For women attorneys, enlisting good mentors & sponsors is vital for a successful legal career; and now it's even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic
Women are only half as likely as men to have a sponsor, according to Sylvia Ann Hewitt, author of the book (Forget a Mentor) Find a Sponsor, leaving many women without one of the key components of a successful legal career and one which is critical for the development of a strong network and support system.
We wanted to look deeper into this sponsor-gap and see why building a personal “board of directors” of both sponsors and mentors is vital for a successful legal career.
Differences between a sponsor & a mentor
The simplest way to describe the difference between a mentor and sponsor is that a mentor provides advice and guidance to his or her mentee, while a sponsor advocates for the sponsee when she is not in the room and to promote advancement opportunities. Both mentors and sponsors take a particular interest in an attorney and her career development.
It is vital for all attorneys to have mentors, but it is especially crucial in the beginning of an attorney’s career, when she is learning the ropes of practicing law and navigating a new law firm or company. In this context, an attorney who is a few years senior and working at the same firm or company may become someone with whom a junior lawyer feels she can communicate with openly and honestly.
As an attorney’s career develops, so will her network of mentors. While it is possible to have one mentor, it is more likely that a young attorney will build a list — a personal board of directors, of sorts — to provide guidance on the different aspects of her career. A mentor can be helpful in navigating smaller issues such as feedback on assignments, as well as larger ones that typically come with career advancement, such as whether and when to change law firms or go in-house.
A sponsor is typically someone more senior in the organization who has a seat at the table within the power structure of the firm or company. The sponsor has seen qualities in the junior lawyer that make him or her comfortable advocating on the junior lawyer’s behalf. However, a sponsor relationship will likely take time to cultivate because sponsors have to put his or her own reputation on the line by providing support for the advancement of a junior attorney.
In some instances, the same person could serve as a mentor and a sponsor. It is more likely, however, that over the course of her career an attorney will develop many a network that consists of both mentors and sponsors, some of whom will remain consistent and some of whom will last for just a short period of time.
How to find sponsors & mentors
There are several ways to identify those individuals within your firm or company or outside of it that would be good sponsors and mentors, including:
Build relationships organically — When a young attorney begins practicing, she assumes that she will be assigned a mentor or be able to pick one, but the process for finding meaningful mentors and sponsors is much more organic. Lawyers are busy and are more likely to take the time to advocate for another attorney if they are personally interested in that attorney’s development. A good way to develop these relationships is by spending time getting to know your colleagues at networking events.
Look for them at your employer — Mentor and sponsor relationships are more likely to form naturally with senior attorneys who work for the same employer. For example, senior attorneys typically need to assign work to a junior attorney, and the easiest way to grow these relationships is to do a good job on assignments and show eagerness to learn from the senior attorney. Taking initiative and volunteering to help the senior attorney with other assignments will increase the likelihood that a lasting relationship will develop.
Schedule time to develop relationships — Set aside a few hours each week to focus on and cultivate relationships to make the practice of building connections part of your weekly routine.
Cultivating meaningful connections during the pandemic
Typically, developing quality relationships involves attending company- or firm-sponsored events and inviting prospective mentors and sponsors to lunch or coffee, but now, social distancing requires a change in tactics:
Attend virtual events — The current pandemic requires a modified approach to relationship building while social distancing measures are in place. An attorney can plan virtual coffee dates, workout sessions, or happy hours in an effort to maintain relationships and create those meaningful connections. To make an even greater impact, pass along links to articles or webinars to prospective mentors or sponsors, and simply make an effort to check in with people.
Make post-event follow-up efforts — With in-person events cancelled or postponed, many networking groups are hosting virtual seminars, panels, and other social events, which create opportunities to network with existing contacts and forge new connections. Junior attorneys should seek out these virtual events and make an effort to connect with speakers or other attendees via LinkedIn or email after the event is over.
Build expertise in new legal issues — The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing changes to the legal landscape, and junior attorneys have to adjust to these changes. However, the crisis also offers junior lawyers the opportunity to develop expertise in emerging areas and issues. If she takes initiative to become a subject matter expert during this time, she could use this learned expertise on developing new projects, writing client alerts, or taking on additional responsibility within an organization — none of which require in-person interactions. Adding value in this way can forge new connections with co-workers and clients, and develop existing mentor and sponsor relationships.
Finding sponsors and mentors is critical to a female attorney’s development and success throughout her career. The two relationships serve different roles in developing and promoting the attorney, and both will serve as her sounding board as she rises through the ranks.
While it takes time to develop and maintain these relationships, the benefits are tenfold, and every attorney should make this a priority in her practice.