The Importance of Our Service As Mentors

7 Min Read By: Henry duPont Ridgley

At the ABA Business Law Section Council Meeting held in West Palm Beach, Florida, on January 7, 2017, Justice (Ret.) Henry duPont Ridgely delivered the following remarks.

Good morning,

I am very honored to be asked to speak with you this morning as a Business Law Advisor. Often this becomes a time to recount some of the professional history that the Advisor may have. But in view of my recent interview in the December issue of Business Law Today I am not going to go over that again. What I want to talk to you about is, what I am worried about as a member of our profession, as a Judge in Delaware for more than 30 years and as a member of the Bar for 43 years. I am worried about young lawyers. And I want to talk to you about mentoring and the critical importance to our profession of our service as mentors.

It is our shared responsibility as senior members of the Bar to provide and improve guidance to young lawyers and law students as their mentors. Over my career, I have come to recognize that there are limits to what law schools can do. There just isn’t the time to do what a mentor traditionally does. I am worried about young lawyers who can be adrift in a large law firm, or even worse, young lawyers who cannot find jobs and who open a practice on their own without professional guidance.

Since my own admission to the Delaware Bar in 1974, I have seen many Delaware lawyers serve as mentors. We have institutionalized that role in Delaware. Every applicant for Bar Admission must have a preceptor and complete five months of clerkship requirements under the preceptor’s direct supervision and guidance. It’s a long list of things you have to do that essentially is an introduction to the practice of law under the oversight of an experienced Delaware lawyer. You have to have been a lawyer for at least 10 years to be a preceptor. Preceptors set the example of leadership, public service, and professionalism for the new lawyer. The best preceptors convey as mentors that the practice of law is a higher calling. They explain that professionalism means more than mere competence in legal skills and civility. We’ve heard before, and it’s worth saying again, Roscoe Pound’s classic definition of a profession:

The term profession refers to a group . . . pursing a learned art as a common calling in the spirit of public service—no less a public service—because it may incidentally be a means of livelihood. Pursuit of the learned art in the spirit of public service is the primary purpose.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson provided a timeless description of the professional lawyer. That is a person

[who] loves [the] profession, [who] has a real sense of dedication to the administration of justice, [who] holds his [or her] head high as a lawyer, [who] renders and exacts courtesy, honor and straight forwardness at the Bar. [This lawyer] respects the judicial office deeply, demands the highest standards of competence and disinterestedness and dignity, despises all political use of or trifling with judicial power, and has an affectionate regard for every [person] who fills [the] exacting description of a just judge. The law [to this lawyer] is like a religion, and its practice is more than a means of support; it is a mission. [This lawyer] is not always popular in [the] community, but is respected. Unpopular minorities and individuals often found in [this lawyer] their only mediator and advocate. [This lawyer] is too independent to court the populace— [this lawyer] thinks of himself [or herself] as a leader and a lawgiver, not as a mouthpiece.

I recognize that our common calling to lead and to promote justice and public good has inspired members of the American Bar Association to give back by being involved in their communities, by working to improve the profession, and by volunteering for pro bono representation. We must teach young lawyers this responsibility as well. The need for pro bono service has never been greater than it is today.

I ask each of you to counsel young lawyers about their responsibilities. Discuss public service with your mentees. Explain to them, like my father explained to me, that professionalism is expected and that civility can actually help you win for your client. Give them examples of why the golden rule of lawyering—treat others as you would want to be treated—can benefit them and their clients. Explain to them the importance of their integrity and reputation and that word travels fast through the lawyer and judicial grapevine. And explain to them the personal rewards of pro bono service by helping others in need, that pro bono service will sharpen their legal skills and provide them experience they may not otherwise find. Tell them it will enhance the firm’s reputation and visibility with the courts, and draw attention of current and prospective paying clients to your firm’s commitment to the community.

This is not rocket science. Instead it is a matter of commitment and finding the time to do it. There are even books on it. Guidance to your mentees on how to practice law as a higher calling may be found in Judge Carl Horn’s excellent book called Lawyer Life Finding a Life and a Higher Calling in the Practice of Law (2003). Judge Horn provides practical advice in today’s context where economic and competitive pressures are strong. In summing up the message of his book on finding a life and a higher calling in the practice of law today he writes:

First, that law can and should be understood and practiced as something higher and nobler than just a way to make a good living—although it is certainly that, too, and there is undeniably (and properly) a business side to the practice of law. Second, that we should reconnect with the tradition Elihu Root and others represented: the counselor at law. About half the practice of a decent lawyer, Root once observed, consists in telling would be clients they are damned fools and should stop. True then, true now. Third, that as officers of the Court, lawyers should embrace ethics, principles, and values far exceeding the de minimis requirements of the various Codes of Professional Responsibility. Fourth, that lawyers should look for creative ways to make peace between potential disputants and provide more proactive counsel, regarding litigation as a last resort. And fifth, that the legal profession, from law school through retirement, should embrace balance and wholeness for the professional life of every lawyer.

This is advice consistent with the lessons taught to me by my own mentors. If our mentees follow this advice, they will find a life and a higher calling in the practice of law that will be both satisfying and make our communities even better places to live.

So I ask you, what will you do to be a better mentor? The future of our profession depends on our collective answers and commitment to teach young lawyers how to practice law with the integrity, professionalism and civility we expect, how to lead, and how to serve.

Finally, I want to commend our Chair Bill Johnston and this Council for its leadership on Diversity and Inclusion. I have been an eye-witness to the benefits of diversity and inclusion within our Delaware Judiciary. When I joined Superior Court—it was all white males. When the first female judge was appointed my colleagues wondered—some even worried—about how our Court and our collegiality would change. The facts are that with new ideas and new perspectives our Court became progressively stronger as it became more diverse. In 2000, while I was President Judge—our Court was ranked number one among the 50 states by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. There is no doubt in my mind that the great strength of this Section and the ABA will grow with its diversity and inclusion initiative.

Thank you for listening.

By: Henry duPont Ridgley

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