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INSIGHT: Can Mentors and Sponsors Be Found and Coexist in BigLaw?

Oct. 30, 2019, 8:01 AM

In a recent presidential debate, one candidate stated that minority entrepreneurs struggle to find mentors. He probably did not mean mentors, but sponsors and investors. Conflation of the words “mentor” and “sponsor” is common. On a basic level, a mentor provides guidance; a sponsor promotes advancement. The candidate’s choice of the word “mentor” is revealing.

A widespread assumption exists that minorities and women need “mentoring” more than white men. There is a lack of hard data supporting this assumption, yet it remains an assumption in many organizations, including large law firms. For at least the past 50 years, much has been written about the existence of a mentor being a key to success for women—in fact, the existence of a mentor has been regarded as a common factor among successful women. Having a mentor was seen as the magic bullet for a woman to succeed, and the lack of a mentor was seen as the reason many women fail.

Although it is hard to identify where this idea originated, it has become so much a part of the corporate collective unconscious that even to question it seems heretical.

Fortunately, there are such heretics, particularly in the last 10 years, such as Herminia Ibarra of London Business School. Ibarra posits that women are not under-mentored at all—they are under-sponsored.

Tension Between Mentor, Sponsor Roles

The same may be true for minorities, and even for white men, who don’t always have sponsors (or mentors, for that matter) and need them too. In fact, white men need them just as much. To succeed in a large law firm, the need for mentor and sponsors is beyond peradventure. No one has a lock on getting either, much less both.

Both mentors and sponsors exist in BigLaw, but the two roles do not always coincide. There is an implicit expectation that partners both provide guidance to associates (e.g., act as mentors), as well as advocate for their advancement (e.g., act as sponsors). The two roles can overlap, but not as much as one might think. While partners sometimes are mentors, sometimes are sponsors, and sometimes are both, there is an inherent tension between the roles of mentor and sponsor, especially in a law firm.

A true mentor is different from a boss, teacher, coach, or role model. A mentor sees a protégé clearly, understands the protégé’s potential, and is able to give uniquely needed guidance and advice. A true mentor would tell a protégé to leave the law firm if that is in the protégé’s interest, or even to leave the law, if the law is not the protégé’s calling. This is inherently inconsistent with the role of law firm partners with respect to their associates.

Recognizing that mentors can be elusive, many BigLaw firms launched formal mentorship programs. These programs may involve pairing associates with “mentors” or facilitating introductions by means such as “mentoring parties” where associates and partners can mingle. Some firms describe their programs as highly successful.

There is no doubt these programs are successful at what they literally do—connect partners and associates—and that they bring about positive results, including improved communication and collegiality. But they accomplish very little when it comes to actual mentorship.

Touted Sucesses Aren’t Reliable

There are several fairly obvious reasons why touted success is not a reliable indicator of these programs’ efficacy at bringing about true mentor-protégé relationships.

First, law firms measure their success at such programs only by internal benchmarks, which might not be independent or scientific.

Second, whether a mentoring relationship actually “works” in the sense of having a transformative impact on a person’s career is not apparent until much later—possibly as much as 25 years later or more.

Third, the feedback is often from associates who work for the firm instituting the program and may feel compelled to provide positive comments.

There is a mass deception that that mentor–protégé relationships can be somehow externally established, assigned, or brokered by third parties. A program approach is actually antithetical to authentic mentorship.

Programs might even retard the establishment of true mentor-protégé relationships by ascribing a “mentoring” label to a buddy system or big sister arrangement. These may create the illusion that one has a mentor, with the unfortunate result that the “mentee” will be less likely to look for, and bond with, a true mentor.

Sponsors Advocate for Advancement

More recently, some BigLaw firms have launched sponsorship initiatives, in addition to or instead of mentor programs. The focus on sponsors may stem from the recognition that true mentors cannot effectively be assigned or brokered, and that mentors don’t supplant sponsors, which are equally critical to one’s success in BigLaw.

Sponsorship has a natural place in a large law firm environment. Acting as a true mentor to an associate might at times collide with the partner’s role in the firm (e.g., a supervisor, employer, or manager); the role of a sponsor does not.

A sponsor advocates for an associate’s advancement—a role consistent with that of a law firm partner. Moreover, the sponsor’s interest is typically aligned with the interest of person being sponsored. A partner has a natural interest (often an economic one) in the advancement of junior lawyers who can enhance and expand the practice. Indeed, the key to success of law firm sponsorship programs is matching each associate with a partner who is invested in the associate’s advancement.

Developing and retaining top talent is necessary in any law firm, and this requires both mentorship and sponsorship, each of which are elusive.

How can law firms bring about mentorship and sponsorship?

Neither mentorship nor sponsorship can be created solely with a checklist or a formula. To foster true mentorship and effective sponsorship, firms must have enough people capable of being true mentors and sponsors. Both of these are hard to come by, and thus it is imperative not to arbitrarily limit the pool of candidates.

In a Sept. 3, 2016, New York Times article, Ashton Applewhite cited the shoe test: “… [L]ook under the table, and if everyone’s wearing the same kind of shoes, whether wingtips or flip-flops, you’ve got a problem.” Firms that pass the “shoe test” are the most fertile environments in which to find mentors and sponsors.

Mentors and sponsors are most likely found in a firm that is diverse and inclusive in all respects. Diversity includes not only gender, sexual orientation, and race, but also, ethnicity, provenance, geography, social and economic background, and age. Above all, a firm that prizes and encourages creativity and diversity of thought will be one in which mentorship and sponsorship flourish.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Stephanie Wickouski is a partner at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP in New York. She is a nationally recognized lawyer and has been named as one of the 12 outstanding restructuring lawyers in the U.S. by Turnarounds & Workouts and as one of U.S. News’ Best Lawyers in America. She is the author of the book: Mentor X: The Life-Changing Power of Extraordinary Mentors.

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