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Be a Mentor

From – St. Louis Lawyer

June 6, 2001

By: Leigh Joy Carson

This column has historically been devoted to profiling those who do “good works” for the community on a large-scale basis: educational programs, outreach to the economically depressed, assistance to the elderly and the like. This month, instead of profiling those who reach out as individuals to groups, I would like to publicly commend those who act as mentors to others, particularly attorneys who mentor their younger peers.

As a young attorney, I was blessed to work for several individuals who understood that unless we make a point to set an example for those who follow us, we all lose. My first law job was as a clerk to the Honorable Carl R. Gaertner at the Missouri Court of Appeals.

Judge Gaertner is widely regarded as one of the finest jurists to sit on both the trial bench and at the appellate court. He was patient with my lack of knowledge of the legal system and of the practicalities of an appeal. He taught me to never elevate form over substance when evaluating or making a legal argument. He taught me that the important part of doing my job and doing it well was to be aware of the workflow and the demands placed on him. He was never harsh, never gave a critique without a lavish helping of sincere and specific praise and never summoned me to his office; he came to me.

It was while working for Judge Gaertner that I learned the meaning of the saying that respect must be earned and can never be commanded. We went to lunch several times, and he made a point to make the conversation easy for me, never forgetting that he was intimidating by virtue of age, experience, reputation and position.

After I clerked, I was an associate with the litigation department of what was then called Bryan, Cave, McPheeters & McRoberts. I still smile when I hear those who have never worked at a similar firm speak disparagingly of it. To this day, I believe that my colleagues at that firm were the most generous, team- oriented, supportive people with whom I have had the privilege to work.

I learned from Tom Archer that a solid memorandum of law was acceptable, but there was no reason that it should not be superb. I learned from Tom that where I went to law school and my other credentials were no better and no worse than anyone else’s who was there, and that the reason that I was asked to do an assignment as because I was the desired choice, not that I was the next one on the list. I learned from Tom that excellence was the only goal in a particular situation and that there was no conceit in that, only pride.

I learned from Mark Deiermann that it was all right to ask questions and that there really was no stupid or foolish question. I learned from Tom Walsh that having been to the United States Supreme Court on a landmark case did not mean that he did not make coffee or say good morning or hold the elevator door. I learned from David Slavkin that the role of a mentor was to be available, not just up in the ivory tower, but also in the lunchroom, in the hall and in the associate’s own office. I learned from Michael Clear that sincere thanks for a job well done are a gift that continues to give more than a decade later. I learned from Kim Norwood and Lisa Blatt and Bob Ebert and Gretchen Garrison that colleagues need to assist each other without judgment and without expecting a quid pro quo.

After the Cave, I was fortunate enough to work at Love, Lacks & Paule. I learned from Don Paule that law is a business and the importance of having an agenda and a plan when talking to a busy superior and, perhaps more importantly, how to make a plan and draft an agenda. I learned from Alisse Camazine that a family law practitioner can care intensely but not lose perspective and judgment. I learned from Bruce Friedman that being insightful and astute does not require condescension.

Most of all, I learned from Chester Love that just because law is a business, that does not mean that it is and always will be a noble profession.

Take a minute out of your busy day to take your young opposing counsel from the trial last week to lunch and praise him on a specific point – the handling of a witness, the argument on an objection, the introduction of an exhibit with a tricky foundation.  Take a minute to really teach and give guidance: don’t just scribble corrections on something from your associate who has been with you for three years – be constructive and sit down and think out loud with her, explaining why you would have taken a different approach.  Take a minute to invite the law clerk from the real estate department to go to court with you to a domestic pre-trial and make sure to introduce her to all of the other attorneys with whom you have conversations at the courthouse and to the judge.  Take a minute to write a note to someone who helped you early in your career.

Remember the way that Gerry Carmody responded to a misstatement in your oral argument the first time your appeared before the Court of Appeals, and show the same courtesy to a young colleague.  Remember the way that Lenny Frankel let you speak first in a settlement conference without interrupting you when you were newly licensed, and give a young attorney a break.  Remember the way that Gene Buckley handled objections in a contentious trial, with effective grace, and take the time to do so even when you are frustrated with the brash youngster on the other side of the table. 

Above all, remember what Chester Love often said about Tom Frawley – he was glad that he was kind to that young man in short pants, especially because he grew up to be a judge.  I know you are busy, but a hand from you to a young attorney will be remembered years later.  I promise.