Why Women Lawyers Need Sponsors, Not Just Mentors

Mentoring in the legal profession is not new. For women lawyers, in particular, mentors can be invaluable sources of guidance on everything from the nuts and bolts of the practice to work/life balance strategies. Many firms have formal mentoring programs for associates, pairing them with a partner or senior associate who can help them develop their skills as lawyers. Every young lawyer should seek out and develop a positive relationship with a mentor (and pay it forward to the next generation by becoming a mentor in the years ahead).

But as you look up at the law firm ladder, a mentor can only take you so far. Mentors are focused on your development, not your advancement. To truly make your way up that ladder to the partnership rung, you need more than a mentor. You need an advocate. You need an ally. You need a champion who can promote you and your talents at the partnership or management level. You need a sponsor.

What is a Sponsor?

It is no secret that in the legal profession and in the business world, the advancement of women through the ranks seems to hit a brick wall/glass ceiling/iron curtain when it comes to senior leadership and management positions. The Harvard Business Review issued a research report in 2010 titled “The Sponsor Effect: Breaking Through the Last Glass Ceiling.” That report defines a sponsor as “someone who uses chips on his or her protégé’s behalf and advocates for his or her next promotion” as well as doing at least two of the following:

  • expanding the perception of what the protégé can do
  • making connections to senior leaders
  • promoting his or her visibility
  • opening up career opportunities
  • offering advice on appearance and executive presence
  • making connections outside the company
  • giving career advice

The report summarized the distinction between mentors and sponsors this way: “Mentors proffer friendly advice. Sponsors pull you up to the next level.”

Why You Need a Sponsor

You are a great lawyer. You know it. Your clients know it. Your mom knows it (biased as she may be). But if you’re looking to make partner at your firm, especially in BigLaw, none of that matters if the people who make the partnership decisions don’t know it.

While subtle and targeted self-promotion on your part may increase awareness of your awesomeness among some of the key partners at your firm, you won’t be in the conference room where the partners are meeting to decide who will join their ranks. You won’t be at the lunches or events where those partners may casually chat about you or other associates.

A sponsor is your person on the inside. Someone on your side who will not just vote in your favor, but will also make the affirmative effort to convince their partners to do the same. Your sponsor can also offer you guidance on the career decisions and strategic choices that can help your cause. With a strong sponsor in your corner, you can soon join them in that partnership meeting.

How to Get a Sponsor

The best sponsors, just like mentors, are not those partners who have been assigned, but those who volunteered. If the person, no matter how influential, is not interested in taking on a protégé and doing what’s needed to “pull [her]up to the next level,” the arrangement won’t work. The best sponsor/protégé dynamic is born from a real interest and a desire to help.

So how do you find a willing sponsor? By developing a quality relationship with that person first. So if you are an associate or junior partner, identify several key partners within your firm (and not just your office). Then, start looking for opportunities to connect with them—maybe it’s by getting to work with them on a matter, or by getting involved in a volunteer organization they are a part of, or supporting them in, their firm initiative efforts. The bottom line is this—before someone decides to take you on as a protégé (meaning be willing to put their reputation on the line for you), they need to know, like you, and trust you!

And if you are in a professional development role at the firm, then be sure to encourage your women lawyers to expand their connections within the firm and deepen their relationships with key stakeholders. On the flip side, speak to your partners and influencers and encourage them to take a professional interest in your junior lawyers. Development of future talent at your firm, which is a must if the firm wants to remain competitive in this complex business landscape, is a team sport—everyone must get involved in order to attract and retain the most talented lawyers.

By pairing high-potential women lawyers with influential partners who serve not only as advisors but also as career advocates, sponsorship takes the idea of career development to a higher level.

About the Author

Yuliya LaRoe is a coach for lawyers and law firms, a former practicing attorney, and co-founder of 20/20 Leadership Group, an international coaching and training firm. Yuliya can be reached at ylaroe@2020lead.com.

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