The Mentee Shortage

People ask me for advice. A lot. Sometimes, it’s new lawyers seeking career advice. Other times, it’s lawyers looking for some advice on how to handle a case or a client.  Still other times, it’s someone asking about advice on writing.  But they reach out to me, and I try to help.  It’s not that I’m just a swell guy; almost all lawyers I know are willing, if not happy, to help others.

But it’s not the same as it used to be.  Nobody wants to be told that the reason they’re having a problem is that they suck at whatever it is they’re doing, and should give serious thought to applying for an assistant manager’s job at Dairy Queen.  Even though that thought has passed through my mind more than once. Still, I try to be constructive under the assumption they’re not going to quit the law, so it would be best to help them not to be totally ruinous to other people’s lives.

Back then, advice such as work harder, stop trying to find a short cut, think harder, and suck it up was taken with equanimity, if not appreciation.  You see, mentoring sometimes means that you’re told “no, you’re not doing a good job. You need to do better.”

No more. It’s not just that mentees want to argue the point. They always did that, at least to some extent.  It’s that they now make it clear that they want an answer, even when the answer is that there is no answer, and they want an answer that doesn’t involve them breaking a sweat.

And if I can’t give it to them, they’re out of here and off to find someone who will tell them what they want to hear.

A few years back, Dan Hull and I wrote a piece for the ABA Journal on mentoring. When push came to shove, they decided not to run the article.  It wasn’t affirming enough, I suppose. The lead article in this month’s ABA Journal magazine is “Meet 6 Lawyers Who Are Also Race Car Drivers.”

It’s not that they only publish articles about cool hobbies that lawyers enjoy. There are also articles about the practice of law, like “NYC lawyer turns to zombies, werewolves and cocker spaniels for his books about case law.”  Who doesn’t love cocker spaniels?  It’s not that one can blame the ABA Journal for publishing things that people want to read, and clearly zombies and race cars are far more fun than what you can do about not sucking so much as a lawyer, but it has become something of a hothouse for delicate flowers.

And it’s no longer a problem to be a lawyer as well as a delicate flower.  Well, maybe it is to old lawyers who snarl in a curmudgeonly way, and maybe clients who thought you had the chops and interest to save their lives when they needed you, but just because you failed them miserably doesn’t mean you aren’t good enough, smart enough, and doggonnit, people like you.

There is often a discussion surrounding such problems that focuses on generational perceptions, how this one isn’t as good as the last one, and so on.  To a significant extent, mine isn’t as good as the one that came before it. Mine is softer, less willing to sacrifice.  I sat at the knee of lawyers who wore suits when mowing the lawn because that was how lawyers were supposed to dress. It was miserable, but they understood that public respect for the profession demanded that they be members of a learned profession all the time, not just when it was convenient.

Crazy stuff? Well, sure, in today’s light. But then, the public thinks lawyers are scum today. Maybe not as crazy as it seems, though we can use our mad rationalization skillz to explain away the ridiculous connection between our conducting ourselves as professionals at all times and the way in which our profession is perceived. Besides, the public is wrong, and they don’t know shit, right?

My approach toward mentoring is to tell the truth as I see it. It’s not that I’m necessarily right, and indeed, many will argue vociferously that I’m dead wrong, which is fine. But I can do no more than be as honest as I can if I’m to hold up my end of the mentoring continuum.  I give praise sparingly, but when I do, I mean it. And it means something.

That’s not good enough anymore. The people who call want me to tell them it’s okay, they’re doing great, and anything that didn’t work out isn’t their fault.  And while the years have passed, there has been a substantial contingent of lawyers and pseudo-lawyers who have recognized what others want, and have given it to them.  In return, they receive the appreciation of others, are lauded for their kindness and empathy, and have millions of followers on Facebook.

That’s become the metric for quality, how many people like you.  How many followers you have. How many tummy rubs are mutually distributed between faceless nyms on social media.  And how many new lawyers feel the happy embrace of their predecessors, who comfort them in their moment of despair that they really aren’t up to the task.

