This op-ed was authored by Nastaran Roushan, Canadian Immigration Lawyer.
Mentorship is an honoured tradition among lawyers. It is also a malleable tradition as it has become a method for junior members to obtain wide-ranging advice from senior members of the bar. This advice may include substantive legal questions, professionalism and ethical quandaries, or recommendations on business and personal growth. Despite its malleability, mentorship is at its core an unselfish and altruistic relationship for the mentor. It is not dependent on an economic relationship. It is not limited to employer-employee relationships. It is not an ulterior method of gaining recognition or respect among one’s colleagues.
My Mentorship Experience within the Immigration and Refugee Bar
When I began my practice in immigration and refugee law, I spent almost a year without a mentor. Having transitioned from a completely different area of the law (civil litigation), I did not have pre-existing relationships with other immigration and refugee lawyers. Nor could I find resources to assist in my obtaining a mentor. This was a dangerous problem, particularly with immigration law. Unlike many other areas of law where lawyers can refer to statutes and regulations to determine practices and procedures, immigration law is often a black box. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) and the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) are not transparent with their practices and procedures. Furthermore, different IRCC offices and CBSA ports of entry are inconsistent in their processing and application of the law. As a result, knowledge is overwhelmingly gained by experience.
After a year of solitude wherein I primarily relied on listservs, I began actively seeking out mentors on my own initiative and unabashedly attaching myself to senior, kindred spirits. Eventually, I was fortunate to develop relationships with phenomenal immigration lawyers who are now my mentors. My mentors answer frantic calls or emails when I begin doubting myself in respect of a procedural issue or my legal analysis. They spend hours over the course of months and years encouraging me and providing much-needed guidance. They provide referrals without a referral fee because they know that I am a conscientious lawyer, and they want to see me grow professionally. In a word, they have become indispensable to my practice.
Mentorship Options for CILA
I share my experiences because I hope that more senior immigration lawyers will actively begin mentoring junior lawyers, regardless of whether the junior lawyer works in the same firm or is potentially competition in the longer term. This is an area where CILA can provide a leadership role in encouraging and/or requiring their senior members to formally participate in a mentorship program. Hopefully, instituting formal mentorship programs may result in more senior lawyers choosing to be mentors, irrespective of formal mentorship programs.
In addition to formal mentorship programs, I hope that listservs can begin to function more as a safe space for informal mentorship among members of the bar. Again, I relied heavily on listservs in my first year of practice. Yet, I was often embarrassed to pose questions. I feared judgement for my lack of knowledge, or the visceral reactions of some lawyers in demeaning me for the very lack of knowledge that I was trying to remedy by reaching out to my colleagues. Again, CILA has a fresh slate in this area and can proactively foster a collegial environment by taking action against members who belittle others for their questions.
CILA can also borrow ideas from other legal organizations that have demonstrated a commitment to mentorship. I am a member of The Advocate’s Society and have participated in their Speed Mentoring Dinners where approximately twenty senior members of the bar are split into smaller groups of two or three and rotate every twenty minutes among roughly ten tables of seven or eight junior members. The senior members share their experiences with the junior members and provide advice on a variety of issues. The discussions are candid and it is clear that most senior members have spent time reflecting on their experiences prior to attending the event.
I was able to obtain mentors who practise primarily refugee law much quicker than mentors who practise primarily immigration law. The reason is that one of the steps that I undertook after my first year of practising refugee and immigration law was to join the executive of the Refugee Lawyers Association (RLA). This was an invaluable experience that connected me to other lawyers (both within and outside of the executive) with whom I continue to develop professional and personal relationships. However, it is important to emphasize that I joined the RLA because I felt that the organization was open to someone like me – someone without a reputation within the bar, or much experience in the area. CILA can also develop an environment of openness within the immigration bar by creating a position or two within its executive committee specifically for junior member(s). The junior member(s) would have the mandate of organizing socials and educational programs for their junior colleagues, ensuring that other junior members are matched with mentors, and raising issues specific to junior members with the CILA executive.
Mentors do Benefit
This paper began by emphasizing that mentorship is altruistic at its core and that mentors should not enter into a mentorship relationship for non-altruistic reasons. But that is not to say that mentorship has zero (or negative) consequences for the mentor. We can all learn from each other, regardless of the strength of our experiences. By interacting with their mentees, mentors often obtain fresh perspectives on the practice of the law and can be challenged by questions that undermine traditionally accepted knowledge and procedure. Mentors also widen their professional circle by engaging with new members who – with time – will have a larger network from which the mentor can also benefit.
CILA is a new organization. It can choose to act within an aspect of the immigration bar that needs more resources and attention. It can choose to attract and engage with its junior members, providing them with opportunities so that we can all raise the bar and ensure that immigration lawyers with different levels of experience are consistently viewed as reputable, knowledgeable, and indispensable within the opaque system created by IRCC and CBSA.
Editorial Note: CILA will be developing a mentor program in 2022 and further input from members will be sought.