Meeting Their Match

USF’s Alumni Mentor Program builds connections and launches law students’ careers

Posted Mon, 10/29/2018 - 13:22

By Samantha Bronson

To an experienced attorney, the request likely would have seemed fairly easy: Work the room at a networking event and introduce yourself to six attorneys, get their business cards, and follow up with personalized emails and, if possible, informal coffee meetings.

But for the naturally shy Jordan Kelley 2L, that request — by her mentor Katie Burke ’02 — required a big step outside her comfort zone. Still, Kelley followed Burke’s advice and landed a summer internship because of it. Kelley interned with the San Francisco Superior Court after someone she met at a courthouse meeting of family law attorneys asked if she might be interested in a family court clerkship position.

“If it weren’t for Katie pushing me to get myself out there, I probably wouldn’t have had that internship,” Kelley said. “It’s been a great experience working with Katie. She really holds me accountable. I got so much more out of my first year because of that relationship. This mentorship has made me feel much more part of the USF network.” 

I get a lot of satisfaction seeing where students end up and where their paths take them. For me, [mentoring] reminds me of when I was in law school and what I was going through."

– Thomas Onda ’90

The pair are part of the USF School of Law’s growing Alumni Mentor Program, which builds professional connections between USF law students and the School of Law’s accomplished network of alumni.  

“The program offers alumni a way to give back to the next generation of USF lawyers and stay closely connected with the law school, while students get a jump start on building their professional networks and engaging with the legal community,” said Keya Koul, interim director of career services and alumni relations.

Mentor with student on street

Since its inception two years ago, participation has doubled and last academic year the program made 100 mentor matches. Open to all students, regardless of year, and all alumni, regardless of when they graduated, the program draws attorneys practicing in all areas of the law and matches them with students interested in exploring those areas of practice. Each mentee-mentor pair establishes their own preferred frequency and means of connecting; the program’s overall emphasis is on open communication about what works best for each particular match. 

For her part, Burke, a solo practitioner with Burke Family Law, views her time working with Kelley as a chance to use her experience to help an up-and-coming family law attorney. “She’s been very clear about her goals, so I’ve been very specific about things that would work to her advantage,” she said. That has included inviting Kelley to accompany her to meetings of family law attorneys and judges, always making sure to introduce her to the group as a whole and encouraging her to introduce herself individually. 

Kelley and Burke’s connection began with monthly one-on-one lunch dates and has extended to Burke inviting Kelley to business networking events. During their lunches, Burke encourages Kelley to set specific tasks for herself — whether that’s centered on maintaining good grades or reaching out to other family law attorneys — and checks in on her progress during each meeting. 

With this program, USF has provided students with one more tool to be successful in their law school and post law school careers."

– Christopher Viadro ’92, who recently mentored two USF law students

Burke has reviewed Kelley’s resume and cover letter and after each monthly lunch date, sends an email to Kelley recapping next steps. Such tasks, she said, take just a few extra minutes but can have a big impact on a law student.

“At a certain point, I feel like if you’ve had career success, you should be mentoring people who are interested in the same career path,” Burke said. “When the opportunity to be part of the Alumni Mentor Program came along, I knew right away that I wanted to participate.”

Thomas Onda ’90, chief counsel of global intellectual property, brands, and marketing for Levi Strauss & Co., is another member of the Alumni Mentor Program. The potential impact on students is huge, said Onda, especially when he compares it to the time he spends.

“I get a lot of satisfaction seeing where students end up and where their paths take them,” said Onda, who also serves on the USF School of Law Board of Governors and teaches as an adjunct professor. “For me, it reminds me of when I was in law school and what I was going through. It brings back sentimental memories of that time and knowing that maybe I’m having an impact on someone’s life. It’s really important for me to remember the person who gave me that first break. I would never be where I am if it weren’t for that person. I would love to be that person as a mentor because it meant so much to me when I was younger.”

Unlike Burke and Kelley, Onda and Chris Martinez 3L met face-to-face initially but have since connected mostly by email and phone because that’s what worked best with their schedules. Martinez said having an alumnus to check in with on questions about law school, next steps, or resumes has added considerably to the overall law school experience. Onda has provided Martinez with some specific recommendations, but just as important, Martinez said, has been the opportunity to listen to Onda talk about his own experiences.

Learning from successful alumni and their behind-the-scenes stories provides students with unique insight into how to approach their own law careers, said Martinez.

“You hear about all these great lawyers and it can be hard to learn how they did it,” he said. “He’s done it and he’s been successful, so it’s been great having the opportunity to listen to whatever he has to say and to learn from it.

“Tom’s really helped me shape my train of thought and think differently about how I was approaching my second year. I’m getting more focused on the area of law I want to practice, and he’s given me thoughts on how to go about doing that. He has helped me understand what I need to do to start showing more commitment and dedication to the IP field,” said Martinez, who is seeking ways to volunteer in the IP field during his third year as a way to show that dedication. He’s also thinking about in-house opportunities. “I always thought I would go to a law firm first but talking with him about working in-house has definitely inspired me to research in-house opportunities,” he said.  

It's a lesson, said Onda, not to underestimate the good that mentoring can do. “Students are very hungry for that kind of information and talking with real-life practitioners means a lot to them. Don’t feel like you can’t relate to the students or have nothing to offer, because you’ll be surprised. Even just taking the time to meet with them can have an impact.” 

Christopher Viadro ’92, partner at Butler Viadro, LLP, shares that sentiment with all alumni he interacts with. Viadro, who was involved in the genesis of the program and mentored two students last year, now regularly spreads the word and encourages nearly every law school alumnus he talks with to consider signing up as a mentor with the program. 

“One of USF’s strengths has always been the support and mentoring its alums so willingly provide to students and grads,” Viadro said, noting that the Alumni Mentor Program has helped harness and nurture that asset. “Students benefit from the ability to select from the wide array of alums to find the mentor that is best suited to each of them. With this program, USF has provided students with one more tool to be successful in their law school and post law school careers.”