Bench + Bar of Minnesota

The young(ish) leading the young(er): Why you don’t need to know everything to be a mentor


By Veronica L. Stachurski

About six months ago, I signed up for a mentor/mentee program with the American Society of International Law (ASIL). I was fortunate enough to work in The Hague, Netherlands at the International Criminal Court when I was in my third year of law school. Since then, I have worked as a researcher for an attorney who practices international law, and I have joined the board of directors of an international nonprofit. 

All of this is to say that I have a passion for certain areas of international law, but I felt that I did not know what I was doing. So I joined the mentoring program with ASIL. I signed up as a mentee, and I was assigned a mentor named Mia. I was surprised to learn that my new mentor was actually several years younger than me and had three fewer years in practice. 

This is not to say that I was unhappy to meet Mia, and I am grateful for the professional connections I have been able to make because of her. But it did get me thinking about something: How young is too young to be a mentor? 

Even being older and more experienced than my mentor, I would never have felt comfortable signing up to be a mentor at this point in my career; I’m still the “baby lawyer” with less than five years of experience. What could I possibly teach new attorneys? Even more shocking was my mentor’s response to being paired with me. She encouraged me to sign up to be a mentor because I was “more qualified” than she was and I would be a great mentor to some of the newer and younger attorneys. I certainly didn’t feel more qualified. I most definitely did not have any plans to sign up to be a mentor (although I did not tell her this—and thanked her for what I considered to be a huge compliment). 

After our first meet-and-greet session, that question kept rattling around in my brain. How young is too young to be a mentor? Perhaps the answer varies from profession to profession, and context certainly matters. But, specifically, how experienced in my profession did I have to be before I would feel comfortable calling myself a mentor? I posed this question to my former supervisor, Michelle. She is someone who has become a great friend of mine, and who I very much consider to be my mentor. Michelle’s response surprised me even more than Mia’s. She said, “You already are a mentor.” How could she possibly believe that? I asked her. Turns out the answer is very simple; I supervise and manage the law students who work in my law firm as legal assistants. What I’ve considered supervising for the past three years is really mentoring—at least according to Michelle. 

I’m only in my fourth year of being licensed, but I’ve spent a good deal of time working with law students in that time. The one thing that’s become clear is that I never know what a law student will bring to our firm. I work in a small firm, consisting of just me and the managing partner. Before I joined the firm as an associate, the partner was a solo practitioner and I was her legal assistant. It was not my first time working in a law firm, but all my previous experience was as a file clerk before I even started law school. You can imagine my surprise when this attorney who ran her own firm told me that I’d be responsible for substantive legal work that got billed to the client. 

As Lisa explained it, there was a practical as well as a more personal reason to have me doing “real work.” First, she was already paying me a wage, and her firm was just too small to only have me do busy work like answer the phone and file paperwork. More importantly, she explained to me, she never had someone who could walk her through all the gaps between what you learn in law school and what it actually means to practice law with a license. Things they don’t teach you in law school, like tracking your time for billable hours on a file; or what legal research is appropriate and ethical to bill to the client, versus time you cannot bill to the file because it’s really a matter of self-education. These are just two of the most basic examples of what I learned in my first year working for her, but it was all these small things that made my first days with my bar card just a little bit easier. 

Fast-forward six months and we added our first law student since I started practicing law. At first, I was hesitant to give John any advice outside of how I drafted my outlines for classes. (He was attending my alma mater.) What did I know about the practice of law? How would I know if the email to opposing counsel sounded good enough to send? I was usually taking my own drafts and requests to the partner to see if she approved of how I was saying and doing things. 

What I discovered pretty quickly, however, was that I was in a unique position to “speak the language” of both our legal assistant and our partner. I was not still in law school, but I was not a seasoned attorney. I was in school recently enough that I had vivid (sometimes nearly traumatic) memories of being in law school, sitting for the bar exam, and all the rest. But I was also a licensed attorney, handling my own caseload. Maybe I didn’t have 35 years of experience like Lisa Ward, but I could probably still offer some useful insights to John. 

Specifically, I realized that not everyone who is young and/or new to our profession understands the importance of tracking time, especially for billable hours. Now, for my part, I had worked with attorneys who wrote out all their billable hours, and I was responsible for submitting them to the firm’s accounting department for monthly billing. Before I even started law school, I was relatively familiar with how attorneys tracked their hours to bill files and clients. On top of that, I was in the immigration clinic at MSU College of Law. One of the conditions for passing the class and receiving the credit hours for graduation was billing a minimum number of hours to the cases I was assigned. 

John, however, was completely unaware of billing matters and did not understand how to document and submit the time that he spent working on a particular client’s file. He was freaking out because his timesheet indicated what project he worked on, but never once mentioned a case or client name. I worked with him to figure out which entries went with which files, and we eventually were able to account for his time spent working in those first two weeks with us. But I also took the opportunity to turn it into a teachable moment for John and his future legal career. 

I had him print a copy of his timesheet and look at how I tracked my hours for the firm and for each particular client. One thing I wanted to make clear is that I firmly believe everyone has to find the way that works best for them. For example, how I keep track of my time is different from how the partner does it. That doesn’t mean either way is wrong. 

John was fine with tracking time and was a good legal assistant. He was with us until he graduated and found a job elsewhere. One thing that stood out for me was how often, after this episode, he would ask me for my opinion or advice. Not for how to do something, but for suggestions on improving what he was doing. That was an important distinction to me, and made me feel like I could offer some sort of useful middle ground between where Lisa was after 35 years of practice and where John was as a working law student. 

I’ve worked with several legal assistants since John first came to our firm. Each brings their own contributions and challenges, but I continue to strive to bridge that gap between seasoned expert and largely clueless law student. I hope that the time I’ve spent helping them study for the bar or track their billable time—or, in one case, find the cheapest place to buy case books—has made a difference in their fledgling legal careers. 

VERONICA STACHURSKI specializes in public school, employment, civil rights, and administrative law. Licensed in Michigan and Minnesota, she was appointed to the Michigan Supreme Court Foster Care Review Board in October 2023 and also sits on the board of Stahili Foundation, an international nonprofit for child protection operating in Kenya. 

Steve Perry
(612) 278-6333


Adverting Manager
Erica Nelson
(763) 497-1778


Classified Ads
Jackie Duvall-Smith
(612) 333-1183

Art Director
Jennifer Wallace
(612) 278-6311