My name is Bernadette Catalana and I am of counsel to Lavin, O’Neil, Cedrone & DiSipio, a firm based in Philadelphia.  I work out of the Rochester and New York City offices. I have a practice which focuses largely on strategy, team coordination and settlement negotiations in the mass tort space. I also have devoted a great deal of time to mentoring young lawyers. Kelly Odorisi and I wrote a CLE program, Candid Talk Women, to encourage women to “opt-in” to the practice of law.

Bernadette Catalana speaks:

Thanks to Sheryl Sandberg and her bestselling book Lean In, it seems like everyone has embraced mentoring. Mentors are particularly important in the legal profession. Kelly and I have talked about this repeatedly and conclude it is because practicing law isn’t easy. It is impossible to know it all. And at first it seems impossible to know anything for sure. But you can always consult others who have been down the road before you. Because we talk about legal mentoring in our CLE program, Candid Talk Women, we are often asked: “How do I find a mentor?”  Based on our experiences (as both mentors and mentees), they usually happen organically, i.e., by virtue of circumstances.

My first mentee was a student I met at my nephew’s college basketball game. He didn’t know I was an attorney. We were making small talk between quarters when he disclosed he was considering law school. I, of course, started cross-examining him: Have you worked in a law office? Have you taken any law courses? Do you know any lawyers? I then gave him my card and a time to come to my office, insisting that he should work for a lawyer before he invested time and money in a legal career.  He appeared at the appointed hour and the rest is history. Even after he left my employ to start law school, we stayed in close touch. I was at his law school graduation and helped him get his first job.  He now runs a successful law practice and has made a commitment to “pay it forward” by mentoring others.

I did not have the “door to door” mentoring described above, but definitely benefitted from a series of legal role models.  Counsel for co-defendants in the asbestos litigation coached me on deposition breaks when I was just starting out. One would always end her pep talks with “and don’t let anyone intimidate you.” The defense liaison, who was lead at most depositions, never seemed intimidated.  A particularly vivid memory involves her deftly handling a cantankerous witness. The more he got upset at her questions, the more measured her voice became.  Ultimately, he could not contain his anger and lunged across the table, his hands inches from her face.  I jumped to my feet (as did most everyone in the room). She, however, remained seated, telling the court reporter in a steady voice, “let the record reflect that the witness has left his seat and his fists are approximately 2 inches from my mouth.” Her presence of mind was remarkable. Whenever things get unusually tense with the opposition, I find myself trying to channel her.

Most notable is a lawyer I met in my 15th year of practice – when he was in his 57th!  From the moment I moved to the suite next door, Irving would pop by and ask me whether I had run into this issue or that. I soon realized he was one of the best lawyers I had ever encountered.  And not because he was the oldest or knew the most; but because he was the most enthusiastic (measured by the number of questions he posed)!  About a year into our association, Irving argued a sophisticated appeal to the Second Circuit.  For weeks, he practiced his argument in front of any lawyer on our floor who would listen. What impressed me most was that, despite his vast experience in oral argument and the subject matter, he prepared like a rookie. The lawyer who accompanied him to New York texted me when it was over, indicating “Irving hit it out of the park!”  I was not surprised.  In addition to winning the appeal, he was featured in a headline New York Post article about the case.  He died not long after that, collapsing on his way to court. I think of him often; especially when I am feeling uninspired about our profession.