The lifelong impact of law school mentoring

1121-mentor-300By Uyen Campbell and Judith Rush

Are there things you wish you had known about being a lawyer or about yourself before you jumped into practice? Are there skills you didn’t learn in law school but found you had to quickly learn when you started your job? 

Each year, over 470 Minnesota lawyers and judges provide students at the University of St. Thomas School of Law opportunities to answer these and many other important questions. These mentors, and other informal mentors, play a crucial role in helping students define their professional identities and learn vital skills before they become lawyers.

How do mentors help?

Mentors help students understand what it means to be an attorney. By watching their mentors interact with clients, opposing counsel, judges, support staff, partners, associates, and others, students learn about all the different roles that attorneys take on—trusted advisers, advocates, business owners, co-workers, or employees. Mentors can also talk with students about what it means to be an attorney with a young family, an attorney deeply involved in the community, or an attorney who has passions and interests outside of practicing law. 

Mentors help their students learn the important skills they need in addition to knowing the law. Mentors show students how they communicate with different people, in different contexts, for different purposes. They model for their students the importance of preparation, organization, and time management.

Mentors help students figure out what they want to do and sometimes, they can help students figure out what they don’t want to do. One 1L student shared with her mentor her concerns about practicing immigration law after attending hearings with her mentor. She saw the emotional toll it could take and didn’t know if she wanted that type of practice. The student’s mentor encouraged her to think beyond immigration practice. Just because the student is Latina and an immigrant herself doesn’t mean she automatically had to be an immigration lawyer, the student’s mentor told her. The student switched her interest area for her 2L year to be paired with a mentor in real estate law because she had always been interested in property development.

How do students learn from mentors?

Students learn from every opportunity they get to see their mentors in action. From meetings with clients, co-workers, or colleagues, to court hearings, board meetings, or CLE presentations, students watch and learn from their mentors’ interactions. 

Students also learn from doing what their mentors do. Reviewing documents like commercial leases, appellate briefs, or marital termination agreements with their mentors brings to life the legal concepts that students learn in the classroom. When mentors allow students to try drafting trademark license agreements, asylum applications, or criminal motions, they give students a chance to apply what they have learned to real cases, issues, and clients.

St. Thomas Law’s mentor externship program provides mentors and students with a list of over 600 different types of experiences to help spark ideas. Despite the pandemic and social distancing requirements this past school year, the law school’s mentors spent over 3,300 hours shepherding over 1,600 experiences with their students.1 The mentors provided their students opportunities to engage in almost 300 different types of experiences from the list and came up with 200 additional distinct experiences on their own.2

Most importantly, students learn from talking to their mentors. Students in St. Thomas Law’s mentor program begin their year by talking with their mentors about the students’ guiding principles, core values, why they came to law school, and what kind of lawyer they want to be. Students also plan with their mentors what they want to learn and do with their mentors. 

Mentors help students learn what it means to be an attorney. Students learn about all the different roles attorneys take on—trusted advisers, advocates, business owners, co-workers, or employees.

But it’s the conversations throughout the mentor-student relationship that have the most lasting impact. Debriefing conversations with mentors after experiences give students opportunities to ask questions about the particular legal issue or case they just observed. Listening to mentors explain the preparation that goes into a particular experience helps students better understand and retain what they observed or did. In addition to conversations about legal issues and processes, St. Thomas Law’s mentor program provides mentors and students with debrief templates to help facilitate conversations about other topics related to life as an attorney, such as life balance, billing, file management, networking, and pro bono work.

How much time does it take to mentor a student? 

Lawyers and judges naturally seek to improve the profession and our system of justice, often serving as role models and playing a mentoring role without realizing the positive and important effect they have. Formal mentoring can take as little or as much time as mentors have available to invest.3 Even one interaction with a student can guide them in ways that make a significant impact on their professional identity with little time investment.

For example, when mentor and St. Thomas Law alum Carrie Osowski didn’t have a student mentee, she offered to give a student an opportunity to work on a research and writing project on a case she was working on. The mentor program connected Osowski with a student and afterward, the student noted in her log how much the experience with Osowski affected her: “When the creative argument hit me, it felt like a light bulb going off in my head.” The student also gained confidence from her conversation about the memo with Osowski afterward and it cemented her interest in family law.

What role do mentors play in getting students jobs? 

Mentors guide students’ professional development but are not expected to find jobs for the students. Instead, by helping students learn how to form and maintain professional relationships and by providing learning experiences and guidance, mentors help students increase their opportunities for employment and success in future employment. Students who embrace the chance to learn all they can from their mentors and show their mentors their skills will often hear from their mentors about opportunities their mentors are aware of. Their mentors will also offer to serve as references or sometimes hire them for summer or other positions.

