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Front Page - Friday, March 16, 2012

Chattanooga Bar Association launching mentoring program

David Kesler has been an attorney for nearly 40 years.  In that time, he’s developed good judgment in terms of how to deal with people both verbally and through the written word, learned to recognize ethical issues to which he was not sensitive as a new attorney, and acquired the ability to say “No” to a client who comes to him with a matter he’d be ill-advised to handle.

In other words, he’s spent the last four decades learning the things law school didn’t teach him.  And he wants to pass on his insight to the young attorneys in Chattanooga who are entering the profession.

“I serve on the Bar Association’s fee arbitration panel. We see the same issues crop up time and again in disputes.  Perhaps there was a lack of clear communication between an attorney and a client – maybe things were said but not reduced to writing, and while the lawyer thought he was clear, the client didn’t understand what took place.

“I hope a younger lawyer would see value in bouncing things off an experienced attorney, and in asking a mentor, ‘I’m having trouble with a client.  What am I missing?’” Kesler says.

Finding a seasoned attorney who’s open to occasional phone calls, emails and even visits to discuss the practice of law can be tricky, especially for solo practitioners who don’t have access to the networking a firm can provide.  To help establish those connections, the Chattanooga Bar Association this month will launch a mentoring program that will allow its younger members to tap into the collective wisdom of some of its elders.

Beginning March 19, a group of past presidents of the Bar will convene in Judge W. Neil Thomas’ jury room in the Hamilton County Courthouse from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on the third Monday of every other month for the purpose of talking with younger attorneys.  No appointment will be necessary, and, barring client confidentiality, there will be no restrictions on the topics of discussion.

“Scott Brown, Jr., is a past president.  I can’t imagine a young lawyer not wanting to pick Scott’s brain. We also have Judge Barry Steeleman, Judge Herschel Franks and others,” Kesler, also a past president, says.

Kesler says the discussions could lay the groundwork for a new attorney and a past president establishing a mentoring relationship.  “We’ll be there to offer help based on our knowledge and experience.  Once a younger lawyer sees the value in that, he or she might want to continue talking outside the context of the meeting.”

A member of Miller Martin’s labor and employment department, Kesler has counseled new attorneys through his firm’s mentoring program.  He’s currently the “go to” legal guru for Scott Simmons, a 28-year-old lawyer who also works at Miller Martin.  Simmons has attached great importance to their relationship.

“David has not only taught me the X’s and O’s of practicing law, but also taught me about upholding certain morals in the practice of law, which can be difficult at times. I’ve appreciated having someone who’s been around as long as David has taking the time to listen to my concerns,” Simmons says.

Kesler’s advice hasn’t been limited to legal matters; he’s also given Simmons direction on how to balance his work and home lives.  “I don’t want my priorities to get out of line, particularly since I have a young family, and it’s been nice to be able to talk with him about how he handled those things when he was my age.  Yes, we’re here to enjoy our jobs, but we’re also here to spend time with our families. David has been a good example of how to do that,” Simmons says.

Kesler has been a strong advocate of mentoring since his early days at Strang Fletcher, where he worked for 11 years under the tutelage of the late Albert L. Hodge.  “I still think fondly of Albert today.  He had a great empathy for younger lawyers.  He was always taking you under his wing,” Kesler says.

Kesler and the other past presidents of the Bar hope their association’s younger members will give them opportunity to do likewise.  “Needing help has nothing to do with being a bad lawyer; it has to do with not having the experience that would allow you to handle the issues an older and wiser head could discern,” he says.

For questions about the Bar’s mentoring program, contact Kesler at 785-8423 or dkesler@millermartin.com.