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Bar’s test program aimed at setting new lawyers up with mentors

Joe Melli

Joe Melli

When the State Bar of Wisconsin began searching for examples to follow when establishing a new lawyer-mentoring program, it didn’t have to look far.

Since 2006, the Dane County Bar Association has been pairing new attorneys with more experienced colleagues as part of the Joseph A. Melli Mentorship Program.

Nearly 10 years later, what started as an item on the committee’s wish list, has grown into a network consisting of more than 500 participants and 30 mentoring pairs. Along the way, they have inspired three other state organizations to put forward similar offerings and have shared information about how to get started with nearly a dozen more. Among them is the State Bar, which plans to begin its own program in January.

“We just saw value in it,” said Josh Kindkeppel, co-founder and current co-chair of the program.

The fundamental idea was simple enough.

“A support network where new lawyers could be paired up with someone who could be a sounding board, provide support, answer questions — just this ultimate support system for new lawyers,” Kindkeppel said.

Melli, who died in 2014 at age 90, had another vision.

“He had this idea that new lawyers need to focus with a mentor on the importance of civility and maintaining high character, while developing the quality of their legal skills,” Kindkeppel said. “It was a pretty perfect marriage.”

Thus a team was born.

Melli, a son of Sicilian immigrants and a Kenosha native, was the veteran of the pair. His 61 years he had spent practicing law before retiring in 2011 meant he brought the most experience to the undertaking. Kindkeppel, a former president of the Dane County Bar Association and shareholder at Eustice, Laffey, Sebranek & Auby SC in Sun Prairie, was just three years out of law school when the mentoring program began.

The two started without a lot of means at their disposal.

“We had maybe $2,000,” said Jack Sweeney, who took over as co-chair for Melli in 2010.

The money covered copies, coffee and lunches for 20 attorneys — 10 mentors and 10 beneficiaries. To participate, mentors had to have practiced law for 10 years or more. The lawyers they worked with, in turn, could have no more than five years’ worth of practice experience.

For participants, the committee members largely recruited people they already knew. They first turned to lawyers in private practice, then assistant district attorneys, then public defenders. Sweeney, an assistant attorney general at the state Department of Justice, was an early addition.

Since then, the pool has been widened to take in big-law attorneys and bench members. A lawyer who specializes in international law has even been assigned to help a colleague who is seeking guidance on Islamic law.

“Were not e-Harmony, but it’s not just matching at random,” Kindkeppel said.

Mentoring pairs are encouraged to meet monthly and attend three program-sponsored luncheons, where they can earn continuing education credits.

lighthouseRecruiting isn’t allowed, and participants aren’t supposed to pressure mentors into helping them find jobs. But mentors can make introductions, offer advice and — as Richard Briles Moriarty has done — assign homework. Someone who Moriarty was once helping was asked to act as if Moriarty were a witness and to prepare him for cross-examination.

“What attracted me to the program was the way it was structured,” said Moriarty, who has been a lawyer for more than 40 years and has been with the Wisconsin Department of Justice since 1990.

“Other programs have people sign up and wait for things to happen. And that fails,” Moriarty said. “This pairs people outside the employment setting, and it’s very carefully set up to make sure you’re not recruiting anybody, but you get to talk to somebody in somewhat of a safe setting where whatever you say is not going to affect your own employment.”

Moriarty has served as a mentor almost every year since the program began. He said he does it partly because he simply enjoys the opportunity to work with a younger colleague.

But the benefits do not stop there.

“I developed a practice over many years without thinking about it,” Moriarty said. “But when I have to explain that to somebody, I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Now, wait a minute, why is this useful?’ And maybe I tweak it and rethink it and, then, I know it’s valuable because I had to explain it.

“I also just learn a lot from the mentees themselves — what they’re going through, what they’re thinking about — and it gives me an appreciation for what practice is like these days. And then there’s the joy of seeing these bright, active, interesting people joining the legal profession. That’s just always a thrill. It has been among my most rewarding experiences.”

Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg agreed.

