC and asked if a number of her students could shadow in-house counsel for a day. ACC was able to provide several high school students “shadow partner” lawyers for the day. My mentee (I will refer to him as “James”, not his real name) is a bright, interested, ambitious young man with thoughts of one day becoming a lawyer. I asked James a fairly standard question and received a fairly standard answer: “Why do you want to be a lawyer?” Answer: “I want to help people.”
I was not going to let James get away with a generic “meant to please” answer. So I asked him what was behind his answer, what makes him want to be a lawyer, really – what experience in his life caused him to actually believe that he can help people as a lawyer? James, who is foreign born and who speaks English as a second language, explained that when his parents came to the U.S., they could not find good legal advice on how to properly obtain citizenship. They were passed from lawyer to lawyer, none of which could or would help them, until finally they received the legal assistance they needed from a community organization. He explained the heartache and tension felt by the family (and I could see it in his eyes) as they struggled with the language barrier trying to negotiate a complex system of laws and regulations. He said simply, I want to be the person who can help people like my family avoid the problems they encountered. Now that was a good answer.
I was the first lawyer that James ever met. His experience is consistent with many in his working class community. I too come from a blue-collar background and as a youngster knew only one lawyer, an in-law to my father’s best friend. When I have spoken to students in James’ teachers class, I ask them if they have ever considered a career in law. Very noble and important careers such as stenographer, court clerk, probation officer and social worker are always mentioned. However, rarely, if ever, is lawyer or judge mentioned. These young folks just don’t think of themselves as lawyers.
When we take advantage of mentoring opportunities such as those offered by ACC in conjunction with StreetLaw, we provide up close and personal contact with real lawyers in a semi-educational environment. We expose these fine young people to the possibility of achievement beyond their own expectations; we help them see that they are not limited in career choices, that by hard work, a little luck and opportunity, they can become professionals. They get to know a lawyer on a first name basis, they see common backgrounds and that they too can make the grade.
I had James’ attention for only a few hours today and while he was able to listen in on a few adversarial phone conversations (none of which were confidential in nature) and attend a meeting or two with me, he did not learn much about the law. However, he did learn a thing or two about being a lawyer. The most important thing that James learned today was that he can be a lawyer too. We can help James and his classmates become what James hopes to be one day, someone to whom others can come for help and who will be there for those who seek it.