Strategies for Effective Mentorship and Sponsorship

Michael L. Nguyen and Apoorva J. Patel
Sponsors use their seat at the table to champion younger lawyers and to promote their protégés to clients, colleagues, and other stakeholders.

Sponsors use their seat at the table to champion younger lawyers and to promote their protégés to clients, colleagues, and other stakeholders.

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Despite years of well-intentioned diversity and inclusion initiatives, the legal profession remains one of the least diverse industries, particularly at the top. Law firms, law departments, and other organizations often effectively recruit diverse attorneys at the entry-level, but these lawyers remain woefully underrepresented among the partnership and senior leadership positions. For diverse attorneys, a lack of high-quality mentoring and sponsorship is often a key reason for this “pipeline leak.” In this article, members of the ABA Young Lawyers Division’s Men of Color Project, attendees at the inaugural Men of Color Summit held in Washington, DC, on May 4, 2019, and other diverse attorneys offer their insights and guidance on effective mentoring and sponsorship for young lawyers.

The Need for Both Mentorship and Sponsorship

Most young lawyers have some familiarity with mentoring. In their early years of practice, they are often assigned formal mentors at their workplace but ultimately find that the nature and value of these relationships vary considerably. However, many young lawyers do not initially recognize that their development and advancement in the legal profession is influenced not only by their relationships with mentors but also by the support they receive from sponsors. Mentorship and sponsorship are related concepts but differ in important ways.

Mentorship, which generally refers to the proffering of advice and the imparting of knowledge and skills, can take many forms. For instance, senior lawyers may provide helpful coaching, share lessons from their prior experiences, and offer insightful career advice. Younger lawyers can serve as mentors for their more junior colleagues as well. These attorneys can help orient new lawyers to the workplace and to legal practice, introduce them to other senior lawyers, and share with them the unwritten rules of their organization.

While mentors can help young lawyers develop skills and navigate their workplaces, mentoring alone does not unlock the doors to advancement in the legal profession. As lawyers progress in their careers, they need more active intervention in the form of sponsorship. Sponsors are senior attorneys who have influence and gravitas within and outside their organizations. Sponsors use their seat at the table to champion younger lawyers and to promote their protégés to clients, colleagues, and other stakeholders. As one law firm associate put it, “Mentors may provide guidance and support only when you meet with them. Sponsors, on the other hand, advocate for you when you are not in the room.”

Sponsorship is a form of investment, in the sense that a sponsor is using his or her own political capital to support a younger lawyer’s advancement. Sponsors may praise their protégé’s work and potential to others in the organization, encourage others to give the protégé meaningful responsibilities or connect their protégé to senior leaders and important clients.

The Personal and Professional Impact of Mentorship and Sponsorship

Participants at the Men of Color Summit described many ways in which mentors and sponsors have had a lasting impact on their careers and have paved the way for their success. As one of the Project’s leaders recalls:

“Mentors have made a significant impact on my life throughout law school in the beginning stages of my legal career. During my 1L summer, I worked as an extern for the Honorable Judge Thang Barrett. Judge Barrett was a former prosecutor before being appointed the first Vietnamese American to serve as a judge in the Superior Court of California. I still remember our conversations both in chambers and during lunches where he shared with me his personal experiences and advice on how to succeed as a young lawyer. Along with the many exciting opportunities to observe trials and to engage with attorneys throughout the summer, it was the one-on-one conversations with Judge Barrett that sparked in me a desire to follow in his footsteps by serving my community as a prosecutor. Today Judge Barrett continues to make himself available for career advice, and I continue to keep him abreast with each step of my career development. It has been due to mentors like Judge Barrett (i.e., professors, advisors, prosecutors in the office, etc.) who truly cared about, invested, and helped me get to where I am today.”

