Many experts have observed that corporations outperform law firms when it comes to diversity, but corporations also struggle with retaining and promoting minorities. Why minorities leave both law firms and corporations may involve a concept known as “unconscious bias.” Professor Linda Hamilton Krieger of the UC Berkeley School of Law describes unconscious bias as a way people’s normal cognitive processes related to categorization produce and perpetuate intergroup bias.
As a result, according to Dean David Thomas of Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, decision makers tend to view members of their own racial groups as more promotable and often give them higher performance ratings. In Breaking Through: The Making of Minority Executives in Corporate America, coauthored with John Gabarro, Thomas notes that because “high-performing members of other racial groups remain comparatively invisible in the selection process,” they are overlooked for promotion when the decision makers are not themselves minorities.
Organizations seeking to improve diversity in their senior ranks recognize the problem of unconscious bias and have taken steps to counteract its negative effects. One approach that offers promise is proactively identifying promising minority workers and arranging for them to be sponsored by influential senior executives—usually a Caucasian male. Thomas’s research found that involving senior executives as sponsors boosted promising minorities’ careers by receiving high-visibility assignments, alerted white subordinates that leadership was personally invested in promoting diversity, and helped convince minorities that they had a real opportunity to attain senior executive status because leadership wasn’t just paying lip service to diversity.
Ursula Burns, who rose to become the CEO of Xerox and the first female African-American CEO of a Fortune 500 company, presents an interesting case study in sponsorship. As told by Adam Bryant in a 2010 New York Times article, Burns distinguished herself early and, as a result, had several people—mostly Caucasian men—take an interest in ensuring that she received the opportunities that her performance proved she deserved. Burns’s mentors took deliberate measures to find opportunities for her to increase her responsibilities and visibility within the corporation. Their efforts sent the message that those in power recognized her great potential. They taught her how to navigate Xerox’s culture; the importance of polish, patience and perspective; and the need to foster buy-in from co-workers and superiors.
NOT ALL MENTORS CAN BE SPONSORS
Law firms talk a lot about the importance of mentoring and how to make busy partners better at it, but they spend very little time discussing the importance of, and need for, sponsors. Many law firms have formal mentoring programs that pair associates with partners responsible for delivering evaluations and providing professional development suggestions. These mentors are important, but sponsors are far more essential. Mentors are counselors who give career advice and provide suggestions on how to navigate certain situations. Sponsors can do everything that mentors do but also have the stature and gravitas to affect whether associates make partner. They wield their influence to further junior lawyers’ careers by calling in favors, bring attention to the associates’ successes and help them cultivate important relationships with other influential lawyers and clients—all of which are absolutely essential in law firms. Every sponsor can be a mentor, but not every mentor can be a sponsor.
Sponsorship is inherent in the legal profession’s origins as a craft learned by apprenticeship. For generations, junior lawyers learned the practice of law from senior attorneys who, over time, gave them more responsibility and eventually direct access and exposure to clients. These senior lawyers also sponsored their protégés during the partnership election process. Certain aspects of traditional legal practice are no longer feasible today, so firms have created formal training and mentoring programs to fill the void. While these programs may be effective, there is no substitute for learning at the heels of an experienced, influential lawyer. This was true during the apprenticeship days and remains so today.
Because the partnership election process is opaque and potentially highly political, having a sponsor is essential. Viable candidates need someone to vouch for their legal acumen while simultaneously articulating the business case for promotion—that is, their potential to build a lucrative practice or support another partner in growing a practice that supports the law firm. The business case is determined by lawyers’ relationships with clients and senior lawyers’ willingness to give them work. According to Professor David Wilkins of Harvard Law School and G. Mitu Gulati of Duke University in their study titled “Why Are There So Few Black Lawyers in Corporate Law Firms?”, this system disadvantages minorities for two reasons: (1) they are less likely than whites to have relationships with in-house counsel who can give them business; and (2) the internal market is built on reciprocity, so other lawyers may be less inclined to give work to minorities, who typically have less access to well-paying clients. Effective sponsors will anticipate the business case early—a few years before the associate is eligible for partnership consideration—and proactively look for ways to give a protégé access and exposure to the firm’s institutional clients and other influential partners.
ENLISTING INFLUENTIAL PARTNERS AS SPONSORS
Law firms frustrated with the slow pace of progress with diversity should try to enlist their most influential partners to sponsor minority lawyers. How could firms make this happen? One approach would be to have each group or office leader meet periodically with a senior leader of the firm—preferably its chairperson but at least an active member of its management committee—and the chair of the firm’s diversity committee. The goal would be to assess the progress and prospects of the group’s minority lawyers, with an eye to improving retention and advancement. The meetings would address work assignments (that is, what lawyers are working on, and with whom); evaluations; and, if the firm has a formal mentoring program, the effectiveness of mentor-mentee pairings. Participants would thereby have a better sense of the practical progress of their minority lawyers and of the concrete steps required to improve these lawyers’ access to work, clients and influential partners. Most importantly, specific sponsors could be identified and assigned to associates who have shown promise and whom the firm wants to retain—and if they meet the standards for partnership, promote. Sponsors would be asked to commit to taking specific steps for their associates, though no more than what they have done for others whom they have sponsored organically in the past. These partners would also be asked to report on the actions they have undertaken to aid their sponsees.