You know how being exhausted is the cool new complaint?  Everything is so exhausting, which serves as an excuse to dismiss whatever you no longer want to do?  Well, I’ve decided that I too should avail myself of the “exhausting” excuse, and I’m exhausted by people who seek my mentorship and then want to argue with me about how they deserve to be comforted rather than be challenged.

For all my years in practice, I’ve tried to be there for anyone who sought my help. No more. If you want a tummy rub, then my mentoring biz is closed. Don’t ask. Don’t argue. Don’t rant about how I failed to show you the love and respect you’ve decided you deserve.

And I’m going to take the time I would otherwise spend mentoring new lawyers and use it to become a race car driver so I can finally get the ABA Journal to recognize how cool I am.  Because I’m good enough, smart enough, and doggonnit, I already have a Healey.  Just so you know, spending my time talking you through whatever emotional fiasco you were suffering wasn’t nearly as much fun for me as driving my Healey, but I did it anyway, because I believed that it’s my duty as a lawyer to help you.


26 thoughts on “The Mentee Shortage

  1. losingtrader

    Just cut out the complaining crap and admit you want me to buy you a few million Facebook likes.

  2. phroggie

    I’ve always thought that a good mentor does little more than dole out tummy rubs as necessary, alongside an occasional rap from the cane. By that (perhaps flawed) logic, it appears that you’re more inclined for rubbing tummies than I’ve ever believed you were capable of.

  3. Noxx

    “When I was your age…”

    I empathize with your curmudgeonliness. Whether they are mentees, interns, or apprentices, the common thread is that they are shockingly ungrateful. We try to provide them with the benefit of our experience, they tell us about their self worth.

    They can all get the hell off my lawn.

    1. SHG Post author

      But they ask. It’s not as if we run around the country forcing curmudgeonliness down their throats. They ask.

  4. Patrick Maupin

    I have a wacky theory about this. In the main, things probably aren’t much worse than they’ve always been. But the sort of smart people you used to personally mentor aren’t bothering you as much any more. You’re still mentoring them, via this blog and the twitters, and maybe the occasional interpersonal interaction. In fact, you’re probably successfully mentoring more people than ever before, but (a) you just don’t have the real metrics to know it, despite what your wordpress command console tells you, and (b) it’s not really the same as mentoring, because you aren’t getting that feedback, and because you would tell your best mentees things you aren’t printing in the blog. Sure they’re missing out a bit, but they have other sources, and most of the gaps are probably pretty small. If they google for the solution for a problem, they’re smart enough to winnow down the wheat from the chaff, and think about possible problems with everything they’ve seen, and then if they still have to ask for help, they’ll have a very focused question.

    But the same tools that let your great mentees study at your virtual knee without you even knowing they exist also let thousands that couldn’t reach you before realize that you exist and that you know what you’re doing, and that they can bother you without writing a letter or even picking up the phone.

    It may or may not be a recipe for a disaster, but it’s certainly a recipe for a warped world-view, because while it may not always seem like it, those people were always out there, and the competent young mentees are still out there, as well.

    1. Mr. M

      I’d buy it. I come here for my daily reminder to pull my head out of my ass, and that saves me the trouble of spamming SHG (and other lawyers like him).

  5. Cynabc

    I’m no lawyer. Have a few family members who are and teachers. I’m sending this to them. Just wanted to say thanks for all the interesting, funny, serious, knowledgeable posts. Very Informative.

  6. John Barleycorn

    A plebes plea, strangely enough, becomes more consistently reinforcing to the plebe, the further it removes itself from reality.

    I think this has always been.

    The irony may be that the mentors toolbox may in fact actually have fewer tools today to correct the distortions in the plebes reality than it did several generations ago.

