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The value of mentorship
USC Gould School of Law

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Jean Murrell Adams (JD 1986) and her mentee Tara Doss (JD 2003) share a passion for helping others to succeed

By Christina Schweighofer
 
Jean Murrell Adams JD 1986
Jean Murrell Adams (JD 1986)
When Jean Murrell Adams (JD 1986) decided to hire Tara Doss (JD 2003), she understood the risk involved. Her niche law firm, Adams ESQ, was barely one year old, and Doss had only just graduated from law school. “I knew that Tara was smart because she went to USC,” Adams said, “but I saw it as a big responsibility to train, mentor and mold this young attorney into the kind of attorney that I was still aspiring to be.”
 
Fast forward to now, and the mentor-mentee alums share a passion for their field of law, which is special education, and for helping other lawyers and especially women of color to succeed. Doss, who serves as an administrative law judge in Los Angeles, says, “My experience with Jean and the support that she gave me put a bug in my ear: the importance of mentoring others.”
 
Tara Doss JD 2003
Tara Doss (JD 2003) 
Doss’ path to Adams ESQ, though short, was anything but linear. Drawn to public interest law even as a student, she interviewed with various nonprofit organizations but soon felt frustrated. “The pay was so low,” she said. “It was $20,000 or $30,000 a year. And I had student loans. How was I going to make a living?”
 
Enter Doss’ godfather, who struck up a conversation with Adams in a cafe in Los Angeles after noticing a stack of legal books on her table. Hearing about Adams’ new law firm, which represents low-income families of children with special needs, he mentioned Doss and her job hunt. Phone numbers were exchanged, Doss called Adams, and an interview was scheduled.
 
Adams recalls feeling so impressed by Doss’ poise and demeanor that she immediately wanted to add her to her team. Doss’ enthusiasm was just as big. The work she would be doing served the public interest, and Adams, who represents clients at no up-front cost, offered better pay than the nonprofit organizations Doss had previously considered. “It was a great opportunity to serve a population that is disadvantaged while making a livable wage,” Doss says, adding that working for a woman of color who is also a USC alum was a “double bonus.”
 
For Adams, who was head of litigation at DreamWorks before starting her own law firm, offering employees a livable salary is a priority. She bristles at the notion that public-interest work should be synonymous with lower pay. “We’re lawyers, and we have to understand our value, especially as women lawyers of color,” she says. “We can do good things for people and do well financially at the same time.”
 
Doss worked at Adams ESQ for almost two years before moving on to other law firms. She stayed in special education law, representing first school children and their families, and then school districts. The pivot grew out of a desire, she says, “to help not just one child but an entire classroom or district.” From there, becoming a judge in special education in 2017 felt like “a natural next step.”
 
Doss sees her work at Adams ESQ as foundational for her career. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for Jean giving a baby lawyer an opportunity and setting the tone,” she says. She recalls Adams’ mentoring style as a blend of skills training and encouragement to trust her own ability, combined with the assurance that Adams had her back.
 
A passionate mentor in her own right, Doss has been passing on what she learned through the Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles, the Black Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles, the USC mentorship program, the USC Gould mentor program and a newly established program for African American students at the law school. She remembers the anxiety she sometimes felt as a fresh attorney. “Being a young lawyer is hard,” she says, “and the first time you’re out there handling your own case by yourself is scary. But a good mentor gives you confidence.”
 
Adams’ advice for young lawyers in need of a guide relates directly to Doss’ service. She recommends finding affinity groups and people with shared interests, be it women lawyers, environmental lawyers, public service lawyers. “This allows for some structure around the mentorship,” she says.
 
Her own desire to help young attorneys on their journey grew out of her experience as a minority student who lacked access to mentors, and out of her early career. As she made her way from clerking for a judge to big law firms and finally to Sony and DreamWorks, she learned the importance of having a guide. “You need somebody to give you that memo: This is how you do it. This is what you avoid. This is how you write to be persuasive. And this is how you advocate for your client. We’re not born with that skill. Somebody teaches us.”

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