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Why teaming up with a mentor at law school really works | David Yun

Friday, August 27, 2021 @ 8:44 AM | By David Yun

David Yun %>
David Yun
Over the past few months, through my involvement with the 2021 Western Law Orientation Committee, I have been planning the 1L/3L Mentorship Program under our People Portfolio. This program matches incoming first-year students with third-year students based on mutual interests and common backgrounds.

For many, this program will be the first time that incoming students will make a real connection to the legal world. Personally, upon entering law school my exposure to the legal profession was limited to dramatic courtroom portrayals on TV and in movies, YouTube how-to gurus, and anonymous online forum contributions. This exposure, as it turns out, was largely inaccurate. I have found that most portrayals of law school tend to hyperbolize and dramatize elements, and for good reason. A realistic law school TV series might centre around how to get a good spot at the library or noting up cases, but this would not make for exciting programing. In retrospect, I had an idealized view of what law school would be and as such, it was personally instrumental for my mentor to provide a grounded and candid perspective prior to Orientation Week.

I was paired with Jessica Bonnema (now an associate at Siskinds, LLP) and the very first question I had for her was: “How do I be a law student?” As if there were a series of instructions and guidelines to follow. Her answer was simple: “Be you, you are a law student.” And this is true. Every event, decision and occasion in your life, one way or another, has led you to right here, right now. The work experiences that you had led to your glowing reference letters, which in turn highlighted your fit within your law school’s community. This, in conjunction with your other application materials, resulted in your admission to law school. Your work ethic, drive and determination are proven to work.

Jessica also answered simpler questions such as whether there is a dress code for classes (there is not) and whether it was true that professors can tell if commas and periods are italicized (some really can!). Prior to starting law school, I was intimidated by the whole process. I worried that I would fall behind in academics, be unable to keep up and ultimately, be outpaced by my peers. At times, I wondered if my admission was a mistake and that it would soon be rectified. These concerns were swiftly allayed through conversations with Jessica and other upper year students who affirmed that moments of self-doubt are only natural. Her candid advice got me through the academic year and beyond Jessica’s graduation. We remain in touch to this day.

Each year, the Student Legal Society solicits anonymous feedback from both the 1Ls and 3Ls about their experience with the program. A common theme that we have found is that the program offers a mutual learning experience for both participants. The benefits for our first-year students are self-evident but our third years reported that being a mentor brought a fresh, introspective view. Many mentors report having reflected on how far they’ve come since their Orientation Week and their experiences providing a foundation through which they can give advice. If you can seek out a mentor or serve as a mentor through a formalized program, I highly recommend it. Lastly, mentorship is not limited to structured programs and, in fact, organically developed mentorship is highly valuable as well.

Ours is a profession that is rooted in establishing, cultivating and maintaining strong interpersonal relationships — whether it be with clients, colleagues or opposing counsel. Although the legal profession will continue to adapt to our burgeoning technologies and shifting societal expectations, much of the profession is not uncharted territory. The interconnected personal nature of the legal profession will not change. This is particularly true of mentorship.

A few years from now, law school will be in the rear-view mirror, and you will be starting your legal careers. At this junction, mentorship remains critically important. To expand on this, I’ll share a bit of my personal experience. Prior to starting my 1L summer job at the Canadian Red Cross and my 2L summer job at Macdonald Sager Manis LLP, I had no background in international humanitarian law or corporate and commercial law, respectively. I found myself worrying that I would be a liability on the team. This couldn’t have been further from the truth. At both jobs, the teams were patient and understanding as I developed my familiarity with the practice areas. What I found particularly helpful was that both jobs had lawyers who were willing to form a mentorship relationship, and through these mentors, I was able to acclimatize to the working environments and become a team contributor.

Based on anecdotal accounts, my experiences are not novel or unique to me. Throughout the legal profession, you will find that lawyers, law clerks, paralegals and upper year law students are more than willing to provide advice and guidance on your personal career paths. I hope that at law school and beyond, you develop meaningful mentorship relationships.

David Yun is a third-year student at Western Law. In his free time, he enjoys playing the drums, cheering for all Toronto sports teams and being disappointed by the Minnesota Vikings. Contact him on LinkedIn or his website.

Illustration by Chris Yates/Law360

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