Nobody would say law school is easy, but as many graduates quickly learn, the hardest lessons often come after earning their degree — when they step out to experience the real world.
In this sink-or-swim environment, there’s no substitute for a good mentor — a veteran attorney who’s been there, done that, and can offer some guidance, maybe a foot in the door, a reality check when needed, and some hard-earned wisdom.
But over and over we hear that the need for quality mentoring among students and young associates is greater than ever, while the opportunities for quality mentorships are harder to come by. Sure, some schools and Big Law firms have invested in their mentoring programs, but, anecdotally, at least, it just isn’t enough.
Perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect that either source could completely fill the need. In both cases, the pool of mentors may not be large enough or diverse enough to provide an ideal match for their respective mentees, and at a Big Law firm, the mentee may well find it difficult to have an open and honest relationship with his or her mentor, for fear of looking too naive or needy.
That’s the situation that Andrea Woloski experienced as a law school graduate and the pain point she reconnected with in developing her recently launched IntheBenches online mentorship platform for students, young lawyers and experienced attorneys. During and after law school, she wished that there had been a community where she could have turned to explore and learn about different career paths and connect with other JDs about questions or issues of interest to her.
“After law school, students have a steep learning curve to integrate into the world of legal practice,” says Woloski, who graduated from Harvard Law School in 2011, then worked at the District Attorney’s Office in New York for three years. ”Making a personal connection with a JD who has experience in the career path you’re interested in can make the transition smoother and set you up for a more satisfying career in both the short and long term.”
With over 200 users to date — including students and graduates from law schools across the country, such as Harvard, Stanford, NYU, Cornell, University of Virginia, Duke, Fordham, Texas A&M, and more — IntheBenches matches students and young lawyers with attorneys in their fields of interest for career mobility conversations, to give a peek into various jobs, and to elicit advice on how to get there. The list of current attorneys who have donated their time for calls includes Big Law partners and associates, as well as attorneys who have pursued legal paths as public interest lawyers, in-house counsels, professors, and other positions. Students and young lawyers interested in pursuing careers outside of the law can also be matched with former attorneys who have switched to industries such as technology, politics or finance.
“There’s no better tool than having an ‘in’ in the field, firm, or company you’re trying to break into,” Woloski says, “and the mentorship program at IntheBenches can give its users just that.”
Already, in addition to solo practitioners and members of Big Law firms, mentors who have joined the site include:
- A senior counsel at Heineken
- A U.S. Department of Justice trial attorney
- Deputy general counsel, Starbucks
- Former district and appellate clerks
That’s why it shouldn’t be surprising that 50-plus students showed up on a weeknight recently when IntheBenches hosted an evening at a bar by the NYU School of Law campus for a few of its student organizations (the Law & Business Association, the Legal Aid Chapter, and the Law Students for Human Rights). Woloski says the majority of them signed up for the IntheBenches program, which is free, at least for now.
Yes, there are state bar association sections dedicated to young lawyers, as well as listservs, and LinkedIn resources, but these do not foster the personal connection offered by Woloski’s brainchild.
IntheBenches has also been likened to a Reddit for lawyers by the way it encourages discussion. Users can be anonymous or completely transparent and post questions about anything related to law.
One big question now: Where does IntheBenches go from here? Perhaps there’s no telling, but in the meantime, Woloski is enjoying and trumpeting the success stories.
“I just got an email from a student who was so grateful,” she said. “They found someone who was doing just what they want to do.”
The student wanted to work in complex commercial litigation in Texas, but was going to school in Virginia and kept coming up empty when trying to find someone to serve as a close advisor.
“We matched him with an attorney in Texas, they had a phone call, met for coffee,” she recounted. “He got some hands-on advice, and [the attorney is] someone who can potentially guide him onto the path and into the market that he was interested in.”
That’s the whole idea: real mentorship between two site members separated by a thousand miles and yet just a click away.