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Columbia Law takes an innovative approach to mentoring

Law school combines traditional mentoring models for a fresh take on student development

It’s never too soon to find a mentor. Found nearly everywhere throughout the legal world, mentoring programs are instrumental to teaching lawyers the skills they need to not only effectively do their jobs, but also learn how best to navigate the nuances of their careers. While both law firms and in-house legal departments recognize the importance of having formal and informal mentoring programs for their attorneys, law schools also see the importance of grooming students, and are starting the process early in the first year.

Columbia Law School believes that legal education is difficult to navigate, and is not necessarily intuitive for many new students. Because of this, Columbia has established a hybrid group/peer mentoring program where 80 second- and third-year students serve as mentors to first-year students. The 2L and 3L mentors go through a training program, receive a handbook and have regular communication with the administration in order to prepare them for work with the 1L mentees. The first-year students are then divided into groups of 15 people, and each group is assigned three mentors.

“Having someone who’s been through it very recently and can roadmap for you, help share perspective and prioritize—all of those pieces can be extremely helpful to a first-year law student,” says Dean of Students Michelle Greenberg-Kobrin. “When they start, many law students spend most of their time in 1L-only classes, so the mentoring program helps them develop relationships with second- and third-year students, helps to build community across the classes, and makes the community stronger and more unified.”

First-year students have a series of set times to meet with their peer mentors throughout year at important moments when Greenberg-Kobrin says they really should be engaging with their community—at orientation, after the first exam a few weeks into the semester and prior to studying for final exams. At these times, students receive instruction on how to map their school year, reflection tips to help remain engaged in the coursework, as well as exam and study techniques. The mentors also are asked to arrange activities for their group once or twice throughout the semester, such as going out in the city or to a movie, that the administration helps subsidize.

This program model, Greenberg-Kobrin says, has really made a difference for the students.

“We think it’s solved two of the main problems we see in mentoring programs,” she says. “The typical mentoring program usually involves a new lawyer being assigned to a more senior lawyer, and it’s typically a one-on-one relationship with the expectation that you’ll get together once a month or when they have time.”

While Columbia’s mentoring program has been in place for about three years, this particular iteration is the result of many revisions and significant feedback from earlier participants. After listening to the previous groups of peer mentors and mentees, the administration decided that the notion of a micro-community that was big enough to have some diversity, but small enough to feel intimate, was something that could work. And the extra refinement is paying dividends.

“It’s hard to hit on a formula that works well,” Greenberg-Kobrin says. “I think this program is unique to Columbia at this point because we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what might work.”

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