As 2L Mollie Buelow puts it, students get to decide how much they want to do—they can “meet the hours and call it good” or they can embrace the opportunities for self-direction with the attitude, “I’m doing this—and oh yeah, I can log it.”4 

As a 1L, Buelow often heard the ubiquitous phrase “it’s who you know,” which can be stressful for a law student who doesn’t know any lawyers. It made Buelow realize that she needed to start networking and getting to know lawyers. So she jumped in, reaching out to faculty and staff for suggestions and connections for talking to lawyers. Buelow says she learns something from every conversation, no matter how short, and takes advantage of any experience that gives her an opportunity to learn. One of Buelow’s conversations not only landed an amazing mentor in Assistant U.S. Attorney Benjamin Bejar, but also led to a summer internship with the U.S. Attorney’s office. 

What impact does mentoring have on students?

Bejar took the time to talk with Buelow over Zoom and learn about her career interests. When Buelow asked Bejar if he had a hearing she could observe, he arranged for her to join a telephone hearing and sent her publicly filed documents to review in advance of the hearing. After Buelow attended the telephone hearing, they talked about the hearing, how Bejar prepared for it, and how he viewed his role in the process. Bejar later shared a generic preparation checklist for another hearing Buelow attended, which they also discussed in depth. Bejar offered to check into law clerk positions and sent Buelow the application for an open position. He was encouraging, gave great advice, and to Buelow’s relief, would reach out to her. Buelow applied, interviewed, and is now a summer intern at the U.S. Attorney’s Office helping with preparation for an upcoming trial. The impact of Bejar’s investment in Buelow’s professional development has been a game changer for a first-generation law student.

When mentors Gloria Myre5 and Thomas Tuft, fellows in the Minnesota Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, recommended their students for positions as Divorce Camp interns, they opened up a world of opportunity for the students. Georgie Brattland and another St. Thomas student worked hard to be part of the camp planning committee during the spring and summer, and then also attended the annual camp in the fall during the years they were involved. The opportunity gave both students a phenomenal chance to work alongside an outstanding group of lawyers, be involved in the educational programming, learn about what it means to be involved in a professional organization with peers, and become a part of a practice community—all while still in law school. According to Brattland, an attorney at Heimerl & Lammers, the many experiences and opportunities that Myre provided (including Divorce Camp) gave her confidence that family law was the practice area she was truly passionate about—which is so important for long-term success in family law.

David Kempston, an attorney at Mottaz & Sisk Injury Law, has been a St. Thomas Law mentor for over 14 years. His former student, Andy Moeller of Farrish Johnson Law Office in Mankato, recently reached out for Kempston’s advice on diving into a new area of practice. According to Moeller, Kempston is the “walking embodiment of what St. Thomas is all about” and that he “not only gained a mentor but a friend.” Other Kempston students have said that “his attentiveness and responsiveness really set him apart from other attorneys” and that they learned lessons about being an attorney that will stay with them for the rest of their careers.

These mentor-student relationships illustrate just a few ways in which mentoring can have an impact on students. What students learn from watching, talking to, and doing experiences with their mentors not only helps them in their professional development; it also begins preparing them to become the next generation of mentors. 

JUDITH RUSH is a director of mentor externship at University of St. Thomas School of Law and earned her J.D. magna cum laude from William Mitchell College of Law. UYEN CAMPBELL joined Judie as a director of mentor externship at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in 2019, after teaching in the program for 10 years. Uyen earned her J.D. cum laude from the University of Minnesota Law School. 

Authors’ note: If you or a colleague would like to learn more about serving as a mentor in St. Thomas Law’s Mentor Externship Program, please contact us. We would love to tell you more about the impact you can have as a mentor.


1 Experiences with mentors during 2020-2021 school year could be done in person (under social distancing guidelines), via video conference, phone, or email.

2 Students are required to do a minimum number distinct experiences during the school year (1Ls – four distinct experiences; 2Ls and 3Ls – five distinct experiences) to ensure breadth in what they observe and learn. Distinct experiences with mentors that are not in the program list are categorized as “wild card experiences.”

3 St. Thomas Law mentors generally spend 15-18 hours with their students during the nine-month school year.

4 Students in St. Thomas Law’s mentor program contemporaneously record their fieldwork hours and reflect in a written log what they are seeing, doing, and learning in the field. Their logs demonstrate not only that they met the minimum requirements—they reflect the initiative, communication, and other professional skills they have developed in the process.  

5 Myre currently serves as director of alumni engagement and student life at St. Thomas Law and was a partner at Barnes & Thornburg LLP when she mentored student Georgie Brattland from 2017-2018.