Bridging the Gap: The Role of Mentorship in Professional Development
By Matt Skonieczny, 3L, FSU College of Law
To many law students, the legal profession can be intimidating. This is especially true of students who are the first in their respective families to pursue a legal career and, thus, may lack the connections to obtain insight into different practices of law.
The absence of connections and the resulting lack of information can be overwhelming in a competitive environment when it comes to approaching a job search. As a first-generation law student, I can attest to this initial need for more information regarding professional development. Looking back now as a 3L student, a key part of my ability to make informed professional decisions was largely due to the wisdom and advice of several older attorneys through mentoring. My experience with mentorship from Florida attorneys reinforced my belief that such interactions are essential to a cohesive legal community in Florida.
While my personal experiences have been largely positive, I have no doubt that many law students have or will deal with unresponsiveness when seeking mentorship. It is a stark reality of any career path: some professionals are not passionate or interested in mentoring others. Given this unavoidable reality, law students must not get discouraged and must continue to press on. Law students should be mindful that older attorneys who have demonstrated excellence in their careers traveled the same path long ago. I would suggest that students entering law school start small and incrementally wade into the legal community to establish connections.
My personal experience in law school is likely similar to many of my peers. I began my legal journey uncertain about what I wanted to practice. Throughout the course of my studies, I began to garner interest in torts. This led to an elevated interest in medical malpractice and personal injury. However, an issue presented itself: I truly had no concrete information about what it took to pursue a career in those practice areas. This presented a unique challenge as a first-generation law student. My first idea to obtain insight was to utilize LinkedIn and connect with Florida personal injury attorneys who posted regularly about their practice. By using this method, I gained valuable insight for professional development in a low-pressure environment. I would consider this to be “passive mentorship,” as the attorneys posting the information did not know me personally but intended their content to be consumed by law students or younger attorneys.
My LinkedIn usage eventually led to more connections and my first real-time interaction with a highly regarded Florida personal injury attorney. After our conversation, I left with valuable insight about how to approach professional development and had answers to questions regarding the practice area. As a first-generation law student, this experience and conversation made an incredibly positive impact on my view of the legal profession. This signified that members of The Florida Bar are willing to mentor law students and that this type of interaction could be the first of many.
Law students interacting with attorneys may be the most common mentoring experience that comes to mind for many. However, mentorship between fellow law students and mentorship from professors and faculty cannot be overlooked. Over the past year, I have interacted with several rising 1L and 2L students regarding their professional development by sharing my own experiences from on-campus interviews and searching for job opportunities. I would encourage my peers and even younger attorneys who just graduated law school to remain mindful of where they started their journey and attempt to make time to help. While we are all busy with our education and work, we can find ways to foster mentorship and guide others. For example, a short and impromptu meeting over coffee with a peer student after class about your on-campus interview experience may help their nerves and inform them about the realities of the process. Mentorship does not need to be a rigid and concrete relationship; rather, it can be more fluid given varying schedules among students and attorneys.
Mentorship traditionally has been undertaken by individuals who are willing to make themselves available. Of course, many law firms encourage mentorship and even have programs to solidify the development of such relationships. However, many law schools do not have such programs or initiatives. I am proud to say that Florida State University College of Law has established the Peer Elevation Program (PEP) and has an existing Career Mentor directory. The PEP is a relatively new initiative that was launched in the Fall of 2022. Professor Christopher Busch and the Office of Student Advancement created this program to match 1L students with 2L and 3L students in small groups to encourage and form mentoring relationships. These relationships are designed to provide an extra layer of support to 1L students and give insight into upper-level classes and the on-campus interview process.
Professor Busch’s dedication to encouraging and developing mentorship relationships was apparent in my personal experience after taking his Lawyers as Leaders class in the Fall of 2022 (which I would highly recommend to all FSU Law Students). This class has much to offer but specifically offers a chance for students to network with Tallahassee attorneys in various practice areas. This component of the class undoubtedly fosters mentorship relationships and provides students with a low-pressure opportunity to make connections. I commend Professor Busch for implementing this mentorship opportunity in the class curriculum, as it expressly bridges the gap between law school and the realities of law practice. Furthermore, the endorsement of this initiative by the FSU College of Law administration demonstrates a well-needed commitment to encouraging mentorship in law school. I look forward to seeing how this program develops and FSU College of Law continuing to facilitate mentorship experiences.
Ultimately, current law students and those entering their legal journey face a professional and educational labyrinth. Navigating the twists and turns of this metaphorical maze can be overwhelming and difficult because there are many paths to success. Given the makeup of how professional development occurs in the legal profession, law students and attorneys should keep an open mind when it comes to mentoring those that have gone before. Doing so not only aids a law student or younger attorney but also builds connections that may bring friendship and future business relationships. No matter how many initiatives bar associations or law schools implement, mentorship will always fall on the shoulders of individuals who wish to give back and help others, something we should all aspire to do.
Mentoring Tips for Law Students and Young Lawyers
Do not be intimidated
If you do not have luck finding a mentor, keep trying.
Use Social Media
Social media is great for connecting and learning about practice areas.
Get involved on campus and in the community.
Make Law School Connections
Reach out to professors, administrators and other students.
Use Florida Bar Resources!
Many are provided through the Henry Latimer Center for Professionalism.