« Better Call Saul and "stealing" clients | Main | How Do I Make Sense of Online Law Reviews? (Jr. Law Prawfs FAQ) »

Thursday, April 07, 2016

A Taxonomy of Legal Mentorship

Professor Andy Taslitz was a great law professor and an even better person.  After he passed away in 2014, Howard Law School held a wonderful tribute and Symposium to his work and memory.  I gave a short presentation that discussed what I called the “Taxonomy of Legal Mentorship.”  I spoke in the context of honoring Andy as teaching me the value of legal mentorship.  Below I share the broader taxonomy for your thoughts. 

The first question for any taxonomy of mentorship is to define our terms.  Borrowing from the work of Professor Emily Sherwin in her article “Legal Taxonomy,” we could choose to use: (1) a formal taxonomy (a study of rules and logical connections), or (2) a functional taxonomy (a study of social roles), or (3) or a reason-based taxonomy (a study of justifications).  A function-based taxonomy fits best as it classifies things according to their social function or the role they play in society.  Here our society is law professors.  And the function of mentor is to support the professional and scholarly endeavors of other faculty.

So, my quick and dirty taxonomy of types of mentors in the legal academy goes like this:

  1. Friend Mentor – The friend mentor is your former law school classmate (or equivalent) and now a slightly more experienced law professor – who you send that first draft of any article to in order to make sure you are not a complete idiot before sending the article out to others you actually need to impress. They also can help guide you through the daily stress of that first class prep, that angsting first submissions cycle, or that first dramatic student issue. 
  1. Colleague Mentor – The colleague mentor is a professor in your law school with the responsibility to act as a mentor. The mentor can be formally assigned or simply someone you trust.  But, they are the person to whom you go inquire about how the promotion and tenure committee would view your explosive new research into “low productivity rates of senior faculty.” 
  1. Conference Mentor – The conference mentor is the person you buttonhole every AALS Meeting for profound career advice at the bar or coffee station (when you are both skipping the substantive meetings). Conference mentors provide valuable, if episodic feedback on your career and scholarship from someone who probably cares only at the superficial level about your ultimate success. 
  1. Scholarly Mentor – Scholarly mentors are people who write in your area of interest who you send every article to in the hopes that your article will be improved. They are probably the most important type of mentor.  They can be within a school (if you are lucky) or in another school.  If they say the article passes muster (or say something to the effect of “I don't think this idea is any worse than anything the rest of us have come up with….”), it goes out.
  1. Email Mentor – The email mentor is a new phenomenon. Many of us have realized that one can simply email people out of the blue with an article, or question, and that law professors have the time and inclination to occasionally respond.  You can even do this with the biggest name in law (at least those who have email).  Email mentors are helpful for substance, career advice, and many times more honest than your colleagues. 
  1. Life Mentor – Life mentors are people who you go to not about teaching, scholarship, or service, but about the all-consuming effect of teaching, scholarship, or service on your life. They provide balance and reassurance, if not the answers.  They are the ones who can explain why you feel stressed even though you only teach two classes a week, and have to write at most two articles a year (with summers off).  
  1. Identity Mentor – Identity mentors are life mentors and scholarly mentors who because of a shared self-identity make the advice that much more convincing.
  1. Teaching Mentor – Teaching mentors are those who because of the charisma, intelligence, or intense preparation thrill a class like you only wish you could. They provide assistance by modeling good teaching, engagement with students, and passion for the subject.    
  1. Hero Mentor – The hero mentor is a professor whose combines scholarship, teaching, and advocacy in a way that you admire. If you are lucky you can latch on to one and learn as much as you can before life tragically takes them from you.  Andy Taslitz was that hero mentor to me (and others).

So, what other types of law professor mentors would you add to this taxonomy?  What kind of mentor are you?  Do you hope to be?

Posted by Andrew Guthrie Ferguson on April 7, 2016 at 10:27 PM | Permalink


I'm not an academic, but I'd add Adjunct or Experiential Mentor. One that took an interest in you, even though they had little reward for their efforts, monetarily or professionally. They worked hard to make sure the students that were interested in academia headed in the right direction. Then they returned their daily efforts. That is a lot of dedication to academia.

I would agree about the email mentor. Just write to someone. You never know who will answer, or for what reason, but once in a while, they will. And they might make a tremendous difference in your scholarship.

Posted by: Marcos Antonio Mendoza | Apr 9, 2016 1:06:25 AM

Andrew - I would add "In the Trenches Mentor." This is someone with whom you started your career, and who is on roughly the same trajectory as you are. This can be people in your area who you were on the market with and subsequently began your academic careers at the same time, or someone at your home institution who was hired at the same time you were. I consider you an "In the Trenches Mentor" of mine, since we started teaching at UDC at the same time and were in the foxhole together as new junior faculty members for several years.

Posted by: Kristina Campbell | Apr 8, 2016 9:54:37 AM

Andrew I just wanted to compliment you on raising this issue and this very helpful taxonomy. I will just add that there are some interesting questions about how we select mentors, who selects us as mentees, as well as more systemic questions about the role of gender and race in mentoring.

Posted by: I. Glenn Cohen | Apr 7, 2016 11:32:03 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.