Is There Such A Thing As Stealth Mentoring?

Mentoring is one of my favorite topics. We don’t do it as much or as often as we should. Sometimes we don’t even know we’ve done anything, but we have, and it’s those times when we realize that even the tiniest bit of mentoring can have an impact well beyond what we might have thought.

The recent Oscar awards telecast is a perfect example of what I mean. Yes, I live in La-La Land, and the Oscar awards are of little interest to most outside the Los Angeles fantasy world. (Ratings for the show were dreadful.) Four Oscars went to Bong Joon-Ho and his movie Parasite. What’s my point?

When he accepted the award for best director, Bong gave a shout out to Martin Scorsese, who Bong considered a mentor (even if Scorsese didn’t know it). Bong said Scorsese had said that “the most personal is always the most creative.” So, here’s an example of how mentoring takes many forms; there can even be “stealth mentoring,” (the mentor has no idea about the impact of her words on someone else).

Both Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, who Bong also acknowledged as supporting his work, may well not have known that Bong was going to say anything. I bet both of the acclaimed directors were touched by the gesture. Bong didn’t have to say anything at all, but he did so in a heartfelt and generous way. How often do we acknowledge mentoring and how it has helped us along the way?

Bong’s translator at the awards was a young woman, Sharon Choi, with directorial aspirations. So, in his own way, the 50-year-old Bong is paying it forward for her.

Mentoring doesn’t have to be grandiose. It doesn’t even require any acknowledgement per se of the mentoring relationship. It can be as understated as answering a question or two for a newbie lawyer, directing a lawyer as to where to find something, sharing pleadings, contract forms and points, and authorities forms. (Remember when we used to all keep form files? Those are relics of a bygone era.) The point is to pass on accumulated knowledge so that others can benefit from what you have learned: what works, what doesn’t, what sets a judge off like a rocket, while another could care less.

There’s so much talk today about the “sharing economy.” I think mentoring is sharing. Of course, some people share less than others, and some not at all. Everyone is familiar with the “you eat what you kill” mentality.

Mentoring can be coffee, a meal, or even grabbing a more experienced lawyer during a trial recess to help figure out how to handle an issue that just arose. When I was a baby deputy district attorney. trying my very first misdemeanor petty theft case, counsel for the two defendants asked for a mistrial because they claimed that they were missing a page of discovery. I asked for a brief recess, went out into the courthouse hallway, and grabbed the first experienced deputy DA I saw, and asked him what a mistrial was.

Mentoring is not necessarily just for law students, newbie lawyers, or those further along than newbies. I think mentoring is just as important for those “pre-law” students (what the hell is a “pre-law” major anyway?), for those in the “pipeline,” so to speak, deciding whether to drop a whole wad of cash or incur six figures in debt, only to decide that being a lawyer is not all that it’s cracked up to be. How many of us watch lawyer shows on television and laugh at the contrast between how lawyers are portrayed on screen and the life of a real lawyer?

For most of us, lawyering is a lot of drudge work, paper shuffling, meeting with clients who don’t want to hear what we have to say, trying to collect receivables, and other unpleasantries. Lawyering is not glamorous, no matter how many times we see otherwise on television, especially when the lawyers are young, attractive, and if a woman, able to walk in stilettos while pushing briefcases full of documents.

I think UCLA Law Dean Jennifer Mnookin has nailed it. Her advice is simple and straight to the point: don’t go to law school if you don’t think you want to be a lawyer. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? As the dean says, it’s a huge investment of time and money and, as the profession continues to adopt artificial intelligence to use in bread and butter tasks, it may well become harder to earn a decent living.

Think about the sunk costs of spending three to four years in law school, studying for the bar and then taking it, awaiting results and then scrambling for a job (if you’re not from one of the top schools, then “scrambling” is probably an appropriate term. Of course, that assumes you’ve passed the bar exam.)

Steven Chung has sounded a similar warning in his ATL post, a sort of “test yourself” as to whether becoming a lawyer is really, really, really what you want to do. If you really really want to be a lawyer, then find a mentor early on. If you don’t have the passion, the burning desire, then find something else that will engage you. There’s no guarantee that you will make big bucks in practice, and if that’s the motivation, then do something else.

Jill Switzer has been an active member of the State Bar of California for over 40 years. She remembers practicing law in a kinder, gentler time. She’s had a diverse legal career, including stints as a deputy district attorney, a solo practice, and several senior in-house gigs. She now mediates full-time, which gives her the opportunity to see dinosaurs, millennials, and those in-between interact — it’s not always civil. You can reach her by email at



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