Professional Mentorship Program

For 19 years , UW law students have benefited from the expertise and experience of the hundreds of judges and attorneys who serve as professional mentors .

"We originally started out with mentors for students of color," said former Assistant Dean Sandra Madrid. "Many were first-generation law students or had no lawyers in their families or exposure to anyone in the legal field."

Madrid felt having mentors would assist the students in their legal journey, and she was right. For many students, mentors are their first contacts with "people who have been through it." They provide guidance as students adjust to the often overwhelming demands of their first year in law school. As practicing lawyers, whether in private, government, or public service positions, mentors offer insight into the wide range of careers open to graduates. They make themselves available and offer advice on courses to take, externships to explore, and legal issues found in the curriculum.

Associate Dean Mary Hotchkiss and Assistant Dean Naomi Sanchez share the responsibility of assigning students to mentors. They look for common interests or similar backgrounds when making their matches. Washington Court of Appeals Judge Ronald Cox '73, for example, served in the Army, and his most recent mentee, James Proctor, was in the Navy. Lianne Caster '03, who works at Stoel Rives in Seattle and received her master's degree from Brandeis University, was paired with Alia Kaneko, a Brandeis graduate. Those types of connections help break the ice during the initial meeting and establish a platform from which to build good mentor-mentee relationships.

James Proctor with his mentor, Judge Ronald Cox '73

"The connection between law school and law practice was remote when I was a student," said Judge Cox. Cox has helped bridge that gap for current students by inviting Proctor and his entire class to watch oral arguments in the Court of Appeals. Afterwards, the students joined Cox in his chambers to discuss what they had learned and observed. Cox has the added insight of someone who transitioned from the military to civilian life, a definite plus for Proctor, who served in the Navy for 21 years. "In the Navy, regulations are set, but the law can be ambiguous," Proctor said. "Judge Cox understands that. He is motivational and generous with his time and willingness to help. He kept me from getting too anxious as I adjusted to law and law school."

Cox also teaches appellate advocacy at the law school, mentors high school students, and is actively involved in the King County Bar Association's Future of the Law Institute. He first became a mentor 16 years ago because "I do what Sandra [Madrid] tells me to do" and remains in contact with many of his mentees long after they leave law school.

"Law school requires a new way of thinking," Cox said. "I'm here to tell them things will get easier. I encourage them to send me an email if they have a question or problem, and they take me up on it."

Cox, who has been with the program almost since the beginning, did not benefit from having a mentor, but Lianne Caster remembers her mentor quite well.

Alia Kaneko with her mentor, Lianne Caster '03

"My match was with Judge Harriet Cody, and she was fantastic," Caster said. "I had no lawyers in my family, no established path through law school. She was a terrific resource."

That personal experience led Caster to become a mentor when she graduated in 2003. She noted the impact of the Washington's anti-affirmative action initiative, I-200, and how it negatively affected minority enrollment. Today, as president of the Korean American Bar Association of Washington and law school mentor, Caster works with minority students who often lack role models in the legal field.

"Today, the first-year students are particularly concerned about the economy," she noted. "I encourage them to network, and I help them figure out what kinds of classes they should take to be the kind of lawyer they want to be."

Kaneko met Caster for the first time at the annual mentor-mentee reception held in downtown Seattle in September 2008. Shortly thereafter, Caster invited her to the Vietnamese Bar Association of Washington's annual banquet and introduced her to colleagues in the legal community. During a lunch meeting, Caster offered her perspective on working for a law firm and how Kaneko could best use her legal training to advocate for people who are homeless or low-income.

"She gave me excellent advice on what courses would be most helpful and what I should be looking for in extracurricular activities," Kaneko said. "She helped me look at my summer and the benefits of working in different places to hone my skills. She took the edge off the craziness of law school."

As the lawyer recruiting and diversity manager at Stoel Rives, Caster can offer specific guidance on identifying career opportunities for her mentees. She encourages them to be proactive in looking at employers and understanding their policies and workplace culture. She answers questions about billable hours, private practice, and balancing work and family. An appointee to the Washington State Bar Association Committee for Diversity, she also has insight into misunderstandings in the workplace because of cultural differences.

"It can be alienating if you're the only person of color at your workplace," she said. "Even in Seattle, you can hear inappropriate comments."

Caster believes that strong mentoring programs educate law students about the importance of mentorship for a successful career path, which helps advance diversity in the legal profession overall.

Today, the Professional Mentorship Program has a vast cadre of mentors from diverse backgrounds as well as all areas of the legal profession—federal, state, and local judges and lawyers from the public, private, nonprofit, and government sectors. Because mentors have such a wide range of experiences and areas of expertise, law school staff can match mentors with students who come to law school with various interests and goals. The program thus establishes the foundation upon which professional mentors can build relationships and provide support to students as they adjust to the rigors of law school and make decisions about their futures. All first-year School of Law students benefit from the encouragement, insight, and dedication of professional mentors.

The School of Law's commitment to the success of all students was at the heart of the development of the Professional Mentorship Program. It has reached its goal.

From UW Law, Fall 2009

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