Cooley Law School reverse mentors give as well as receive in areas of expertise

– Legal News photo by Cynthia Price

Karen Rowlader, Assistant Director, Center for Ethics, Service, and Professionalism, far right, stands with some of Cooley’s reverse mentors: back row, left to right, Matthew Pickens, Michael Hanrahan, Clayton Wittman, Thomas Mysliwiec; front row, Sujai Pitale and Christine Welton.

By Cynthia Price
Legal News

Reverse mentoring is an idea whose time has come.

This is true primarily because there has been such an explosion of information that no one individual can stay on top of it all, but it also results from an expanding realization that those younger and less experienced nonetheless have a lot to contribute.

As the website puts it, “The key to success in reverse mentoring is the ability to create and maintain an attitude of openness to the experience and dissolve the barriers of status, power and position.”

The concept of reverse mentoring is simple: seasoned professionals, who are likely to be older and have more discipline-specific experience, establish a learning relationship with a fresh new employee or student who may have insight or expertise in areas such as technology or innovative management techniques.

Pioneered by CEO Jack Welch of General Electric in the late 1990s, reverse mentoring is gaining traction, garnering column inches in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Marketing Week.

Thomas M. Cooley Law School Grand Rapids campus Associate Dean Nelson Miller saw in this an opportunity to help local attorneys “bring greater value to clients in more efficient and effective ways” as well as showcase the talent and expertise of a diverse group of students.

And a fascinating group it is.

All of them attended the Grand Rapids Bar Association Law Day luncheon where Miller introduced the idea. Many of them are non-traditional students who had engaged in another career, but for a variety of reasons later chose to pursue the law. Some of them specialized in their areas of expertise at the undergraduate level or had part-time jobs while attending college. All of them have given service at Cooley and in the community above and beyond the call of duty. All of them love West Michigan and most would like to stay.

As for their individual stories:

—Zaneta Adams shared her expertise in working on veterans affairs, which is the career path she would like to pursue. Herself a disabled veteran who served in the Iraqi Freedom War — at one time she was told she would be wheelchair-bound for the rest of her life but was “definitely blessed” to regain her ability to walk about a year ago — Adams has already directly assisted an attorney in Muskegon with a veterans benefit appeal case.

She serves on a Congressional work group where, she says, “I review scientific proposals for new and innovative devices and medical procedures, because it may help wounded veterans.”

The beauty of the reverse mentoring concept is that it benefits both parties, as several of the Cooley reverse mentors acknowledged. Adams is the president of Cooley’s Black Law Student Association and as a result of networking she did on Law Day, there may be an opportunity for the BLSA to work closely with the Floyd Skinner Bar.

—According to Scott Ayotte, who worked in international banking as a summer associate with the Royal Bank of Scotland and with Fifth Third, he has expertise in economics but his passion has become fostering inclusion and diversity in the business and professional world. “Law Day was a wonderful experience,” he says.

—Expertise in federal grant writing and contracting is just the beginning of the story for Harold Best, who volunteers with Cooley’s pro bono non-profit clinic. He feels that assisting companies with the “plethora of terms and conditions” inherent in writing and receiving grants is a perfect opportunity for attorneys, and is currently applying for funding to develop a “legal simulator,” along the lines of a video game which would simulate mock trials.

—Michael Hanrahan received his MBA before attending Cooley and has been involved with the non-profit clinic as well. He said his contact with the Grand Rapids legal community has really impressed him; he is unstinting in his praise for Dean Miller, who runs the non-profit clinic. “He’s just an amazing man, phenomenal,” Hanrahan says.

—For William Heckman, currently a patent agent with an advanced degree in engineering, learning to be a patent attorney expands his ability to help people, especially with getting patents — he himself has two. “Sure money’s important, but it’s not really the be all and end all,” he observes.

He too praises Cooley. “The instructors and everybody else are so unbelievably helpful,” he says. “They give you every advantage – they’re always there for you.”

—Thomas Mysliwiec is still employed in the field of application design, and is working with Cooley on some innovative mobile “apps.” He comments, “I would like to put my skills towards helping others know the law.”

—Sujai Pitale left a career as a stockbroker in Chicago when the market was crashing. “It was always stressful, but that was a really bad time.” He had a friend who attended Cooley who “had amazing things to say” about the school, with which he agrees. “Everyone here bends over backwards to help,” an observation which he says also seems to apply to the local legal community as a whole. He extends his expertise to an interest in helping clients with wealth management.

—Picking the brain of Matt Pickens, who worked for both an import-export company and a software developer might be in the interest of many a lawyer. His expertise is in e-marketing, which he highly recommends. “Dollar for dollar, it’s a great investment,” he notes, including social networking. However, he has since developed a passion for international law and, though he very much enjoys attending school in Grand Rapids, he believes he will probably have to pursue his governmental interests in DC or elsewhere.

—Desiree Shiffler says about her Law Day experience, “I enjoyed meeting some of the local attorneys and judges; it was great to hear them reminisce about their law school days and get their words of encouragement.”

Her expertise is in taxation and she adds, “I think we will see the IRS increase their compliance efforts in the next few years, and that means lots of new legal issues and lots of taxpayers needing advocates.”

—Shahzaib Shakeel was just about to become a border patrol agent, when his training fell through. He hopes to turn his criminal justice degree and background into a criminal defense practice.

—There is a sense in which the concept of reverse mentoring aligns itself perfectly with Christine Welton’s expertise. She refers to her degree in organizational management as a “soft MBA,” in that it focuses more on human resources and encouraging employees to reach their full potential. Welton feels that many companies can learn a lot in that area, since “if people don’t feel valued, they don’t feel committed and they won’t go the extra mile.” She intends to specialize in labor and employment law.

—The distinguished military career of Clayton Wittman, who retired as a Colonel in the Air Force, allows him some perspective on attorneys’ career-life balance. He would like to work fewer hours than younger people who are more driven. He says, “What I need is to get the legal experience to go with my life experience.”

Dean Miller observes, “One way that professionals and their organizations expand their knowledge and service base is to mine the talents of their newer members.  These students have experiences that many senior lawyers do not have; we can learn and benefit from them.”

Adds Professionalism Director Karen Rowlader, “In today’s work environment, collaboration is very important to success. We felt this program was a chance for students to share their expertise and for more seasoned attorneys to connect and

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