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30 September 2021

Connecting the next generation of diverse lawyers through the College of Law Mentoring Programme

Published on 30 September 2021
The College of Law Mentoring Programme fills a need few do: it provides career mentoring for law graduates in that critical period after they complete their degree, but before they start their first job. Insights caught up with Dr Robert Makgill, Barrister and Board Chair, as well as several Board members, to find out what sets the programme apart, its goals and purpose, and how it might help the next generation of diverse lawyers establish connections with senior legal colleagues - connections they may otherwise lack through  their immediate families or communities. 
Bridging the gulf between graduation and practice
When Dr Robert Makgill was a second year law student at Waikato University, his Dean, the Honourable Margaret Wilson, approached him and asked a question familiar to many early in their study of law: “Why do you want to do a law degree?”
“I told her that I didn’t know whether I wanted to be a lawyer,” said Robert. “But I thought a law degree would be an excellent degree to have in terms of the training and logic that it teaches.” 
Though his uncertainty persisted, his instructor encouraged him to finish Professionals. 
“Although I didn’t immediately enter a law firm, it provided me with the opportunity to work with barristers, in central government, and helped to inform my thinking around future academic pursuits.”
These formative experiences, and those of the other board Members, helped to influence and shape the mentoring programme. 
“It is designed to provide a connection with the profession and mentors prior to the mentee’s first job.” explained Robert. “The programme provides a sounding board for graduates, and continues for the first six months of your first job. This is to help provide a feedback loop.”
“We know the next generation of graduates may not all want to be lawyers,” said Robert. “What we’re aiming to do is bridge the gap between the academics of a law degree and what the graduate decides to do next.”
Board member, Charl Hirschfeld, agrees that the mentoring programme seeks to help graduates navigate decisions about their next steps. 
“Our mentoring programme contemplates someone accomplished professionally and well informed sharing their knowledge and life experiences to support those seeking guidance and   advice in their own areas of personal development.” 
To ensure the programme runs smoothly, the College of Law will be a central hub of resources and support. All interactions between mentors and mentees will be administered by the College of Law.
Helping new lawyers feel they belong
Central to the programme is its focus on collegiality. This is particularly so for lawyers entering the profession from a diverse range of backgrounds, who may not have role models or mentors from the legal profession. 
“We want to help young professionals feel like they belong,” said Robert. “Whether they want to pursue a career in law is a decision for them. Provided you meet the eligibility criteria and have a good ethical compass as a practitioner, this profession can be for you. People come from a range of diverse backgrounds and life experiences, which can enrich legal practice.”
Through twenty-six years in practice, Robert has become keenly aware that there can be a disconnect between graduates and more experienced lawyers. 
“There’s often quite a gulf between those entering the profession and even those who hold an intermediate position, let alone those in senior roles. It’s not always that conducive to making young professionals feel like they belong.”
This is why the programme has such a focus on collegiality.
“First and foremost, the programme is there to show that collegiality exists within the profession,” explained Robert. “This especially helps those who haven’t grown up with family members in the law or with a legal background. It gives them an ability to engage with experienced lawyers, and show that lawyers can care for one another. We want to encourage the next generation of graduates to make decisions that reflect what their goals are, whatever they choose to do.”
A chance to connect with a wide range of senior lawyers
Dr Makgill leads the programme’s experienced board which governed its establishment and will guide its ongoing operations. 
All mentors were selected by the programme’s Mentoring Board:
  • Dr Robert Makgill, Barrister & Board Chair
  • Jennifer Caldwell, Partner, Auckland, National Chair, Buddle Findlay
  • Kate Davenport QC, Barrister & Past President of the New Zealand Bar Association
  • Charl Hirschfeld, Barrister, Ranfurly Chambers
  • Mary Hill, Partner, Cooney Lees Morgan & immediate Past President of Resource Management Law Association.
  • Marcus Martin, CEO, College of Law New Zealand
“Our mentors reflect a broad spread of practitioners from international law, public law, and private practice, including commercial, environmental, criminal and family law,” said Robert. “Unless a mentee’s question is practice-specific, it will be put to the mentor most able to answer it.”
Rotation will be encouraged. 
“Unless there is a specific calling for a mentor to have a deeper mentoring relationship with a specific mentee, we’re going to facilitate different mentors to different mentees,” explained Robert. “This exposes the mentees to a greater range of practitioners. It also enables our mentors to manage their time commitments. As a rough guideline, any session - be it a video conference, telephone call or a coffee, will be a maximum of half an hour. This keeps the mentoring commitment manageable for practitioners who, especially during COVID, are under all sorts of pressures.”
Board member Jennifer Caldwell, Partner at Buddle Findlay was equally supportive. 
"I'm passionate about mentoring principally because my own career has been so well supported by informal mentors over the years,” said Jennifer. “I had no connection with the legal profession before going to Law School, and no real idea of what a legal career involved. I've been fortunate to have encountered sustained encouragement from a few key individuals, and I'd like all young lawyers to have the same opportunity."
Board member Mary Hill, Partner at Cooney Lees Morgan, concurred. 
“Our universities do a great job of instilling the technical knowledge required to practice law,” acknowledged Mary. “But they cannot teach us how to become practitioners of law. This requires time, learning by doing, and surrounding ourselves by those who have already done it. In my experience mentors are people who want to give back to the profession, because they have found value in being mentored themselves.”