Have you ever felt lost in the work place? Not in the literal sense, but perhaps you have felt as though you are not quite sure if you really belong in your current work environment or field. Imposter syndrome is the “feeling of not being smart enough, being terrified of making mistakes and worried about being exposed as a fraud, despite career attainments or expertise.” Sounds familiar?
For a newly-minted attorney, starting a new career can be scary. Surely, we have all been there: walking into a new space, anxiety-ridden and not quite sure if we can do the work. This can happen in spite of our credentials, skillset and professional trajectories. New attorneys are eager and willing to do the work, especially in an area of law that really sparks their interest, but what they may not always openly share is the reality of feeling terrified and doubting their abilities.
Peer mentorship has benefitted both of us, Elnora and Grace. It has also allowed us to get to know each other, on a more human level. As attorneys, we are constantly looking for ways to reduce stress and create more efficient ways to navigate legal work. Thus, having a peer mentor in the workplace may help provide an inclusive and less stressful environment.
Elnora: We met last year, when I was hired as a new Religious Immigration Services attorney. Prior to that, I worked for Legal Services of New Jersey representing low-income clients, and Grace had been mentored as a legal assistant who went on to pass the bar and join CLINIC as a full-time attorney. When I started at CLINIC, Grace, a new practitioner, was able to provide general mentorship to me, a more seasoned attorney. I, in turn, shared best practices with her
The connection with another attorney has helped improve and develop our professional practice and the quality of our work experience. It provides a source of reinforcement — thus, everybody wins! After nearly a year of sharing best practices and advice on religious immigration work, we share three major lessons on the benefits of peer mentorship.
Lesson #1: Peer mentorship can improve your communication with your clients.
New attorneys learn very quickly that, when a client comes to you with a unique set of questions, they often want expedited answers and solutions. The attorney-client relationship can require a considerable amount of time. Although the client is coming to the attorney for assistance, there are times when both the new attorney and the client may have questions and concerns.
Elnora: As a new CLINIC attorney, I was fortunate enough to have someone to reach out to for mentorship and guidance who had recently gone through similar learning milestones and learned to nurture stronger attorney-client relationships.
Grace: From peer conversations with senior attorneys, I learned that sending emails with specific questions and clear deadlines was helpful; knowing how to formulate the right questions that would elicit issue-specific answers was insightful.
Lesson #2: Knowledge sharing leads to efficient problem solving and enhanced understanding of procedural matters.
Grace: I have been practicing for a year now and recognize there is always something new to learn, especially in the field of immigration law. One tool that has helped me tremendously, and which I shared with my colleague, is the use of samples. These tools can help us understand unique concepts and address administrative inquiries while maximizing the time spent on a given task.
Attorneys are natural problem solvers, but sometimes trying to figure out everything on our own is not feasible, advisable or even practical. In such cases, when anxiety creeps in, a clarification from a trusted colleague and the sharing of where and how information can be accessed is key.
Also, having someone to consult along a complex process can facilitate understanding of detailed procedural matters and help cultivate the discipline-specific language needed to advance your career.
As an attorney in a new field, reaching out to someone who was also fairly new reassured us the transition would get easier. Learning that it is okay to speak up as questions arise has been more helpful in the long run and will help us work more efficiently.
Lesson #3: Sharing best practices during weekly meetings or utilizing listserves is key.
As CLINIC attorneys, we can reach out to and brainstorm with multiple experienced colleagues, a major benefit of team meetings. When one of us was not able to find a solution to an issue, discussing the general concern at a weekly team meeting provided necessary insight to move forward with the case.
However, if weekly meetings are not an option — as is the case for solo practitioners — reaching out to your colleagues through a private email listserve can be equally beneficial. It allows the attorney access to a wider group of experts, often in different geographic areas, and results in responses that can reassure junior practitioners.
Although entering the field of law as a new attorney or switching to a new area of law can be overwhelming, attorneys must remember they are equipped with the tools to do the work. The work we do as religious immigration attorneys is meaningful, but rapid changes and a difficult socio-political context can make our work more stressful and the need for open and meaningful collegial relationships more significant.
Peer mentorship in the workplace can be an asset that can help counter the feeling of being an ‘imposter’ and humanize our colleagues who are navigating a difficult learning process. After all, haven’t we all experienced our own beginnings and struggles?
*Ileana Cortes Santiago contributed to this article.