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Program designed to shed light on the realities of a legal career

Legal News Reporter

Published: December 14, 2012

It was created to give law students a candid picture of what it really means to practice law, and those who have been part of The University of Akron School of Law’s Lawyer to Law Student Mentor Program are giving it high marks for achieving this goal and many more.

“I think all law schools should have a program like this one available,” said Eric Sarmiento, who participated last year and is enrolled in The University of Akron School of Law and College of Business Administration.

The program was begun more than five years ago and is a joint effort between the law school’s Office of Career Planning and Placement and the Akron Bar Association’s Liaison Committee.

It pairs second-year law students at The University of Akron School of Law with attorneys working at firms, companies and other businesses.

“Students fill out applications during the fall that include information about what they hope to do, for example, whether they want to work in a particular practice area in a firm or whether they prefer to be in-house or in a prosecutor’s office perhaps,” said Barbara Weinzierl, director of career planning and placement at The University of Akron School of Law.

“We also ask if they have a geographical preference in an effort to pair them up with a mentor who will most closely meet their needs. We also look at the background of the mentors to see where they are from and where they attended school.”

The mentors are almost always members of the Akron Bar Association, and are often picked with the help of the chair of the Liaison Committee, who is currently Jon Stefanik.

“As chair of the committee, I oversee many of the initiatives involving the mentor/mentee program, including recruiting members and monitoring the program to make sure it is beneficial to both parties,” said Stefanik, who is an associate at Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs.

Stefanik has been a mentor three times, and is planning on doing so again this year.

“I am an adjunct professor in the Master of Taxation program at The University of Akron. I like teaching and the enthusiasm of students as they forecast their professional careers. I like being a resource in terms of giving them a better idea of the professional world.

“I have never directly contributed to securing a job for any of my mentees but the program isn’t intended to be a path to a job. Like any connection one makes, it could happen of course but the goal of the program is to expose students to life as a lawyer so to speak.”

Stefanik said there have been a few changes since the program began. For example, he said, in the beginning it targeted first-year students, but that was changed because “second-year students have a better idea of their goals, and get more out of it.”

It used to run from October to April but this year it takes place from mid-January to mid-April.

“We made the change because we found that the participants would lose momentum during the holiday break,” Stefanik said.

In addition, beginning with the 2011-2012 program mentees have been required to attend a one-hour training session.

“During the training session assistant director Alisa Benedict O’Brien and myself talk to the students about what they can expect,” said Weinzierl. “In addition, the attorney mentors and some third-year students also speak about how to get the most out of the program.

“We also spend a good amount of time talking about professionalism and communication.”

The student application deadline was November 20, and for the next few weeks Weinzierl will work with Stefanik to come up with the matches, which will be announced in mid-December. A ‘Meet Your Mentor’ reception will be held on Thursday, January 17 from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at the Akron Bar Association.

“We do have a suggested pool of activities for the students and their mentors to participate in,” said Weinzierl. “Some of those include touring the mentor’s office, going to court, attending client meetings, and talking about time and stress management.”

Last year 65 students and 40 mentors took part. Some mentors took on multiple students but the goal is to have one mentor per student.

F. Daniel Balmert, managing partner of the Akron office at Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease, has been a mentor for several years, taking on multiple students some years.

“We discuss 8 or 9 areas of interest, and I try and help make the experience the students have in the classroom and in clinical programs more real,” Balmert said. “I think it is a very positive program for both the mentees and mentors.

“As a mentor I have found that it helps me recharge my batteries. As someone who has been practicing since 1976, it is great to interact with these students, whose enthusiasm and questions actually renew my intellectual curiosity,” Balmert said.

Last year Balmert was paired up with Eric Sarmiento.

“We met about once a month. I wanted to get an outside perspective of the legal field,” said Sarmiento. “I know a lot of my professors have experience, but being able to get ‘face time’ with a partner who could talk about his experiences, and what he does on a daily basis really gave me an idea of what lies ahead.”

Sarmiento said he especially liked the focus on work-life balance, and the importance of learning to prioritize. “I have been able to put this advice to work for me while still in law school,” said Sarmiento.

“It also helped me to dispel some of the stigma associated with the practice of law. I was under the impression that to make it you had to be cut throat or conniving but Mr. Balmert is one of the most genuine and nice people that I’ve ever met and he has the best reputation in his field, which was nice to see.”

Sarmiento, who is going for a combination J.D./M.B.A. degree, is scheduled to graduate in May. He has already accepted a job at the Cleveland business, litigation and estate planning firm Cavitch Familo & Durkin.

“I thought I wanted to be part of a big firm environment but I was not sure until I went to Mr. Balmert’s office. I liked the atmosphere there. I was introduced to a lot of attorneys and even went to lunch with one young associate, which gave me a younger lawyer’s perspective,” said Sarmiento.

As for Balmert, he said he would continue to participate. “I have nothing but praise for the program. I think the law school does a great job of identifying the students who are truly interested and can benefit the most.”