Stepping up to Sponsorship

Mentoring SponsorshipFor the past two years, I have had the honor of managing the Commission on Professionalism’s Statewide Lawyer-to-Lawyer Mentoring Program. Rather than being just another part of the job, it has truly been an honor. To have played a small part in connecting lawyers around the state, with the ultimate goal of transferring knowledge to the newest members of our profession, has been both fun and satisfying. All of us at the Commission are proud that the participants have found the program fun and satisfying as well. We survey lawyers as they complete the program, and 100% of the mentors and new lawyers responding report that they would recommend the program to others.

Fortunately, there is not much debate on the value of mentoring for new lawyers. According to a 2013 National Association for Law Placement (NALP) study, The State of Mentoring in the Legal Profession, nearly 90% of all law firms surveyed offered some form of mentoring programs. For firms of more than 250 attorneys, the percentage was even higher. Whether mandatory or voluntary, within departments or across departments, these programs are seen as effective ways of integrating new lawyers into an organization by facilitating their professional development and inculcating the culture of the firm.

Of course, legal mentoring programs aren’t limited to law firms. Highly successful programs are run by county and state bar associations, affinity bar associations (such as women’s bar associations or practice group bar associations), law schools, government agencies and corporate legal departments. Here in Illinois, more than 3,500 attorneys have completed a form of the Commission’s mentoring program, currently offered through more than 75 different organizations.

Those being mentored tend to appreciate these programs, and that is no surprise. For mentees, what’s not to like? They get to learn at the elbow of a seasoned practitioner, ask the questions they may feel embarrassed to ask other colleagues, and even potentially gain access to the mentor’s professional network. While a good mentoring relationship requires effort from both parties, the mentors are the true heroes. Giving of their time, energy and wisdom is time-consuming, but has its own rewards. We often hear from mentors in our programs around the state that seeing legal practice through the eyes of their mentees not only reminds them of how much they’ve learned that they take for granted, but also of why they became lawyers in the first place. Further, they enjoy the warm fuzzy feeling that comes from passing down knowledge, customs and norms to the next generation of lawyers, and taking an active personal interest in seeing a younger lawyer develop.

Mentoring is wonderful, but it is enough? A significant issue facing the legal profession is the continuing underrepresentation of women and minorities in leadership roles. According to the most recent statistics on Women in the Law compiled by Catalyst, in 2013, women made up 47% of law school graduating classes, yet they represented only 33.1% of lawyers and 17% of equity partners. In the same year, people of color made up 25.8% of law school classes, but less than 15% of lawyers, and 5.4% of equity partners. Women of color represented only 2.3% of partners in 2013. Women and minorities also lag in judgeships, positions on influential committees at law firms, law school dean positions and general counsel positions at Fortune 500 companies.

A February 2015 NALP study measured small increases in minorities and women in law firms across the nation between 2013 and 2014, but noted that “the total change since 1993, the first year for which NALP has comparable aggregate information, has been only marginal.” Attrition studies by NALP, Catalyst and others tell still more of the story–minorities and women leave their firms in greater numbers, and for a variety of reasons, mostly that they experience exclusion, lack of constructive feedback and perceive a lack of commitment from firm leadership to promote diverse candidates. Mentoring can help to address these issues. Mentors who work for the same organization as their mentees can welcome younger lawyers into firm networks, introduce them to client contacts, and help them understand the dynamics and politics of advancement at the organization.

If you are one of the many dedicated mentors engaged in these sorts of mentoring activities, you deserve kudos. But again, mentoring alone may not be enough to bring about meaningful change. Noted legal mentoring expert Ida Abbott highlights the critical importance of sponsorship, describing it as “mentorship at the highest level.” Abbott has noted the key differences between a mentor and a sponsor. A mentor focuses on overall professional development, and often plays a direct role in transferring knowledge and skills. A sponsor, on the other hand, is a strong advocate who has power and influence, and is willing to use them to purposefully champion a colleague’s career. A sponsor has skin in the game: they will publicly endorse another’s qualifications and take risks on their behalf, such as arguing in favor of a raise, key assignment, or promotion.

For a sponsor to make this kind of investment and take this kind of risk, they need to be able to trust that the sponsored colleague will perform at the highest level. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of “Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor,” has pointed out that this is where sponsorship can break down for women and minorities. “When it comes to figuring out whom to sponsor, senior leaders—typically white men—most readily turn to the people they feel most comfortable with. Most often that means other white men.” While acknowledging that sponsorship relationships can’t be forced, Hewlett reports that several companies, including Citigroup, Deloitte and Morgan Stanley, have created more structured and transparent paths to sponsorship to ensure that those sponsored include under-represented groups.

Mentoring happens at many law firms, and sponsorship at fewer. Leaders of the strongest firms will make sure that they are identifying and developing their strongest resources. If you are not currently mentoring a younger colleague, please consider sharing your gifts. If you are already an active mentor, consider stepping up to a sponsorship.

Katherine Erwin

Katherine Erwin

As the Commission's Special Projects Director, Katherine managed the statewide attorney mentoring program and other special projects. She practiced law in Chicago for 20 years. Then she founded the Chicago office of a legal placement agency, and placed highly credentialed attorneys in law firms, corporate legal departments and governmental agencies. Most recently, Kathy served in the Career Services Office of the University of Chicago Law School. A graduate of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business and the University of Michigan Law School, she lives in Lincoln Park with her husband and daughter.

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Katherine Erwin

Katherine Erwin

As the Commission's Special Projects Director, Katherine managed the statewide attorney mentoring program and other special projects. She practiced law in Chicago for 20 years. Then she founded the Chicago office of a legal placement agency, and placed highly credentialed attorneys in law firms, corporate legal departments and governmental agencies. Most recently, Kathy served in the Career Services Office of the University of Chicago Law School. A graduate of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business and the University of Michigan Law School, she lives in Lincoln Park with her husband and daughter.

One thought on “Stepping up to Sponsorship

  1. Sounds like a great program. Here in Southern Virginia, members of the Tidewater Government Industry Council provide free acquisition training to industry, academia and government. The intent is to inspire dialogue between industry/academia and government personnel, with a focus on training acquisition personnel/attorneys, as the government will lose about 30% of the senior personnel to retirement in the next few years. This loss means a correlative loss in experienced mentors. So this is our way of providing mentoring and engagement with contractors.

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