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Students, alumni benefit from mentoring program

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Second- and third-year law students and their alumni mentors give high marks to the mentoring program Wake Forest University School of Law launched in August 2008.

Their comments indicate that the program is achieving its goals of helping new students adjust to law school, navigate academic options, and build networks to enhance career development, all while fostering long-term relationships with the law school.

“I have been thrilled by the mentoring program,” says Sam Slater (’11), who hails from Tryon and plans to join a Raleigh law firm. “It’s been great to have a practicing lawyer always a phone call or e-mail away, willing to answer a question.”

For their part, alumni volunteers say the benefits flow in both directions.

“The process is gratifying and invigorating,” says David Maraghy (’77), chief executive officer of Sports Management International in Richmond, Va. Since joining the program in 2009, he has mentored four students. “While you may be helping that mentee, you will gain a great deal from the experience as well.”

Providing alumni mentors for all first-year law students was the brainchild of Dean Blake D. Morant, who called for the program’s creation after his appointment in mid-2007. Kim Fields, director of career services, oversees the program.

“He wanted to make them to feel welcome and get oriented into the practice of law, and alumni are the best resource we have,” she says. “It brings back the alumni into the law school, and they feel like they’re giving back in some way, and it also makes a very warm environment for the first-year students.”

To fulfill Morant’s vision, Fields conducted research on what other law schools were doing and talked to bar associations. She found that few law schools attempt such a comprehensive mentoring effort, but since Wake Forest law school launched the program, other schools have inquired about it. She continues to assess the results and fine-tune its implementation.

For example, this year she built in more time to survey students about their geographic and other preferences before making the pairing assignments, moving their first contact with mentors from August to October but still well before exams. Student participation has been high. “Ninety-nine point nine percent are interested,” Fields says.

Katie Morton (’12) is a native of Columbia, S.C. She plans to remain in North Carolina to practice and was unaware of the program before she arrived.  “It came as a very welcome surprise,” she says.

She has not settled on an area of specialization but is leaning toward employment law and most appreciates how her mentor helps with the “big picture” issues, like preparing for the job search. “My mentor always tells me to ‘enjoy the journey,’ which I try to remember in order to avoid stressing about the small, short-term issues that are inherent in any law student’s legal career.”

Larry Sitton (’64), who gave her that advice, also mentors Slater. Sitton, a commercial litigator with Smith Moore Leatherwood’s Greensboro and Charlotte offices, has served on the Law School’s alumni Board of Visitors and regularly attends Inn of Court meetings, which he encourages his mentees to join. Morton and Slater say they get a lot out of the monthly meetings, including regular in-person visits with Sitton.

“Ten minutes with Larry at one of those meetings and there are 10 different people who seek him out and tell him how thankful they are for something he did to help them in the past,” Slater notes. “Witnessing that was very influential for me. Larry has helped lots of people, probably in a similar way that he has helped me through law school, and people don’t forget that.”

Slater credits Sitton with sparking his interest in litigation, as well as his decision to stay in North Carolina and begin practicing right away, rather than pursuing a temporary stint in New York, Washington or Atlanta.

While face-to-face meetings are ideal, those opportunities are more difficult for out-of-state students paired with mentors farther away. “I encourage the mentees to make that effort,” Maraghy says. “It will benefit them greatly in the long run.”

One of his mentees, Marc Rigsby (’12), from Fairfax, Va., is interested in contract law and traveled to Richmond to have lunch with Maraghy. Most mentors and students stay in touch with regular e-mails and phone calls. “The amount of communication is really driven by the student,” Maraghy notes.

Launching the mentoring program in late 2008 as the economy plunged into recession was a coincidence, but the timing has proved fortunate. The economic downturn has “dramatically impacted the practice of law,” Sitton says, drying up summer clerking opportunities, where students can see the “real world” of law practice and firms can take the measure of prospective hires.

“It was the recruiting pipeline,” Sitton notes. “Everybody has tightened up. Some people have cut their summer programs way back, and some have done away with them.”

He thinks mentors can help steer students toward opportunities, and he encourages them to seek whatever legal experience they can, even to volunteer, if they can afford to.  Maraghy concurs. His advice to mentees: “Try to gain any experience you can, including unpaid internships, if need be, in the area of your interest. Put yourself in a position to be discovered.”

At least one of his mentees, Rigsby, has taken that advice to heart. “I have become acutely aware of the often circuitous route a law student follows between graduation and ultimately finding that ‘perfect job,’ “ he says. “As a result, I have become increasingly open-minded and less risk-averse.”

The legal profession is constantly changing apart from responses to economic cycles. Sitton humorously recalls how when he began practicing in 1967, lawyers still dictated briefs to secretaries, who typed them on manual typewriters and made copies using carbon paper. Having just completed two years in the military, he found his academic training had not fully prepared him for a major court restructuring and new rules of civil procedure that North Carolina implemented. As the 16th lawyer to join what was considered at the time a large firm, he was fortunate to find mentors at work.

“It was unheard of to have mentors in law school,” Sitton says.” “I didn’t have anybody to ask what it was like to practice law.”

A common reason students cite for choosing Wake Forest law school is its academic reputation and intentionally small class size. Slater points to the accessibility of faculty and staff, noting that in addition to Sitton, his “official mentor,” he has had several other people he considers mentors during his three years. That atmosphere suggests why the alumni mentoring program is a natural fit for Wake Forest.

“Hopefully, it sets apart Wake Forest law school as a place that cares about it students and tries to give them unique experiences,” Sitton says.

Those words echo the message Dean Morant recently delivered to a group of alumni: “This has been a huge tool for us both in terms of attracting students and furthering and inculcating in them this sense of collegiality and professionalism that goes far beyond the classroom, furthering what’s unique about Wake Forest.”

Fields says her biggest challenge has been pairing each student with a mentor in the state where that student intends to practice. New alumni mentors are always welcome, she says.

Mentors do not have to be practicing attorneys. Charles Trefzger (’84), based in Hickory, N.C., has various business interests in the senior housing industry and expertise in health law. He serves on the Law Board of Visitors, and he has been mentoring students since the program began.

For alumni who might be considering becoming mentors, he has this advice: “Try it,” he suggests. “It does not take a great deal of time and is very enjoyable to interact with the next generation of attorneys.”