WINTERGREEN—Lawyers need to do a better job at bringing along the newest members of the profession, according to Court of Appeals Judge William G. Petty.
The medical profession requires its new members to serve a residency, learning at the elbows of senior physicians. But lawyers have no comparable formal program.
“Doctors train on cadavers. Lawyers train on indigents,” he observed. In areas without a public defender, the newest lawyers get criminal appointments.
The solution: The bar should “develop institutionalized mentoring” of some type to revive the means of teaching the mores and techniques of practice to new lawyers, Petty told the attendees of the Virginia State Bar Disciplinary Conference July 15.
Such an arrangement “will do more to enhance professionalism than anything else I can think of,” he said.
Law school teaches you how “to think like a lawyer” not “to be a lawyer,” Petty said. That’s a big distinction and only comes from experience, he added.
Petty spent nearly 30 years as the commonwealth’s attorney in Lynchburg, and he said that years back in his area, the judges routinely would appoint two lawyers to handle a felony criminal appointment, one a senior member of the bar and one junior. “The court left it to the lawyers to determine how to split the fee,” he said.
The senior lawyers got the opportunity to “give back” and the juniors got a safety net and the chance “to commit mistakes before they became serious.”
But today with the crush of business and the compartmentalization of law practice, arrangements like these are a thing of the past.
When he was Lynchburg’s top prosecutor, Petty said his office routinely would hold staff meetings that served to enhance his assistants’ preparation. Each lawyer was asked to review a case he or she was handling was handling and to explain “what we could prove” if and when it went to trial, plus the reason for pursuing a given charge.
Senior lawyers in the office would offer suggestions and improvements.
That’s an example of how a team of prosecutors worked to bring along the most junior lawyers.
Petty said “whatever area” you handle, “consider how to reach down and provide guidance and mentoring.”
Those steps will enhance the level of professionalism among the bar as a whole and will serve clients well.
“Always look for ways to do things better,” he said.