The path from law student to lawyer is a circuitous journey. The professional twists and turns build grit and resilience along the way. As one is traversing the transitions from law student to new lawyer to more seasoned lawyer, mentors and sponsors can and should act as professional guides and advocates respectively.
A mentor is someone with whom one has built rapport and feels comfortable asking for advice. A sponsor is someone who has agency and clout in one’s professional sphere and who is willing to advocate for career growth and opportunities. One may have multiple mentors and/or sponsors at various stages of one’s career.
Navigating how to build connections and gather information in order to create mentorship and sponsorship relationships will vary depending on the specific needs at the time, but the basic premise is the same throughout—be intentional and authentic in every interaction.
Law students should be seeking out a wide array of diverse mentors according to their areas of interest. Those interests will likely change during law school, and as such, law students should continue to build their mentorship circle based on practice areas, roles, and organizations. Some law schools offer alumni mentor programs that will match current law students with alumni.
This is a great opportunity for law students to begin to build their network. Law students may need or want mentors for various reasons. A mentor during law school can act as a resource to ask questions about coursework, bar exam preparation, internships, and other career-related matters; to facilitate connections to employment opportunities, other practitioners and potential mentors, bar associations, and professional organizations. Additionally, mentors can serve as a sounding board for the inevitable stress that law school and life will bring.
Law students should be clear in their communication to mentors or potential mentors about why they are seeking a mentor. This will also give the mentor an opportunity to advise the student if they are willing to act as a mentor in this capacity or not. If not, the mentor may be able to provide connections to other potential mentors who can provide the necessary resources.
Law students should utilize their undergraduate alma mater network and any other personal or professional connections that they have developed prior to and during law school. Being intentional and authentic means identifying potential mentors based on what type of law they practice, what role they hold in their organization, or for which organization they work. Law students should make a list of people, roles, and organizations in which they are interested.
Law students should also do research to determine what connections already exist within their established networks. If no connections exist, law students should not despair. Being a law student creates access to people and organizations to which others may not have access. Generally, people want to be a resource for law students and are very willing to help in different ways.
Some law students may need a sponsor within an organization in which they are working during law school, especially if the goal is future employment, career growth, and opportunities at that organization. How to develop a sponsor during law school will depend on the situation. If a law student is working full-time, then they have the ability to build relationships and gather information about who are the key players who may be able and willing to act as a sponsor for their professional development. If a law student is trying to convert an externship or summer internship into a future career opportunity, they will have to prove themselves professionally, build rapport with colleagues, and evaluate who the key players are within that organization who are willing to advocate for them. It is possible to do this, but again, it takes open, organized, intentional, deliberate actions and communications on the part of the law student.
As a new attorney, both mentors and sponsors are extremely important. Some mentors from law school may remain a resource throughout one’s career. New attorneys may need to develop relationships with different mentors based on changing needs that come up as they launch their careers. Bar associations and professional organizations are amazing resources to new attorneys who are navigating the legal profession. Those volunteer organizations and their leaders have chosen to be available for exactly this reason.
The key is to get involved. There are several ways to do this. First, join a substantive section of the ABA and start attending the monthly section meetings. Second, volunteer for an upcoming event. Finally, participate on a committee. Alumni from new attorneys’ law school alma mater are also an incredible resource. There is an immediate connection and willingness to help. New attorneys will definitely need sponsors in the workplace.
Again, new attorneys should get involved with committees and other professional development opportunities at work. They should reach out and schedule coffee/tea or lunch meetings with more senior colleagues with whom they would like to build a rapport. As with all relationships, there is a possibility that after meeting with their colleague, new attorneys may not click with them. That is okay. Continue to conduct outreach and find someone who does click and who is able and willing to act as a sponsor. Sponsors can help new attorneys navigate internal career growth opportunities, professional development, compensation negotiation and promotions, and much more.
More seasoned attorneys also need mentors and sponsors. Again, they may have mentors with whom they have established and maintained a relationship through law school or their first few years of practice. They may also have sponsors in their current organization, and may have had sponsors at prior organizations.
Whether it is looking for growth opportunities within one’s own organization or navigating the organization itself, attorneys at any stage of their career can use the advice and guidance of someone who has gone through a similar journey before.
There is a lot of talk and interest in “mentoring up” or “reciprocal mentoring”. “Mentoring up” is a concept that empowers mentees to be active participants in their mentoring relationships by shifting the emphasis from the mentors’ responsibilities in the mentor-mentee relationship to equal emphasis on the mentees’ contributions. This can be especially fruitful for more experienced attorneys with regard to technology, current market trends, and social media.
More tenured attorneys who are looking to make a completely different shift or change in their career can benefit from discussions with contacts who are in those desired fields, roles, and organizations. Informational interviews are a great opportunity to ask all of the questions that one has about the work and career of an individual while pitching oneself through an informal conversation. Again, bar associations and professional organizations are a phenomenal resource at any stage of one’s career.
The bottom line is that both mentors and sponsors are crucial as one traverses the legal profession, or any profession for that matter. Actively utilizing mentors and sponsors requires organized, thoughtful, transparent communication about one’s professional goals and objectives. This ensures that the mentorship or sponsorship relationship is established with both parties knowing exactly what to expect and avoids any miscommunication or misunderstanding. Being intentional and authentic will lead to successful, fruitful, and enormously helpful mentor and sponsor relationships.