Big law litigator Edward Lopez laughed when he learned that students at Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law were calling him “Yoda” because of his mentoring style.
Lopez, an early adopter of an innovative flash mentoring program at SMU Dedman, is quick to point out he doesn’t look like the Jedi master. But through the program, Mustang Exchange, Lopez had been meeting one-on-one with law students, talking with them on the phone and mingling at school networking events. Students mentored by Lopez left feedback on Mustang Exchange comparing him to Yoda because of the deep advice he was giving them about their careers and lives in the law.
“I thought it was funny. Of course, I’m a big fan of ‘Star Wars,’ and I understand the reference. Thankfully, I don’t look like Yoda—I’m just the person who tells stories and explains things with parables and reference points,” said Lopez, partner in Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson in Dallas.
No other law school in Texas has something like Mustang Exchange, Baylor University comes closest with its Baylor Mentor Network, but it’s universitywide, rather than law school specific. Mustang Exchange is even unparalleled among law schools across the nation, said Abby Ruth, SMU Dedman’s director of alumni relations. In most mentoring programs, law schools take students’ information and match them with one mentor for a whole year. Instead, Mustang Exchange puts the power of finding mentors into the hands of students and allows them to choose as many mentors as they wish. The format of Mustang Exchange—running on private social networking software called Chronus—fits hand-in-glove with a generation of law students who grew up on Facebook and Twitter.
“It takes a village to raise a successful law student into a successful lawyer. I think it takes a lot of people to rally behind and advise them into a fulfilling career for that person. Surrounding yourself with as many people willing to help as possible is such a plus. I think that is the whole concept: to build your network and put as many arrows in your quiver as you can.” Ruth said.
SMU Dedman didn’t have a formal mentoring program before it launched Mustang Exchange in 2015. Ruth explained that she and colleagues researched different types of mentoring styles, consulted with mentoring experts and companies, and learned about “flash mentoring,” the new hot thing in mentoring that’s been embraced by corporate America.
“Flash is the idea students have options to have multiple mentors and interact with multiple professionals as opposed to just limiting them to just one,” she said. “We thought that type of style would be a perfect match for maximizing exposure to different areas of law and being able to build a network.”
Mustang Exchange runs on mentoring software by Chronus, a company that provides the software to universities, government entities and large companies. Both mentors and students start out by creating a profile with their picture and information about their education, work history, interest area in the law and more. Students can search and view mentor profiles based on the type of law they practice, the size of firm where they work, the college they attended or any other metric. The software’s algorithm also suggests mentors who match a student’s profile. A student contacts a mentor and requests a one-hour meeting—mostly in person but sometimes through Skype or telephone if the mentor is not local. The mentor can accept or decline a meeting request.
Nearly 250 mentors are signed up on Mustang Exchange—some of whom might not have made a commitment to a traditional yearlong mentorship program, which requires multiple meetings with a student over a year, Ruth said. Mustang Exchange allows more flexibility—even just one hour from a mentor is enough.
“For lawyers who bill by the hour, where time is money, this has been a very valuable use of their time,” Ruth said.
By the start of this school year, Ruth said she expected more than 400 students to be using Mustang Exchange. First-year students must do at least two meetings with mentors, and second-year students can use the tool as often as they want. Third-year students can’t use Mustang Exchange because the school wanted to turn them loose to use their existing networks.
When Kori Rady started at SMU Dedman in 2015, his class was the first to use Mustang Exchange. The social networking format was simple and intuitive and made it easy to find mentors and have enriching, resourceful conversations with them, he said. Rady, now a third-year law student, would use the program whenever he had open time in his schedule, looking for lawyers interested in litigation or people who had attended the University of Texas at Austin, as Rady had. He estimates he met dozens of mentors through the program and said he tried keeping in touch by meeting them once or twice per semester or chatting them up at Mustang Exchange-sponsored networking events.
“It’s an incredible way to meet new people and learn about their careers,” Rady said. “All these people are really skilled and successful, and you are in law school and just trying to figure out how to mirror their path and see how you can find that level of success.”
The best advice his mentors gave, which Rady took to heart, was to keep on networking among lawyers and in-house counsel.
“That really is a big part of succeeding, from what my mentors have said: developing a group of friends who are lawyers and being able to be a part of their communities. That can expand your business and potential new clients you meet,” Rady said. “Being a great lawyer is about being a great networker.”
Ruth said that giving the students the power to search for their own mentors, rather than the law school assigning a mentor, has forced students to learn how to build their own networks—a skill that will make or break their legal careers. They take more initiative in reflecting on what’s important to them and their future career and then finding mentors who align with their visions.
“When they get to go out and find their own mentors, they prepare; they come with questions and reasons why they wanted to speak with that particular mentor. It does seem they take ownership over the meeting, versus if we set them up with someone and it’s an obligation they have to go fulfill. This is something they want to go out and do,” Ruth said. “It seems they are developing meaningful relationships with the people they are meeting with.”
Those meaningful relationships also help the lawyers who serve as mentors. They love the chance to give back to law students.
Lopez said he signed up because he wanted to give back to his alma mater and to help students in the same way that mentors helped him in the past. He’s met in person with nine students, talked on the phone with four more, and estimates he’s talked with up to 20 more at Mustang Exchange social events. He’s gone so far as to make phone calls to other lawyers and set students up with calls or lunches with them.
One student even landed a summer clerkship at Lopez’s firm. He met with her early this year for coffee and they talked for two and a half hours about her career and how to strengthen her grades and test-taking skills. When Linebarger recruited for summer clerkships, the student applied and scored an interview through a blind match. Because Lopez had already met her, she had an advantage over other applicants, and won the job.
Lopez said he takes a lot away from the mentorship relationships too. As he teaches students, he learns something in return.
“One piece of advice I give students is make sure you use every opportunity to make connections. I explain to them why the connections are important, and how I missed some of the opportunities along the way,” he explained. “With that in mind, I turn around and use my same teaching to make sure I’m doing the same thing, even today.”
Follow Angela Morris on Twitter: @AMorrisReports