This advice also dovetails with the early concept that it defies the law of physics for a man to lift himself up by pulling on his bootstraps. It is rare to find a lawyer who is not a hard worker; however, no lawyer has pulled themself up by their bootstraps. All successful lawyers are the products of our sponsors or mentors. Therefore, it is critical for every young lawyer to understand how to develop those relationships and the different roles sponsors and mentors serve.
What Is the Difference between a Mentor and Sponsor?
A mentor is someone who shares knowledge, provides guidance, and offers support. Often viewed as a role model, a coach, an advisor, and a teacher, mentors are respected for their advice, guidance, and wisdom that comes with their experience. They can challenge you, help you plan and strategize your career, and push you to seek opportunities. For new or young lawyers in a law firm setting, mentors often help navigate firm culture, serve as a sounding board, and explain unwritten rules.
On the other hand, a sponsor uses their credibility and influence to advocate for an individual’s professional growth and success actively and intentionally. In leadership positions, sponsors often invest in, promote, advocate for, and endorse those who have earned a spot in their corner (known as a “protégé”). For example, a sponsor may place you in a new role, recommend you to a client, ensure you receive appropriate credit, and elevate your visibility at work.
While almost all sponsors are mentors, not all mentors can be sponsors because of the degree of credibility and influence that effective sponsors must have.
Why Are Mentors and Sponsors Important for Lawyers?
Much emphasis is placed on identifying and sustaining mentorship and sponsorship relationships in the legal field. This is for good reason—building meaningful relationships is critical to advancing your career.
Mentors can help new lawyers develop skills and orient themselves to the workplace and legal practice. These relationships, which may be formal or informal, often help new lawyers feel connected to their work and colleagues. They also may help limit or avoid some of the errors and mistakes that come with the early stages of one’s legal career. In addition, mentors can help build connections and expand networks, both in the office and externally.
Sponsorships can be particularly powerful; when a sponsor publicly endorses their protégé, it can add significant value and weight to how others view the protégé and their work product. At the same time, sponsorship carries some risk because it requires the sponsor to put their reputation at stake on behalf of the protégé.
What Makes a Successful and Effective Mentorship and Sponsorship?
First and foremost, a mentor or sponsor must have a vested interest in your development and advancement and be willing and able to provide you with honest, unbiased advice. Indeed, the hallmark of any successful mentor or sponsor relationship is a free exchange of information and a foundation of trust, commitment, and willingness to learn.
Effective mentors and sponsors are secure and successful in their practice and care about developing their successors in the profession. When looking for a mentor or a sponsor, lawyers should look for someone with whom they have shared practices, interests, and goals. The most successful mentorships and sponsorships facilitate reciprocal relationships between the parties. With that in mind, mentees and proteges should continuously think of ways to offer advice to their mentors and sponsors as they receive it.
Mentorship and sponsorship can be incredibly valuable to a lawyer’s personal and professional development and success. Earning and maintaining these relationships requires energy and investment by both parties, but the experience of prior generations of lawyers has proven that it is worth it.