President's Message Jul/Aug 2018

Add the Mentor, Hold the Mayo
Carolyn R. Barone, Esq.

President, Rhode Island Bar Association

“…my focus is on how we – you and I – individually and collectively, can be game-changers when we put into action the concept of human capital.  By sharing our skills, knowledge and experiences with each other, we can increase our productivity, profitability, and professionalism as legal practitioners.”   
    The date was November 24, 1980. The time was around lunch time. The place was McGarry’s Restaurant, a former stalwart located on the street level of the Howard Building in Kennedy Plaza. I was wearing a dark blue pinstripe skirt and matching jacket purchased specifically for that day. This day was my very first day reporting to work as an attorney. My lunch partner (who for the past 30 years has been my law partner) was, on that day, my boss. For all the bravado I displayed at the two interviews I had with him before being hired, I was feeling awkward and somewhat intimidated. I have never been comfortable when eating with strangers, and he was very much a stranger to me. I was intimidated because this stranger was well-known and respected in the legal community, whereas I knew no one and nothing, other than, apparently, just enough black letter law to pass the bar exam. We engaged in obligatory chit-chat and filled in some of the holes left from our prior meetings. I also learned, with disappointment, that I had no “Monday morning quarterback” with whom I could relive weekend buzzer-beaters, no-hitters, or fifty-yard field goals. I was a lover of sports; he was not. But we both loved sports cars, and I made a mental note of this fact so I would have at least one topic upon which to disrupt uneasy silences at our next awkward lunch.

    After the check was paid, my boss removed his right elbow from the back of his chair, squared his arms and shoulders, and said, “Listen and listen carefully -- three pieces of advice if you want to continue working for me – your word is your bond; don’t sleep with dogs because you will wake up with fleas; and if you ever lie to a judge or to me you are fired.” (“Word” “bond” “fired” “dogs” “fired” “lie” “judge” “fired….”) As these words scrambled about my brain, my easy breathing left me and I wondered why he was talking about firing me when I hadn’t even drafted a pleading or walked into a courtroom with a case file and yellow pad. It did not take long for the words of his advice to adjust in my temporal lobe. His advice became crystal clear. I got it. I understood. I said nothing but nodded my head in assent.

    For me, the practice of law has not appreciably changed since 1980. Back then, in order to practice law, I needed a client. I still do. Back then, to obtain a divorce for a client, I needed a judge and a final judgment. I still do. Back then, when countless hours of case review and research moved me no closer to resolving the legal conundrum that was going to make or break my case, I called upon a more knowledgeable attorney for advice. I still do.

    This is not to say, however, that how we practice law has not changed.  No one can deny that technology has been a dramatic game-changer and has redefined how we communicate, prepare for and conduct trials, and employ artificial intelligence to predict outcomes.  Technology has also redesigned how we maintain the business side of our practices.  But the purpose of this message has nothing to do with technology. Rather, my focus is on how we – you and I – individually and collectively, can be game-changers when we put into action the concept of human capital.  By sharing our skills, knowledge and experiences with each other, we can increase our productivity, profitability, and professionalism as legal practitioners.
    So what does any of this have to do with an awkward lunch, dogs and fleas, and prevaricating? Upon leaving that restaurant on that day in November 1980, I realized I not only had a sandwich with my boss, but I had my first session with my mentor. What was my take-away from this lesson?  If I was going to achieve any modicum of success as a lawyer, I had to be trustworthy, have respect for myself and my colleagues, and be honest in my dealings inside and outside the courtroom.  The advice given to me that day was merely a morsel of what was to come.  Practical guidance and constructive criticism was given freely and consistently.  All I had to do was knock on his office door.  This mentoring relationship, along with long and lonely hours of preparation and more preparation, and taking advantage of the Bar Association’s CLE seminars, allowed me to develop a style of lawyering that was better suited to my personality and achieve confidence in my decision-making abilities.
    To each member of the Bar who is just beginning his or her practice, get a mentor.  Establish this relationship before a phone call or email is crisis-driven. Often time, law firms have in-house mentoring programs.  If participation is not mandatory, then volunteer to participate.  If your firm does not have a program, then you, as well as all sole practitioners, are urged to participate in the Bar Association’s Mentoring Program.  For the asking, you will be paired with a seasoned lawyer ready to offer guidance and support on issues dedicated to a particular case or to general areas of your practice. 
    I also encourage lawyers to participate in reverse mentoring.  Many attorneys of a certain age are not as technologically savvy as our younger counterparts.  To recently admitted attorneys, I remind you that Pong was the breakthrough computer game when more than half of the current members of the Bar began their practices.  Some need guidance with the hardware and some need guidance with the software.  Regardless of your legal experience, your tech experience is in demand.
    Experienced lawyers are eager to impart their knowledge and expertise. Reach out to them. Reach out to me.  However, forewarned is forearmed.  We love to tell stories.  And we don’t make them up.  Each story is based on real facts, real people, and real judges. (Law school taught us to call them, “cases.”  I prefer to call them “stories.”)  Don’t be surprised when five or ten years from now you will recall that story and use it to your advantage.  You may even pass it on to the next group of new lawyers.

    I am closing my first President’s Message with some fun facts about myself.  My outfit described in the first paragraph of this column was a size 10 (ouch).  For lunch on 11/24/80, my sandwich was really a hamburger with mustard (never mayo) and I washed it down with a Root Beer. I still love sports and like nothing better than to toss a football (nowadays, smaller than “junior” size, but never a Nerf) and catch a baseball in my Hutch glove.  My starting salary was $15,000.00 a year and I had to pay for my own parking.  Oh, yes, when I graduated from law school, my student loan was $7,800.00 and my payment, payable to Columbus National Bank, was $80.00 per month (I hear your groans…).