A word from our mentors

Melbourne Law School Careers Office runs a successful mentor program for first-year law students. SO what's it like to be a mentor? Some of our alumni share their insights into the program, now in its third year.

Annabelle Holcombe with Jacinta Fish 

Speaking to mentors about  their experience, what is striking is their sense of commitment to helping the next generation of lawyers negotiate their first experiences of a new profession.

Many see it as a way of giving back, a practical means of using their experience to help students as they begin a challenging course. And who better to help than those who remember what it was like to enter an unfamiliar world.

"I thought that a mentor was just what I would have wanted when I was a first-year law student!" says Wendy Harris, who was appointed last year as Senior Counsel.

"I came to the Law School knowing very little about the law and legal practice, and with very little in the way of a support network – few of my schoolmates went to university, let alone to Melbourne University – and I felt very isolated in my first year of the LLB program," says Harris.

Barrister Sarah Leighfield came to law school as the first in her family to enter the legal profession. Coming from Geelong, she was particularly keen to mentor students from country or state school backgrounds to help them make the transition to law school. She  also saw the mentor program as an opportunity to explain pathways to entry for those interested in her field.

"I practise in the area of criminal law (defence)… I was keen to ensure that those students who are interested in pursuing a career in criminal law have access to mentors who practise in the area."

Melbourne Law School's mentor program pairs first-year students with a professional working in legal practice or a variety of workplaces beyond the legal profession. For students, this is an opportunity for one-on-one guidance from an experienced law graduate working in their area of interest – an introduction to the practical realities of the workplace and the possibilities before them.

Barrister Rodrigo Pintos-Lopez  had just relocated from the United States and was establishing his practice when he mentored student Willem Drent. Both mentor and student had chosen law as a mid-career move.

"Our experiences were particularly similar in that Willem came to law school with significant life experience. Willem is very accomplished in that regard, and I wanted to add advice that was meaningful to him… I tried to anticipate what I thought the issues would be for any law student starting out," says Pintos-Lopez.

For Drent, the encouragement was timely.

"We met around the stage where I had an overload of assignments, and I was questioning why I was doing law. So it was very useful just to connect with someone outside the Law School building to see that there really is another world," says Drent.

The mentor program is a very practical way for students to learn more about the profession and to gain a greater understanding of where their chosen study might lead.

"I hadn't really had any experience of meeting commercial barristers, so this was my first entrée into this world: what sort of people they might be, what sort of responsibilities they have and how they were managing their lives and their work. So it was a very valuable insight," says Drent.

"It certainly highlighted the collegiality of this profession. It's comforting to think there are a lot of other people who think in the same way and are going through the same set of challenges and same set of questions."

The Law School's mentor program embraces a diverse field of professionals working in the legal profession in a variety of areas from business to government and beyond. Jacinta Fish is Managing Director of legal recruitment specialists, Jacinta Fish Legal.

"I realized that what students really need is just someone to talk to and bounce things off. And being past students and now old, old law grads, we are able to give them very objective, practical advice," says Fish.

Fish met Annabelle Holcombe just after the JD student had relocated to Melbourne to begin her law studies, and was able to provide a valuable external perspective on the pressures of studying law.

"Jacinta had been through everything I'd been through and come out fine at the other end!" says Holcombe.

Holcombe believes the best advice her mentor provided was how to manage the challenges of a busy career.

"One important thing she taught me was that it's important to learn perspective and balance in life now, because life doesn't change much when you go into an actual firm.

It's just a smaller and busier and probably more stressful environment," said Holcombe.

Mentors talk to their mentees about a range of matters from subject choice, essay topics, study techniques and marks, legal practice, career options and work issues. They might also identify work experience opportunities, provide advice on preparing résumés or introduce students to other legal professionals.

Wendy Harris has mentored a number of students and has found that flexibility is the key to the mentor/mentee relationship.

"You really need to be responsive to what your mentee needs from you. In my experience, this can differ considerably from mentee to mentee," says Harris.

"In the main, while I made sure that I kept up-to-date with what they were doing in the JD program and how they were tracking, we talked about things that they wanted to raise with me."

Harris has mentored Jessye Freeman since the third-year student began her JD degree in 2009. With no family or colleagues working in the legal profession, Freeman came to the program to find out more about law and to identify a career path.

"I've taken concrete things away from the mentoring program," says Freeman.

"Wendy gave me advice and introduced me to contacts who could tell me more about working in international law which is my main  interest."

Freeman also completed a week of work experience in Harris's chambers.

"It's been a great experience," says Freeman, who has just been accepted into the Masters program at New York University School of Law.

"The fact that Wendy was available to me and I felt like I could talk to her about my marks or anything that I needed to was great. I really model myself  on Wendy."

Harris believes that one of the most valuable things a mentor can share is a perspective on success in life after study.

"It doesn't all depend on high marks and a gilt-edged CV! Some of the best lawyers I know had more modest beginnings. While success at university and making the most of the opportunity presented by a world-class learning environment is obviously important and desirable, getting top marks is not the only path to a satisfying career in the law and you shouldn't be discouraged if you're not in the top few. Also, you will be a much better lawyer if you are a well-rounded human being."

While the mentor program has well-developed objectives for its mentoring pairs, each mentor and mentee has made the relationship their own.

"I have enjoyed it very much," says Harris.

"Each of my mentees has been an interesting, motivated, intelligent individual. I have maintained a  social relationship with each of them after the 'official' close of the program, and will take great interest in their continued professional and personal  development."

Sarah Leighfield has also maintained contact with all three of her mentees.

"It has been a pleasure to watch each of them progress through the JD and to observe the skills they have developed, and are continuing to develop over time," says Leighfield.

Jacinta Fish reports that, in fact, mentees have a lot to give to their mentors.

"I find it really refreshing to see through their eyes and hear all of the hopes and dreams and fears they all have as law students."

"I would really recommend participating. It's not a huge time commitment but you feel good giving even just a tiny, little bit back."

Image: Student Annabelle Holcombe with her mentor Jacinta Fish of Jacinta Fish Legal.

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 5, May 2011.