    Herein lies the problem. Which is increasingly being leveraged politically for questionable ends across the political spectrum

    How the skilled blue and white collar guilds deal with this, I would argue known dilemma, over the next decade or less should prove to be interesting and have lasting impacts for the future potential landscapes our nation may choose to create for itself.

    P.S. You could always become an “optimist” like me and realize that the game might already be lost on certain fronts and start concentrating on more creative ideas to soften the landing while crating a diabolical plan to capitalize on the benefits of not being handicapped by the dilemmas of a remodel.

    This of course requires a delicate balance between going mad and enjoying the ride. You are probably up for it though. It’s good to see you realize that sometimes you simply just have to “let go”.

  7. KP

    Lawyering is more exhausting because so many more laws have been written in the last 40years! So much more to absorb, so much more mentoring needed…

    Need a mentor for race car driving??

  8. Wrongway

    Just a quick question.. I have a Beef Roast.. Oven or Crock Pot ??

    (And don’t hurt my feelz & tell me to do my research..)

    1. phroggie

      I’m sure there’s an inside joke here that I’m not privy to, but our esteemed host left out a crucial detail in his response. It’s got to be in a *cast iron* enclosure. Using some fancy new-fangled material for baking a roast would be like adding bullet hole stickers to an otherwise pristine Healey: still a decent time, but why, oh God, why!?!? Oh, the humanity!

      1. Wrongway

        Cast Iron is the only way to cook.. well the real food.. but I’ll use a microwave for my pizza rolls tho.. (lot’s of ranch dressing..)

  9. Jake DiMare

    Srsly. But does the interwebz cause ‘Massively Distributed Dunning Kruger Syndrome™’ or simply spread it?

    “Nobody wants to be told that the reason they’re having a problem is that they suck at whatever it is they’re doing, and should give serious thought to applying for an assistant manager’s job at Dairy Queen.”

    True story: Just this past Friday my office Millennials treated me like I was a crazy person when I suggested their friend, who speaks English as a second language poorly AND is diagnosed with a reading comprehension disability, might want to try something less ambitious than the dental school she’s failing to get accepted at because she is incapable of completing the admission test…

    1. SHG Post author

      Given all the -isms going ’round, there is a pervasive belief that things we used to deem deal breakers are no longer reasons to disqualify someone from success. Accommodations for everyone. The notion that someone just can’t manage to perform adequately due to their personal limitations is no longer acceptable.

      Think on the bright side, at least she doesn’t aspire to be a brain surgeon.

    2. Dragoness Eclectic

      I would suggest she work on her English language skills /before/ applying to dental school, but not discourage it entirely. A temporary language deficiency in no way implies a permanent inability to learn other things, and sufficiently-motivated people with reading/learning disabilities have still managed to work extra hard and accomplish great things.

      Unless she’s actually a fool, which is an entirely different problem.

      1. SHG Post author

        When you run a dental hygiene school, you can choose to admit her. Just let me know so I will never use anyone from your school. Take all the risks you want with your body, but not mine.

        If the schools have determined that she fails to meet their minimum standards for admission, I will defer to their judgment.

  10. mirriam

    I didn’t get to this because I was too busy telling the new lawyers in my office how much they suck. No, for real. I think about what I got from Terry and how hard it was at that time and then I see these folks who are actually quite smart and capable but yet crumble anytime their feelings get hurt I am like when and how did this happen? I don’t know how to make them put their feelings away. Terry just told me to ‘stuff them in a locker where they belong.’

    1. SHG Post author

      New lawyers don’t suck. They are the last most wonderful lawyers in the office. Give them a red balloon.

  11. Bruce Godfrey

    What I have encountered in mentoring in MD, more than skill set deficiencies or lack of natural talent (however defined), is lack of wisdom and basic common sense. I cannot provide the best concrete examples without violating confidentiality (professional or personal), but I am seeing damn fool behavior that, sadly, may lie below the “career aptitude” stratum of wisdom. A fool who does some of these things in law might be expected to be equally foolish outside of the practice of law in any other endeavor.

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