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Nurturing the Legal Leaders of Tomorrow: Insights from AIM’s President on Mentorship and Success in the Legal Profession

Updated: Jan 31

January is National Mentoring Month. We hope this evokes memories of your earliest years in the legal profession. Did you have a special colleague that you admired? Did someone take you under their wing? Even if you were not fortunate enough to have a mentor, this can be your opportunity to become one.


Consider the next generation of attorneys at your firm. These junior associates will eventually earn new business for you. Perhaps you will hand over your book of business to keep your practice thriving when the time comes to pass the torch. National Mentoring Month is also an occasion to ask yourself if younger lawyers look up to you with respect and admiration. Do you lead by example?


“One of the highlights of my career is helping young lawyers,” says AIM’s president and claims counsel Sharon D. Stuart. And Sharon’s career is one to study. While her bio is long and impressive – she devotes her practice to civil trial work and arbitration, leads the way for our insurance company, and advises on numerous boards, committees, and associations - Sharon’s approach towards a successful life is simple and concise:


“Be really proud of the work you put out into the world,” she advises. “If you make a commitment to something or someone, go all in and work to produce results that make you proud.”


Recently, Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law asked Sharon to speak to their class of 3L externship students. The students asked how to develop their professional identities within and outside of their future firms. As a 1990 Cumberland alumnae and a Samford Trustee, Sharon was delighted to share her thoughts.

The following tips were documented in her live presentation to those law students this month. We hope her career advice provides some inspiration to those just winding up, as well as encouragement to be a mentor for those starting to coast or wind down.

1. Focus on Creating Work You’re Proud Of

After you finish law school, you may decide not to get involved in bar activities or community service immediately. Rather, you may decide to put your head down, bill a lot of hours, and produce an exceptional amount of extraordinary work. Maybe you want to focus on making partner. Consequently, in doing so, you will have freedom to be more flexible later in the other activities you’ll want to pursue.  It’s a personal choice and different for everyone. But no matter what you do, be proud of your effort. If it has your name associated with it, make sure you are not just satisfied but proud of it.


2. Join a Local Bar Association and a Task Force or Committee Within Your State Bar

It’s important to build your professional network, to sharpen vital skills like leadership, to learn how to collaborate, to build a team and even how to shape policy. There are local, regional, state, and national bar associations, as well as law specialty associations, practice-related bars and affinity groups that provide these opportunities. You can forge lasting relationships while making a difference in the profession, your community, and your life. People need to know you. Getting involved leads to recognition and referrals. Many counties and metro areas have local bar associations that offer legal education, service opportunities, and camaraderie. The State Bar likewise offers numerous committees and task forces aimed at helping lawyers and their practices, and shaping policy involving the practice of law. Practice-related bars and affinity groups are a great place for lawyers with similar practice areas, backgrounds and interest to serve together.  There are also nonprofit legal groups such as Legal Aid Societies and Volunteer Lawyers Programs, and law-adjacent organizations.

 3. Get Involved in a Nonprofit or Community Service Organization

 Volunteer work and board service matter to your professional life as well as feeding your soul as you give back to your community. Learning how nonprofits work, how they fundraise, how they fulfil their mission – all this experience enhances your skillset as a lawyer. Service on board committees teaches you about investments, accounting and personnel – all areas that improve your business acumen and law practice. Nonprofit service can also lead to for-profit board service. Choose one that resonates with you personally, where you want to make a difference.


4. Know That You CAN Have a Successful Law Career and a Personal Life

This is such a personal choice. And you will have to make choices. Many of your choices will be made based on your existing commitments. But it’s very possible to have a successful law career and a personal life. Know and stick to your priorities. Set goals that are important to you rather than for someone else because you are more likely to reach them. Many top graduating law students have also started families while still in school. You can make partner while raising toddlers. Your priorities at any given time should shape your choices, but don’t lose sight of the big picture – chart a path and follow it.


5. Ask to Go Along to Meetings, Seek Face Time with Clients, Ask for Practical Experience

New lawyers should ask to go along everywhere: to meetings, court, networking events. They should be introduced to everyone. They need to face time with clients, judges, and other lawyers. To the more senior lawyers reading this article: One of the greatest mistakes we make is assuming we are the only person worthy of communicating with our clients. Young lawyers need opportunities to assist on everything from the most mundane scheduling orders to the most critical strategy analyses. Senior lawyers should take them to depositions, to interview witnesses, and let them appear in court every chance they can. Encourage them to argue a case; to make a big presentation; to explain a project or a system or a theory. A mentor should be there if something goes wrong, but it probably won’t. And what if they get their head handed to them? They’ll learn from that mistake.


Most lawyers can remember the first deposition that we took, the first summary judgment motion that we argued, and the first trial witness who we examined. We learned from those experiences. Even in this age when clients often will pay only for one lawyer, it is in senior lawyers' interest to take our associates to court, even if we cut our own time. If we don't give younger lawyers the experience, how will they ever be ready when it is “their turn"? The same is true in any business: know-how comes from doing.


6. The Road to Success is Always Under Construction

Remember that it takes time to be a rockstar lawyer. Expertise grows with intense study, hard work, and handling cases. It can be grueling but is rewarding. You want to choose other commitments that enhance your law practice, not detract from it


Be able to say no. Ask yourself: is this meaningful to me? If so, how? Will it help me grow, either professionally or personally? Is this the right time? Am I ready? Can I afford it? Is this a priority for me now? If the answer to any of these is no, take a pass. When you pick up a new time commitment, give one away. And don’t forget that involvement is only one piece of a fulfilling legal career – take time to exercise; if you are a person of faith, make time for that and get adequate rest. A successful legal career is a balancing act, no matter how you approach it.


About the Author

Shannon Stuart, President & Claims Counsel

Attorneys Insurance Mutual of the South

Sharon has been a member of AIM's Board of Directors since 2001. She has served as Chair of the Marketing Committee and a member of the Investment/Audit, Underwriting, Personnel and Executive Committees. In 2019, Sharon was appointed President & Claims Counsel for AIM. 

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