It is often said that nobody makes it on their own. Perhaps nowhere is that statement more true than in the legal profession. In the previous post “Best Practices for Minority Biglaw Associates,” we touched on the importance of building meaningful relationships with mentors and sponsors. In this piece, we will take a deeper dive into this subject.
Mentor vs. Sponsor
In my mind, there are two sources of advice and guidance within law firms that are critical to helping you successfully navigate Biglaw: mentors and sponsors. While both are essential to your development and career advancement, there are significant distinctions between mentors and sponsors that dictate how you should approach, build, and maintain these different relationships.
A mentor is somebody senior to you who you can confide in. As minority attorneys in Biglaw, many of us are the first in our families to graduate from law school, let alone practice law in an environment as demanding as Biglaw. Thus, it is that much more important that we seek out those who can help us navigate the Biglaw environment.
Ideally, a mentor is somebody who has already walked the path that you’re about to travel and who is willing to share, in great detail, how you can sidestep common obstacles that they themselves experienced along that same path. The more honest and open the communication, the more likely the mentor-mentee relationship is to be successful, which means you will need the freedom to be completely transparent—and even vulnerable—with your mentors (a critical difference from your sponsor relationships, as we’ll discuss below). In my experience, the most successful mentor-mentee relationships are often established by proactively seeking out fellow minority attorneys who come from similar backgrounds. These potential mentors tend to be particularly motivated to invest in you because they can see themselves in you and want you to succeed as they have.
[A] mentor is somebody who has already walked the path that you’re about to travel and who is willing to share, in great detail, how you can sidestep common obstacles…
When seeking mentors, keep in mind that mentors essentially act as guides, meaning that they can show you how to get from where you are to where they are, but not much further. Stated differently, a third-year associate mentor can tell a first-year associate how to successfully jump over the hurdles between first year and third year, but that’s as far as the third-year associate’s experiences go. That’s why it is important to keep two sets of mentors: (i) associates who are a few years ahead of you; and (ii) senior lawyers (e.g., senior associates or partners) who are at least a decade ahead of you. Try to have multiple mentors within each cohort, and constantly check in with both cohorts for guidance on your short-term and long-term career goals. Think of your mentors as your own personal board of directors; you want as many voices as possible to weigh in and help you navigate the rigors of Biglaw.
Although it is possible for a single person to simultaneously serve as both your mentor and sponsor, these are typically two separate and distinct types of individuals. As we discussed, mentors can be slightly older confidants who provide a safe space within which to guide you along your career path. Sponsors, by contrast, are exclusively senior attorneys who are cloaked with a significant level of authority that allows them to call the shots in places where you do not currently have access. In a word, a sponsor is an advocate. They lend their voice in a room full of decision-makers to advocate for you to receive a new opportunity and, by virtue of their status, they can actually influence others to make the opportunity happen. The latter part of this definition is key.
Whereas a mentor could be somebody like a senior associate from your practice group, a sponsor is going to be somebody more along the lines of the head of the group or the managing partner at your firm. While a senior associate may be able to tell you how to become a successful senior associate, they do not, for example, have the ability to make you into a partner. A sponsor, on the other hand, has the ability to open doors and provide concrete opportunities and will do so on your behalf—but only if they know you are somebody worthy of investment.
Unlike a mentor, a sponsor is not someone to whom you would typically confide your day-to-day highs and lows. Not only is their time likely to be severely limited (by virtue of their senior status), but it’s also important that your sponsors always see you in your best light, which is why personal branding is critical for securing sponsors. Be thoughtful about what you share with, and display to, potential sponsors. Establish your brand as an associate who is not only technically proficient in the law, but is also mindful of the big picture when it comes to servicing the client (e.g., what are the client’s long-term objectives and how does the current matter you are working on play into that broader strategy?). That kind of branding will catch the attention of potential sponsors.
Establishing Mentor and Sponsor Relationships
Perhaps the most important distinction between mentors and sponsors is this: you will generally seek out mentors, whereas sponsors will generally seek out you. Establishing a relationship with a mentor can be fairly straightforward. For example, you might identify someone from whom you’d like to learn and ask them for advice over lunch, coffee, drinks, etc. Establishing a relationship with a sponsor, however, is a bit trickier and less formulaic. This is perhaps best illustrated with a few examples.
During my final few years as a Biglaw litigation associate, I decided to explore my desire to teach by becoming an adjunct law professor and teaching an advanced course on New York state civil procedure. Initially, I viewed it as a mere side hobby, completely separate from my day-to-day practice. After a few years, however, the law school where I taught honored me with a teaching award for the course and, before I knew it, word of my recognition had gotten around to the partners at my firm. Shortly after that, one of the partners unexpectedly called me into her office and informed me that the partners needed a senior associate to train new junior lawyers on New York state civil procedure and that I had been chosen for the role. In other words, I had secured the sponsorship of my partners for a new and unexpected opportunity by branding myself as a subject-matter expert on something that they happened to need at the time.
A sponsor . . . has the ability to open doors and provide concrete opportunities and will do so on your behalf—but only if they know you are somebody worthy of investment.
Similarly, after I transitioned in-house, an attorney friend introduced me to one of his law student mentees who had achieved some amazing extracurricular accolades that had garnered local media attention. Upon meeting with the student, I soon learned that he had applied for a summer associate position at a law firm where I have personal relationships with several of the partners. The following week, I reached out to my personal contacts at the law firm and provided a personal recommendation on behalf of the law student. A few hours after our conversation, they made him an offer. Unpacking this example: first, the law student established a brand that set him apart from his classmates; second, the student’s brand was brought to my attention; and third, I happened to be in a position to act as a sponsor on the student’s behalf, which I was happy to do because the student’s personal brand distinguished him as somebody worthy of investment.
In short, sponsorship tends to happen when personal branding creates a window for opportunity.
Although establishing a sponsorship opportunity can often be driven by chance, it is possible to be more deliberate in bringing about sponsorship. For instance, you can leverage the relationships you have with certain of your mentors who: (1) have a close personal relationship with a potential sponsor; (2) know your personal achievements; and (3) are comfortable and willing to communicate those achievements to a potential sponsor. Ultimately, the decision of whether or not to sponsor you for a new opportunity will rest with the sponsor, but your chances of being sponsored increase dramatically when you deliberately place yourself on their radar.
Leave No Stone Unturned
You will recall that “[B]lack, Asian and Hispanic attorneys collectively account for a mere 12.5% of all Biglaw lawyers.” What that means for minority associates is that most of the mentors and sponsors you’re going to come across in Biglaw will not look like you. This cannot be overstated enough. While there is certainly a shared experience that fellow minority attorneys will be able to instantly relate to, do not limit your pool of potential supporters to only fellow minority lawyers. Indeed, some of the most influential sponsors I’ve encountered during my career have not looked like me, nor have they shared my same culture, socioeconomic background, religion or political ideology. Mentors and sponsors are everywhere, so prepare accordingly and leave no stone unturned.