One purpose of these meetings would be to directly engage top decision makers in bolstering the firm’s diversity retention and advancement efforts. The presence of firm leaders sends the message that a diverse partnership is important to them. And many of these senior lawyers are actually in the best position to serve as sponsors because of their influence in the firm. If for some reason their assuming the role of sponsor is inappropriate, either because they work in different practice groups or for some other reason, they are nonetheless in the best position to act as ambassadors for the initiative. Specifically, they can recruit other influential lawyers to serve as sponsors, stressing the importance of that role to the firm. Sponsors can be assigned, but active recruitment is a better approach. It gives the partner making the request an opportunity to foster buy-in and to promote the significance of this intentional method of improving retention and advancement. Further, having a chairperson or other firm leader reach out to other senior partners adds credibility to the effort.
Potential sponsors should receive a clear explanation of how sponsoring differs from mentoring—that the sponsor actively advocates for the person, both inside and outside the firm. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founding president of the Center for Talent Innovation (formerly Center for Work-Life Policy), describes in a 2011 Harvard Business Review article that a sponsor is someone who “uses chips on behalf of protégés” and “advocates for promotions.” She recommends that sponsors carry out two or more of the following activities:
- Expand the protégés’ perception of what they can do.
- Connect sponsees with senior leaders.
- Promote the younger attorneys’ visibility.
- Connect protégés to career advancement opportunities.
- Advise sponsees on how to look and act the part.
- Facilitate external contacts.
- Provide career advice.
Each of these steps is self-explanatory, but let’s illustrate how they might work in a law firm. A minority fourth-year litigation associate in an Am Law 200 firm—let’s call her Kim—has distinguished herself as having what it takes to be a viable partnership candidate. Kim knows she is doing well because she consistently receives strong evaluations, and partners with whom she works give her positive feedback. Yet because there are so few minority partners in her firm—particularly minority female partners—she doesn’t think partnership is a realistic goal and has already begun to consider leaving the firm. The vice chair of the firm’s litigation department, a white male we’ll call John, attends a diversity meeting with the managing partner and other senior leaders in his department, and Kim is mentioned as having real promise. The managing partner asks the group who would be the appropriate sponsor for Kim, and John volunteers. He has worked with her in the past and thinks she would be a great fit in his practice, which is quite successful.
John gives Kim a significant role on an important matter. She does a great job, so he encourages junior partners working on his matters to give her more work. To increase Kim’s exposure, John finds ways to get her on the radar of senior litigation partners in other offices across the firm and takes her to client meetings so she can cultivate relationships with in-house lawyers. With John’s help, the foundation for Kim’s business case is being laid. She gains several supporters and informal mentors, develops relationships with key clients, and carves out a niche that supports John’s and, as needed, other partners’ practices. John lets everyone know that he is her biggest supporter and doesn’t miss an opportunity to sing her praises to other lawyers in the firm.
John has thus performed several functions associated with effective sponsors. He gave Kim high-level responsibilities on his matters, which created career advancement opportunities. He increased her visibility by connecting her to senior and junior partners across the department and firm. He facilitated external contacts by taking Kim to client meetings, thus giving her opportunities to cultivate important external relationships. Throughout this process, without making any promises, John has let Kim know that partnership is a realistic goal. These conversations have expanded Kim’s perception of what she can accomplish in the firm; as a result she becomes more invested in the organization and no longer looks for other opportunities. Without overtly calling in favors for Kim, John has sent the message that he fully supports her by simply telling everyone how great she is. It is no secret that John will advocate for Kim’s election to the partnership when she is eligible.
Some people may consider a deliberate approach to improving diversity in the partnership ranks controversial because they think a) it gives certain people an unfair advantage, or b) it is a remedial program and therefore demeaning.
It is neither. This approach simply acknowledges that the status quo is ineffective and, absent purposeful measures, intergroup bias will continue to undermine diversity in law firm partnerships. Recognition of this reality has influenced major corporations to intentionally create sponsorship relationships.
American Express, for example, has a program designed to establish powerful alliances for women across the organization. Its goal is that, by 2015, women with long-term potential for success in the company will have two to three advocates to assist in their advancement. Such an approach would serve the same purpose in law firms: to ensure that partners with the ability to effect change play a direct role in helping talented lawyers advance. As Thomas’s research indicates, minorities often remain invisible when promotion decisions are made, so real change occurs when steps are taken to make them visible.