The Role of a Mentor
Through my three years of law school and even as my career started, Barry Wadler, a solo practice commercial litigator and transactional attorney, has been, and continues to be, my mentor. This mentoring relationship shaped and strengthened my legal education and career path beyond measure. I can firmly say I would not be where I am today if Mr. Wadler was not there by my side. But we didn’t plan this relationship, it just evolved.
When I was a 1L at CUNY Law School, the school hosted a NYSBA event called “Pathway to the Profession” at which practicing attorneys from various NYSBA Sections came to the school for an informal evening opportunity to meet and speak with students. I was able to speak briefly to several attorneys that night. However, when I introduced myself to Mr. Wadler, we had a longer, engaging conversation. He explained with enthusiasm why he loved practicing law and spoke in depth about what he does for a living on a daily basis. He answered all of my questions and told me stories. I specifically recall that, as he talked about being an attorney, he said, “You know, I am notorious for worrying. But remember, worrying just means you’re being conscientious.” This was reassuring as I, too, am a perpetual worrier when it comes to my work product.
I have been in private practice for over 40 years. I am a member of NYSBA and have taught a few CLE courses. I love to teach. Through NYSBA, I volunteered to visit a few law schools for “meet and greet” programs so I have met many students who have no clue what their future law career will be or what it truly is like to be an attorney.
That night at CUNY Law School, as at other schools, many students came over for a few moments to say “hello” and ask simple questions, mostly, “How did you get your first job?” or “Do you need an intern?” I like to ask, “Why did you decide to go to law school?” “What area of law are you interested in?” I try to explain that there are many career paths in law and the attorney’s life experience varies widely depending on the path taken.
What impressed me about Adeline was that she listened. She asked and listened. She talked about herself, her experiences and her unknowns. It was immediately clear she was not being shallow. Indeed, she engaged with me for perhaps 45 minutes and I gave her my card. I probably gave out 20 cards that evening, but Adeline reached out and thanked me the next day by email. That led to some telephone conversations which led to a small project writing a demand letter and then some legal research projects.
Through my law school years, Mr. Wadler gave me some legal research, told me about cases he was handling, often he challenged me to think about the arguments he was making and explained the opposing arguments he had to confront. Once, when I confessed I was unsure of the law on some issue, he responded, “Lawyers don’t have to know all the answers. Lawyers just have to know the questions. Then we can look up the answers.” This offered me a new and reassuring perspective on handling legal issues.
Over the years, I had the privilege of listening to Mr. Wadler think out loud and in return, got an authentic, unfiltered understanding of what it would be like to practice law. I understood the need to plan ahead, to anticipate deadlines, to be familiar with the law and the file documents. I learned the importance of being practical and of staying in touch with clients. There are things you just don’t learn in school. Having a mentor didn’t just mean having a teacher, it meant having a role model. As a law student, it meant having a preview of day-to-day law practice.
Adeline loved to listen as much as I love to tell stories. She became the ear of a litigator. One thing I wanted her to learn was not to be afraid. On one occasion, I invited her to come to court with me for a Commercial Part Preliminary Conference. I wanted her to see how I met my adversary for the first time. “Some clients don’t understand when you are friendly with the adversary” I explained, “but you walk right up to them and speak to them and you let them know you are not afraid. Be professional and it pays off.” Many months later, I was relating to her how that adversary and I extended courtesies when needed.
In numerous ways, my lawyering skills were developed, and my confidence grew. Though I was never employed by Mr. Wadler, in my second and third years of school, I took some part-time jobs. I came to see that some employers are better than others at explaining what their work is about and what they want done. One office was devoted to real estate, specifically, coop and condo closings, but I was unfamiliar with the practice and the employer was not helpful at instruction. When I related this to Mr. Wadler, he directed me to a set of books (McKinney’s Forms, Real Property Practice) and showed me there were detailed checklists of what to do when representing a buyer or seller. I came to understand that, no matter what new project or task is thrown at you for the first time, there is a place or a way to learn how to do it. During my second semester, we had an oral argument assignment. Mr. Wadler listened to me practice several times and coached me on my presentation, including when to pause for effect, and when to repeat a phrase for emphasis. On the day of my presentation, I was prepared and self-assured. These are just a couple of examples of when Mr. Wadler came to my rescue.
At her graduation, I was given the honor of hooding her as she was awarded her diploma. I gush with pride at the thought that I might have had something to do with enabling her to secure a position at such a respected law firm as London Fischer LLP. She has told me that, from day one, she comfortably transitioned from student to lawyer.
While Adeline benefited from our relationship, I did as well. Our frequent telephone conversations reminded me how far I had come as an attorney. She embodied the young, overwhelmed student that I once was, unable to imagine being able to handle all the complex matters that would someday be thrown at me. Now I was speaking to and reassuring my younger self.
Mentoring is a beneficial two-way street.
Thanks to Mr. Wadler, I am more confident in the field than I ever would have been, absent the guidance my mentor provided. My advice to students seeking a mentor: show interest, don’t be afraid to ask questions, and listen! I promise only positive results will follow.
Adeline Antoniou, CUNY Law School 2019, is now a law clerk at London Fisher LLP and a member of NYSBA.
Barry A. Wadler is a member of both the ComFed and the Business Law Sections of NYSBA.