Every Young Lawyer Needs a Mentor [Gaille Energy Blog Issue 77]

Every Young Lawyer Needs a Mentor [Gaille Energy Blog Issue 77]

  • Posted by scottgaille
  • On June 21, 2019
  • law mentor

Over the last seven years, I’ve had the privilege of teaching the Energy Law Seminar to several hundred students at The University of Chicago Law School.  Many of my students end up practicing law in Houston, where they regularly seek my career advice.  These meetings frequently are marked by a general anxiety about whether someone’s job is tracking his or her (very high) expectations.

Expectations are dangerous things. As Yuval Noah Harari explained in Sapiens:

“But the most important finding of all is that happiness does not depend on objective conditions of either wealth, health or even community.  Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations.”

I was a philosophy minor, and as Harari observes, these studies are nothing new—“[p]rophets, poets, and philosophers realized thousands of years ago that being satisfied with what you already have is far more important than getting more of what you want.”

What is new, though, is the role technology plays in dialing up expectations:

“If you were an eighteen-year-old youth in a small village 5,000 years ago you’d probably think you were good looking because there were only fifty other men in your village and most of them were either old, scarred and wrinkled, or still little kids.  But if you are a teenager today, you are a lot more likely to feel inadequate [measuring yourself] against the movie stars, athletes and supermodels you see all day on television, Facebook and giant billboards.”

A similar phenomenon plays out among young lawyers, who readily track their peers.  My law students are a particularly competitive microcosm of humanity, and their career expectations reflect this.  About 5,000 college graduates each year apply for admission to The University of Chicago Law School.  In order to be accepted into Chicago’s class of 185 students, they typically need to have finished college with a 3.9 grade point average and have scored in the 98th percentile on the Law School Admission Test.  Even that may not be enough, though.  There are more applicants with those credentials than there are available positions.  The admitted students also need to have an outstanding track record of extracurricular achievements and compelling essays.

Once in law school, these students are exposed to the brightest stars in the legal profession.  Supreme Court Justices, General Counsels of Fortune 500 companies—and even Presidents of the United States—visit with them regularly. The best law firms in the country converge annually, offering six-figure starting compensation.  It’s not surprising that their expectations continue to rise over three years at Chicago.

Then it’s time to start those amazing jobs. When I graduated from law school, my first job was serving as a judicial clerk to Chief Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III of the United States Court of Appeals.  One of my two co-clerks is now a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and the other just finished her tenure as Dean of Stanford Law School.  As a mere energy lawyer and sometime professor, I’m the underachiever of my clerk class.  Another law school friend became the first General Counsel of Facebook.  He left Facebook with ~6 million shares of stock and options.  That’s about as good as it gets for a lawyer.

However (un)realistic expectations may be these days, how do starting lawyers make it from graduation to success?  The most shocking realization for me on day one at Vinson & Elkins was how little I actually knew about energy law.  A great legal education is, at best, the foundation on top of which a career can be built.  Newly-minted law graduates are smart enough to know what words in an agreement say, but they have only a meager understanding of what they mean. Which of the words are a problem? Which provisions are the most valuable? If these novices were tossed into a negotiation, they would agree to proposed changes that I’d never accept, and argue over others that I would give away without a second thought.

If the junior lawyer has a partner who is willing to serve as his or her mentor, there is a plan to climbing the learning curve.  For example, my associates start off proofing nearly-finished examples of a single type of energy contract.  Next, I let them see the give-and-take of negotiations.   They are tasked with drafting a Table of Changes, which sets forth the counterparty’s proposed changes and requires the associate to color-code them based on whether the change should be accepted or rejected—or whether compromise wording should be offered.  Only when I am confident that an associate has a reasonable grasp of the give-and-take of a contract’s negotiation do I allow the associate to undertake the initial drafting of one.  After all, how can you draft something if you don’t understand which provisions matter most—and why?  This process then accelerates, as associates march through each of the different types of agreements used by the energy industry.

However, the progression of learning is not an easy one.  It can feel overwhelming.  For the first time in many of my former students’ lives, they feel lost.  If they have a good mentor, reassurance is offered.  The mentor will remind the associate that he or she also experienced the same feeling.

Bert Tabor of Vinson & Elkins and Antonio D’Amico at Occidental Petroleum were both great mentors to me, teaching me how to actually be an energy lawyer.  Every day, I am grateful for all they did for me in those early years of my career.

So I often ask my former students:

“Who is your mentor?”

More often than not, I’m met with a blank stare and open mouth.  They go on to describe a world in which associates are part of a shared work pool, from which many senior associates and partners give them work assignments. This system of serving so many masters can create insane working hours.  Just last month, a fourth-year associate at a major firm told me he billed 4,000 hours in 2018 and was on track to do the same in 2019.  A few months ago, another reported billing more than 400 hours for three consecutive months.  To save you the trouble of opening a calculator, those examples amount to ~11 and ~13 hours per day, seven days a week.  Even worse, much of a young associate’s initial work may be done for senior associates who soon leave the firm for in-house positions.

This is not what my students were expecting.  When I push my students to explain themselves, it comes back to the absence of a mentor.  The word mentor originates from Homer’s Odyssey:

“Because of Mentor’s relationship with Telemachus, and the disguised Athena’s encouragement and practical plans for dealing with personal dilemmas, the personal name Mentor has been adopted in Latin and other languages, including English, as a term meaning someone who imparts wisdom to and shares knowledge with a less-experienced colleague” (Wikipedia: Mentor).

The absence of a mentor appears to be the principal disconnect between my students’ expectations and realities.  Every young lawyer needs a mentor.

Note: The Gaille Energy Blog is now back after a hiatus due to publishing deadlines for my new book, Strange Tales of World Travel.

About the Gaille Energy Blog.  The Gaille Energy Blog (view counter = 103,560) discusses issues in the field of energy law, with periodic posts at www.gaillelaw.com. Scott Gaille is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Chicago Law School, an Adjunct Professor in Management at Rice University’s Graduate School of Business, and the author of three books on energy law (Construction Energy Development, Shale Energy Development,and International Energy Development), and the co-author of just-released Strange Tales of World Travel.

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