“I’m invigorated and inspired by their hopes and their energy and their enthusiasm, for what they hope to bring to the practice,” said Kloppenburg, presiding judge of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals District 4 in Madison, who has served as a mentor to four people since the program began.

“It’s a great way to expand your own sense of what’s possible in the practice of law, and it reinforces your sense of responsibility to the legal profession and to the community of lawyers that makes up that profession.”

Stacia R. Conneely has seen the situation from both sides.

A staff attorney and consumer-law priority coordinator at Legal Action of Wisconsin Inc., Conneely first took part in the mentoring program in 2007 and then returned this fall, this time as a mentor to others.

“I wanted to give back,” said Conneely, the first participant in the history of the Dane County program to later become a mentor. “It’s important to provide support for these newer attorneys, and I wanted to be able to provide that to someone else.”

To Michael Yang, the mentoring program came as a lifeline at a time when he was not only setting up a solo practice but also changing his life.

Yang started his practice, MY Law Office, after earning his degree from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 2013. He had come to the legal profession relatively late in life.

By the time he started law school at age 30, he had an extensive experience in the import-export business and had worked in Japan and the San Francisco Bay area, where he had grown up. He also had a master’s degree in business, a wife, two small children and no idea how to start building his practice.

It was at law school that he met Sweeney, who was then a mentor in the Legal Education Opportunities program. Sweeney is also who suggested that Yang sign up for the Dane County mentoring program after graduation.

Yang has since found another mentor through the Dane County program. This one is a fellow solo practitioner who, because he has also hung out his own shingle, has no trouble understanding the pressures and privileges that come with working for one’s self in a post-recession market that has been flooded with recent graduates who are starting their own practices to try to make ends meet.

“But who knows? I might not have stayed in Wisconsin if it hadn’t been for Jack introducing me around,” acknowledged Yang, who specializes in criminal law. “I know a lot of solos who tap out after a year, go to a firm or say, ‘I’m not going to be a layer anymore.’ It’s tough, and that’s why the mentoring program helps. I think even the State Bar is realizing that. They need to give a lot more help to new attorneys, especially if they’re starting their own practice.”

In fact, that’s part of the reason the State Bar is starting its mentoring program.

“The idea came from the State Bar working with UW Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic and Lawyers Mutual Insurance, which were looking at the need for mentoring because of the number of new lawyers starting their own firms or starting with a firm and leaving to go solo,” said Annette Ashely, a member services director at the State Bar of Wisconsin who is helping to start the mentoring pilot.

The bar was particularly interested in extending the mentoring program beyond Madison and Milwaukee, cities were such opportunities are already offered. Yet, despite having high ambitions, they had reason to proceed with caution. From consulting program coordinators in Dane and Milwaukee counties, as well as people affiliated with programs in Colorado and Illinois, they had learned that proceeding steadily and slowly with the program would it more durable.

“They described it as the golden rule,” Ashley said. “The first step you take is a pilot program.”

So, in preparation for a start in January, state-bar organizers spent months choosing 25 mentors and beneficiaries. Training sessions were planned for the middle of December.

From such small beginnings, the organizers’ goal is to eventually have the program extended throughout the state, perhaps having participants get in touch with each other online.

But, Ashley said, “before we opened it up and just went live with a website, we decided it would be better to take the first step as a pilot program.”

So, for now, the program will be offered in Rusk and St. Croix counties in the northwest, LaCrosse and Monroe counties in the southwest, Oneida and Lincoln counties in the North, and Washington and Winnebago counties in the east.

Kindkeppel has already heard that a few participants in Dane County’s program have expressed concerns that the State Bar’s latest offering might detract from their work. The bar has responded by insisting that it is merely trying to “enhance opportunities for parts of the state that don’t already have really great programs.”

But, even if the program were expanded into Dane County, Kindkeppel is confident it could exist alongside existing offerings.

“Joe and I and Jack have tried to take this program around the state, tried to help people in a bunch of different counties,” he said. “So we don’t see this as competition, just complementing.”

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