The Barristers’ Association of Philadelphia, through its 2011 launch of the "Bar Buddies" mentorship program, seeks to continue the venerable legacy of the Liacouras Committee by supporting ethnically diverse candidates who plan to take a state bar exam. The committee, recently honored at this year’s Barristers’ Association Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Breakfast, revealed the inequity of the Pennsylvania bar exam and the resulting homogeneity of the Pennsylvania bench and bar. Recognizing that many of this country’s best advocates, of any ethnicity, were black Philadelphia lawyers (Barristers), the committee sought to ensure the fair and accurate scoring of the Pennsylvania bar exam. The committee discovered gross inequities and successfully moved the Philadelphia Bar Association to adopt a resolution recommending procedures that would ensure a fairer grading system. Despite improvements in the overall admissions process, the legal profession still requires diversification. So, the Barristers’ Association initiated the Bar Buddies program.

This program matches recently admitted attorneys with law school graduates awaiting admission. Participants meet a few times during the two-month preparation period between law school graduation and the bar examination. While most Bar Buddies take either the Pennsylvania or New Jersey bar exams, administrators make every effort to find helpful mentors for those taking bar exams in other states. The immediate goal of the program is to provide mentoring during the difficult period of time between a law student’s graduation and the bar exam, in order to assist law students of varying ethnic backgrounds in passing the bar on their first attempt.

Sekou Campbell and Melanie Carter were paired together as mentor and mentee, respectively, in the Bar Buddies’ inaugural year. They continue their mentor relationship presently and reflect on their experiences as participants in the Bar Buddies program here.

Sekou’s Lessons for a Mentor

Mentorship challenges both the mentor and mentee to think about problems differently and to develop a relationship in the process. As a newly practicing attorney, I mistakenly thought that I only needed to form those types of relationships as a mentee, as someone who could siphon information from another, more experienced attorney. My mentee, Melanie, and the Bar Buddies program taught me that mentor-mentee relationships create long-lasting opportunities for professional growth — a two-way relationship with responsibilities, privileges and benefits to both individuals.

Most lawyers will confess, if honest, that they forget most of the substantive law on the bar exam soon after taking it. So, when I heard of the opportunity to mentor someone preparing for the bar exam, I hesitated. I remembered the routine, the requisite focus and, above all, the loneliness of bar exam preparation, but little else. Because I remembered the intense feeling of isolation during those summer months, I decided that despite my ignorance of the rule of perpetuity or the fine points of felony murder, I might still be able to help someone.

I found a hopeful mentee in Melanie. She and I had similar experiences prior to law school and could talk about things other than just the bar exam. Melanie asked intelligent questions about preparing for the day, the substantive law and the various other little things one thinks about as he or she enters the profession. Her questions made me re-evaluate presumptions and assumptions I had made about the profession and my role in it.

As a law student, I had the opportunity to hear the legendary litigator David Boies speak. Someone asked him how he, a dyslexic lawyer who admittedly finds it difficult to sit and read for extended amounts of time, not only survived but thrived at a major "white-shoe" law firm, which seemingly required the exact skills that he claimed to find challenging. He responded not with tactics or strategies, but with a bit of philosophy. He reminded the attendees that they had come to law school for a reason. And, though that reason may change over time, they should always remember why they want to practice law. Having the chance to fulfill the goals those reasons represent is a privilege of the practice of law few people enjoy. It was this understanding that allowed him to overcome the demands he faced in this most demanding profession.

My mentorship relationship with Melanie forced me to ask similarly difficult questions. For, as she entered the profession, this overarching concern about her professional life lay beneath her honest, direct and intelligent queries about the bar exam. I know that I stumbled in answering them, if I did at all, but I think I generally told her, "You’re asking the right questions." As our relationship evolves, I have grown comfortable telling her that or prodding her to keep asking them. Bar Buddies gave us the space to develop a working vocabulary, which we still use, for thinking about and addressing such nebulous concepts. Those discussions help us remind ourselves of the reasons we now both practice law, a critical part of succeeding not just on an exam or in the practice of law, but in life.

Melanie’s Mentee Perspective

"I believe in you, Sekou."

"I believe in you, too, Melanie."

And we erupted into laughter at our silliness. This mantra punctuated a conversation I had with Sekou, my assigned Bar Buddies mentor for the 2011 bar exam. Those words, shared between us as I studied for and took the bar exam, reflect the tenor, substance and value of our mentoring relationship. When I was studying for the bar, I knew that Sekou believed in me and would be there to support me if and when I needed it. As a new associate in Philadelphia, I know that Sekou will continue believing in me, and he will make himself available for mentoring and support if I need it.

Having the support of a mentor as I studied for the bar exam helped mentally prepare me to take the exam. Sekou boosted my confidence in times of stress and self-doubt. That summer, we met a couple of times for coffee or lunch. He would ask about my study schedule and whether I was on track with the assignments given to me by my bar exam prep program. One particular time, he unintentionally and informally quizzed me on the First Amendment public forum doctrine. I saw holes in my understanding and made mental notes for review. During that same meeting, he asked whether I was still taking time "for myself." At the end of the meeting, among my takeaways were: (1) keep working hard to nurture and refine my understanding of the law and (2) don’t get so lost in the world of studying for the bar exam that I neglect my own needs.

Most vividly, I recall Sekou’s advice during the home stretch of studying. He shared with me the best advice that he received when studying for the bar exam: "You don’t have to take the bar; you get to take the bar." This phrase reminded me of the importance of the act of simply sitting for the bar exam. Sekou meant it as a way to honor my accomplishments up to that point and to remind me of the power of optimism and confidence. I was confident when taking the bar exam, in part, because of the belief in me from those in my support system, which included Sekou. I got to take the bar exam.

I passed.

Sekou will tell you that he had little to do with my passing the bar. I disagree. He once told me that "there’s something like a 20 percent improvement on your score based solely on being positive and confident before taking a standardized test. So, stay positive and good luck." He helped me stay positive.

This is the value of the mentoring relationship I had with Sekou and the value of mentoring generally. It would have been easy for me to disregard or discount Sekou’s support. I could have even eschewed the opportunity to interact with him by simply saying, "I got this," and moving on with my studying. I would have missed, however, an opportunity to have Sekou in my corner. The practice of law is challenging. The nature of the law itself is a management of relationships and interactions in society. You are not meant to be in this alone. I encourage any third-year law student to participate in the Barristers’ Association’s Bar Buddies program. I also encourage attorneys to reach out to and mentor newer members of the bar. Your support makes a difference.

Your Role

This year, the Barristers’ Association plans to see the program grow and continue to aid law school graduates in diversifying the legal profession as admitted attorneys standing on the shoulders of the late Clifford Scott Green, Peter J. Liacouras, Paul A. Dandridge, Ricardo C. Jackson, W. Bourne Ruthrauff and their counsel, professor Robert Reinstein. To do that, the program needs participants, both mentors and mentees. The Barristers’ Association does not preclude any student or mentor, regardless of ethnicity, from participating in the program. For those interested in becoming a Bar Buddy, email the Barristers’ Association at phillybarristers@gmail.com. •

Sekou Campbell is a third-year associate in the Philadelphia office of Fox Rothschild, where he represents clients in a wide range of commercial litigation matters, including entertainment, products liability and white-collar compliance and defense. He serves as treasurer for the Barristers’ Association of Philadelphia, and he frequently contributes to his firm’s Sports Law Scoreboard blog.

Melanie Carter
concentrates her practice in litigation matters at Blank Rome. She began her legal career as a federal law clerk to U.S. District Court Judge Joel H. Slomsky of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.