Of Role Models and Mentors


by Edwina Klemm

When I think about my professional life, about how and where I started and where I am today, I think of the people who helped me along the way, my role models, my mentors, my guides. There are many of them, some of whom I never met, who simply remained friendly voices at the end of a telephone line, some who came and went after a short time, and others whom I am proud to continue to count among my friends.

Mentors and Role Models
My first role model was the instructor for the training course I took just out of high school. Although I can still see her face and hear her quiet voice, I remember only that her first name was Gloria. She was patient and thorough in her explanations. She didn't play up the "glamor" of the career, so we knew we would be expected to work hard. She taught us about realistic expectation.

My first mentor was Carole LeVan, who worked down the hall from my first office in Alaska. A consummate professional, Carol was totally dedicated to her work, unconditionally loyal to her employer. She explained the intricacies of the Alaskan way of practicing law, the local court rules, who we really needed to know, who got things done (this helps when old-time Alaskans live by the creed, "We don't [care] how they do it Outside.").

My employer at that time was Jim Merbs, an attorney-philosopher who loved to chew on crooked little cigars. He taught me why we did something one way and not another and what we needed to include. He instilled in me a desire to know who, what, when, where, how, and why. I hope you have an employer like Jim Merbs somewhere in your career. Long after I moved on to other things, Nancy Struempler, another of his secretaries, and I got together with him on his birthday every year. We took him to lunch, but he always picked up the check.

I learned much from each of my employers, whether a sole practitioner's office, a branch of a large firm headquartered in another state, or a local firm. Learning to deal with personalities and practices ("this is the way we've always done it") teaches flexibility.

I learned much more from secretaries with whom I came in contact and through membership in professional associations. This is the true benefit of networking. If I had a question, I could always find someone who could help me. What a valuable tool to have, and it cost me so little.

I had other role models along the way, each of whom added another layer to my personal or professional development. Some were examples of how to act or what to aspire to, while others were examples of how not to act, what not to be. I've tried to take the best and leave the rest, as the saying goes, because I believe all our experiences, good or bad, make us what we are. I'm always looking for another role model or mentor. You probably are, too.

Changing Places
I'm not quite sure how or even when it happened, but one day I received a call from a legal secretary I had never met. Someone had told her I would be able to help her with a question. Others followed. Along the way, I've helped myself as well, because if I didn't have the answer, I found it, so my knowledge continued to grow.
I was once told that in our lifetime we are lucky if, at any given moment, we have enough true friends-those who would take you in if you lost it all, those who would help you without question-to count on one hand. I am blessed to have had more than that in my life, many made through membership in professional associations. My life has been enriched by my friends.

Lou Stiles, a true friend of long standing, and I began formal mentor groups within our local association, working with members who exhibited leadership capabilities. We tried to provide the background and information they might need to assume leadership roles. This was also an opportunity for our continued growth. I've learned that true believers constantly seek new knowledge. Lou, a true believer, was constantly learning new things, and I doubt that she's changed that habit now that she's been fortunately enough to retire from the rigors of the legal secretarial career.

Become a Mentor
As you reflect on the path that led you where you are today, consider your own mentors. These people stand out in your memory for their willingness to help others grow professionally and personally. You can make your place in someone's memories. Someone needs your time and expertise to help them grow. The time is now. Want to be "really great"? Become a mentor.

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"Keep away from people who belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great."-Mark Twain


Edwina Klemm, PLS, is a charter member of Legal Secretaries International Inc. and is presently serving as President. She has attained certification as a Professional Legal Secretary and is the author of our Legal Secretary’s Creed. Edwina is also currently serving as president of Legal Secretaries of Texas and has held numerous positions, including president, of other professional associations.  She regularly serves as a seminar instructor and frequently contributes articles for In Brief.