Q&A with John Baker on the Importance of Mentoring

Dear Fellow Bar Members,

In this Fireside Chat, I interview John Baker, Director of the Colorado Attorney Mentoring Program. I hope our discussion on the importance of mentoring will inspire you to take part in either learning from a more experienced attorney, or passing down your knowledge to those newer to the practice of law.

John Baker, CBA Portrait. Photo by Jamie CottenBefore discussing the importance of mentoring, let’s talk a bit about you. Tell me, who is John Baker?

Well, I spent almost forty years as a plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer, mainly focusing on products liability. On the community side, I worked on professionalism committees for probably thirty of those years. I served as DBA President during 2009–10.

I was always involved in teaching at the law schools or at the National Institute for Trial Advocacy. And from about 2010 through 2012, I was the Director of the National Institute for Trial Advocacy in Boulder. After I thought I retired, the Court created the Colorado Attorney Mentoring Program (CAMP) and I had the pleasure of being named its first Director.

Can you please explain what the CAMP program is and does?

In 2013, the Colorado Supreme Court, the bar associations, and other organizations and professional groups decided to collaboratively address the issue of new lawyers entering the profession who were unable to land jobs, and so were hanging their own shingles.

Most of the time, they weren’t getting any legal mentoring; they were just out there “practicing” law. The Court was concerned about potential malpractice issues, and established a statewide agency called CAMP to create mentoring programs in all twenty-two judicial districts in Colorado.

Can people sign up to volunteer as mentors?

Most of our programs are run through local bar associations, Inns of Court, or other organizations such as the Colorado Defense Lawyers Association or the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association. Through those organizations young lawyers sign up for mentoring, and experienced lawyers sign up to be mentors. The organizations match up the mentees with the mentors.

CAMP, in these instances, helps facilitate the programs by providing resources and training materials. In addition, I match individual young lawyers with experienced lawyers in areas where there are no supporting organizations.

Why do you believe mentoring is so important?

It’s essential for young lawyers to acquire a professional identity and learn practice skills, including client representation and how to work with other lawyers. Traditionally, those skills are introduced by a partner at a firm or a supervising attorney in an agency. With more and more lawyers working solo, they don’t have anybody to provide them guidance– and CAMP was developed to help fill the void.

New lawyers need to understand the meaning of what I call “professional identity”—the essence of being a lawyer and demonstrating competence and “professionalism” every day. And it is critical that the Court, the bar associations, and experienced attorneys exemplify that professional identity.

With all of the opportunities out there, such as CAMP and the bar associations, should supervisors just default the job of mentoring their younger attorneys to these programs?

No. CAMP was established to supplement the informal mentoring going on in law firms and organizations. And to pick up the people that are not involved—the young lawyers who don’t get the informal or traditional mentoring that’s taking place.

Those of us who have been mentors and mentees recognize that some people are really good mentors—have the patience, the time, and the investment to do it—and some aren’t. And so, we’re also providing resources to help mentors and mentees be more effective at the mentoring relationship.

We all remember the good mentors in our lives. But, it isn’t always easy to be a good mentor.—What tips can you give that would improve the mentoring provided to young attorneys?

Sometimes, the first impulse is to just try to fix the problem when a young lawyer comes to you—to say, “It would save everybody’s time if I just do it for you.” Well, the young lawyer doesn’t really learn in that instance. And so, letting the young lawyer take responsibility for the task that has been assigned to them, and letting them gain the experience along the way, is important.

It’s hard not to be judgmental when you watch a young lawyer wandering down a path that you know—I did that, and it was a mistake, so don’t do that. Instead, you’ve got to discuss it and take the time to actually help the young lawyer analyze the path that they’ve chosen and the potential risks.

In this hurried era, where technology controls some of our practice, just investing the time to sit down face-to-face to talk with the mentee is very important. Trying to mentor somebody through memos, emails, and briefs just doesn’t work.

What about resources? Are there places that someone can go to get more information or tips on mentoring?

We are developing mentoring resources and training. Right now, those resources are the CAMP website: coloradomentoring.org. There is a tab called “Mentoring Resources,” which has tips and articles for both mentors and mentees.

Is it fair to say that the future of our profession depends on the mentoring we provide to the attorneys coming into the profession?

Of course. And it’s even broader than that. Besides assuring that the profession has high standards and competence and all of that, it also protects the clients whom the lawyers represent. And so, it is not only important to the profession, it is important to the judicial system and society, in general.

Your tips and comments have been very insightful on a professional and a personal level. Lessons to live by! Thank you, John. 

By DBA President Daniel R. McCune

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