Six years ago, Texas Law Dean Ward Farnsworth asked Rémi Ratliff, a Class of ’95 alumna with fourteen years of experience in the school’s career services office, to head up the new mentoring program he was going to establish. His charge to her, she recalls, was, “just make our mentoring program the best in the country.”
“I started by thinking, ‘what do I want to accomplish,’” says Ratliff, whose title became Director of Mentoring Programs at Texas Law. “I wanted students to feel supported, and that we are as invested in their success as they are.”
Relationships, any lawyer knows, are the true engines of a great legal career, and Texas Law has the perfect ingredients to foster long-lasting ones. Only a few decades ago, incoming classes could be as large as 600 students, more than twice the size of a typical cohort today. That means current students have a robust alumni network of more than 25,000 lawyers strong they can access, while benefiting from the intimacy of today’s smaller sections and classes and the chance to make meaningful connections with fellow students.
But to build on the asset of the large pool of alumni meant doing more than putting alumni names into a hat and making random matches. Farnsworth wanted to do things differently, which is why he created a full-time position devoted to helping law students make and maintain relationships—a role no other top law school has—and enlisted Ratliff for the gig.
Having been a law student herself, she thought of “all the questions you have that you don’t know how, or who, to ask.” Do I wear a suit to a barbecue at my prospective employer’s house? What do I order at a fancy lunch with my new firm? Ratliff knew that a meaningful connection for a student with a mentor they felt comfortable with could be a gamechanger for those soft skill stressors and pressures of Law School. She also knew that a computer was unlikely to make that sort of connection. Which is why for the past five years, every single one of the 300-plus matches she makes is handmade.
“I’ve learned something new every year,” says Ratliff, who has students and mentors fill out a lengthy survey that she then enters into a custom-built database. The database proposes matches, but Ratliff never takes that as gospel, and reads through each and every survey herself, along with the help of a 20-hour-per-week assistant. “I initially started out just taking in professional experiences and hometowns,” she says, “but then I started thinking about how hobbies and interests are what often bonds us as friends, and began including those on the survey, too.”
For mentoring pair Joe Sanders and John Zappia, those shared interests bonded them almost immediately. After meeting for the first time at a mentoring program reception, the two continued their conversation over drinks and dinner, where they chatted about everything from navigating the legal market to Texas football.
“I don’t know Rémi’s secret sauce,” says Sanders, a 2005 graduate and founding partner of the Austin firm Sanders Bajwa, “but whatever she figured out, I feel lucky to share such similar interests with John. It enables more opportunities for us to get outside of school or my practice and just talk.”
There’s so much pressure in law school, Ratliff explains, that if students were to pick their own mentors, almost all of them would gravitate toward partners in big law firms, even if that’s not where their interests lie. Ratliff thinks more broadly, focusing on all the other things a mentor can bring to the relationship outside of just career experience. “Every year, I learn more about the kinds of students who are good matches with different alums,” she explains. “If I meet a sweet, shy, young student who is lacking self-confidence, I have the world’s best mentor for her: someone I know will do an awesome job because she has had others like this. For a first-generation student who is maybe feeling overwhelmed, I have someone who is patient and kind, but also full of knowledge.”
For Zappia, who is extremely driven, Sanders has helped keep him grounded.
“I think the greatest thing I did in the relationship was to get John to chill out a little bit,” says Sanders. “He got me to rethink what it was like to be a student, and the anxieties you have. But once you’re out and look back, you realize ‘I really shouldn’t have been worried about that.’ When you’re in it, though, it’s tough and it’s competitive.”
Three years since initially hitting it off, Zappia says their relationship is a formative part of his law school experience, and one that has developed into a true friendship. It has been invaluable to have someone asking him the tough questions that go beyond immediate next steps: What do you want to do in 10 years? What do you want your life to be like? But Sanders has been there for smaller, lighter moments, too: to talk sports, to play golf—even to offer the occasional dating advice.
“I texted him recently asking for a great first date spot,” Zappia laughs. “He killed it!”
Over the years, Ratliff has realized it’s not only shared interests, or joyful moments, that can foster a deep connection between students and alumni. There are a lot of challenges that come up for students that have nothing to do with school—serious health struggles, financial burdens, losing parents. “Wouldn’t it be great if those students could have mentors who went through a similar challenge,” she thought “and came out on the other side?” So, she began taking into account family backgrounds and challenges, too.
For Michelle Muscara and Adrianne Waddell, that proved to be a perfect approach. Despite having different end goals—Muscara ultimately wants to practice in New York, while Waddell, a 2015 graduate, is an established lawyer in Texas—the two both came from single-parent households and have what Waddell describes as “a similar drive.”
“I’m a first-generation lawyer,” explains Muscara, who is set to graduate this spring. “I didn’t know what I was doing, I don’t come from money, and Adrianne was there for me every step of the way. Life coaching is the best way to describe it.”
For Waddell, mentoring has been a way to help give back and spread word about what she wishes she would have known. “When I came to law school, I didn’t know what a law journal was,” she laughs. “The stuff I learned as I went are things that people who come from families of lawyers might inherently know but other people don’t. It made me so happy to be able to answer her questions.”
It obviously made Muscara happy, too, because she’s nominated Waddell to be Mentor of the Year for three years in a row.
The annual Mentor of the Year award celebrates some of the programs most impactful mentors. Year after year, the nominations that pour in from students are a testament to the success of the program. “Of everyone I have met since coming to Texas Law,” wrote one mentee of his mentor, “he is the one person I trust the most. I seek his advice on everything I do.” Another nominator put it this way about her mentor: “We were soul matches, and she will be a lifelong friend!”
The 2020 Mentor of the Year is Cynthia Akatugba ’13, an Assistant Attorney General with the General Litigation Division of the Texas Attorney General’s office. Ms. Akatugba was nominated by her mentee, Anais Stevens ’22. “(Cynthia) holds me accountable but still gives me grace, which is exactly what the world needs right now,” wrote Stevens in her nomination letter. “She held my hand and pushed me at the same time. The energy she had for me caused me to shake the fatigue I had (from the strain of the first year of law school).”
For Ratliff, those testimonials and the many dozens more like them solidify for her why she does what she does. “People who are the happiest, most successful lawyers have the strongest relationships,” she says. “It’s good for your career, for your mental health, for your happiness—that’s what we hope people learn through the mentoring program. At the end of the day, if a student tells me they truly feel that someone outside of the law school walls has their back, that’s a win.”
And what about Dean Farnsworth? Did he get his wish, to have the best alumni mentoring program in the country? “Absolutely,” he says. “Rémi has made this program a distinctive and enviable feature of our school. The proof is in the professional and personal success of our students who’ve had an alumni mentor. It’s wonderful.”