Challenges Facing Diverse Lawyers

Although finding mentors and sponsors and effectively leveraging such relationships can be difficult for any young attorney, these challenges are often amplified for diverse lawyers. Many first-generation lawyers, for instance, may initially be unaware of the importance of mentorship or sponsorship, or may not be familiar with how to develop relationships with senior lawyers. Diverse attorneys may also observe the disproportionately low levels of diversity in leadership and other influential positions and may conclude that their own prospects for advancement are similarly limited. Moreover, due to implicit biases and other barriers at both the individual and institutional levels, diverse attorneys may be overlooked for opportunities for development and advancement.

These circumstances can exacerbate feelings of isolation and alienation that many diverse attorneys already experience. On the other hand, meaningful avenues for mentorship and sponsorship can empower diverse attorneys to succeed and, in turn, enrich the workplace and the legal profession as a whole.

How to Secure Mentors and Sponsors

Mentoring may be formal or informal, but all effective mentoring relationships are built on trust, commitment, and a willingness to learn. As a law firm associate explains, “Mentors look for people who are willing to be genuine and authentic. People who acknowledge their mistakes and learn from them in tangible ways.”

Sponsorship is often less centered on learning and more focused on achievement and advancement. Because sponsors use their own political capital to invest in another lawyer’s advancement, young lawyers seeking sponsorship must become known in their organization as being worthy of investment. As another attorney expressed during the Men of Color Summit, “You can choose your mentors, but a sponsor must choose you.” It is thus critical for a young attorney to establish a strong brand within his or her organization, so as to be recognized and valued by potential sponsors.

First and foremost, a young lawyer must develop a reputation for unfailingly delivering excellent work. It is also important for a young lawyer to be proactive in developing mutually beneficial relationships with well-positioned senior lawyers. For example, younger lawyers can take the initiative to send prospective sponsors updates about notable developments in their practice area or news about significant clients. Young attorneys should also find ways to remain visible to potential sponsors with whom they may not work directly, such as through service on firm committees and active involvement in bar associations and the broader legal community.

What to Look for in a Mentor or Sponsor

Young lawyers should look for mentors or sponsors who care about their development and can advocate for their success and advancement in the profession. A good mentor is someone who cares about the person, who takes the time to get to know their strengths and weaknesses, and who is willing to tell them the truth. This could be a senior lawyer willing to share ideas and guidance, but it could also be junior colleagues who have helpful experiences and insights. In the words of one student:

When I look for a mentor, I make sure I look for someone who is as committed to my development as I am. I completely understand that a working professional who is also a mentor is busy with work, life, and more but someone who truly can make a little extra time for me.

When thinking about sponsors, it is important this person has a voice at the decision-making level and has sufficient influence within the organization (i.e., political capital) and is willing to invest some of that political capital on your development. As another lawyer explained, “You need a senior person in your corner to cover you if you fail.”

Should Diverse Attorneys Find Mentors and Sponsors Who Look Like Them?

It is certainly a plus to have mentors or sponsors of the same background. However, participants at the Men of Color Summit emphasized that diverse attorneys do not necessarily need to find mentors who look like them. Statistically, potential sponsors who are typically lawyers at the top of their organizations are currently less likely to be minorities. As such, it is important to develop meaningful relationships with everyone and not just those who look like you.

How to Sustain Lasting and Meaningful Mentoring and Sponsoring Relationships

When a lawyer mentors or sponsors a younger attorney, he or she is investing in the growth and potential of that person. As one attorney advised:

Seventy percent of the investment in this relationship needs to be done by younger lawyers as they are the ones that are going to benefit most from it. Thus, a strong mentoring or sponsorship relationship is a two-way street—the younger attorney should think of ways to help their mentor or sponsor.

And as another attorney described, “Relationships can falter the same way marriages do: lack of communication, not respecting boundaries, and lack of effort by both parties.”

Both maintaining and nourishing relationships with mentors and sponsors will allow the relationships to flourish and continue to grow healthy and strong. And so, too, will your career.

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Michael L. Nguyen is a deputy district attorney at the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, in Oakland, California. He is a key member of the Men of Color Project.

Apoorva J. Patel is a senior associate at WilmerHale in Washington, DC. He is a key member of the Men of Color Project.