Mentors or Sponsors: Which Do You Need?

Mentors?What support do young lawyers need to succeed? Conventional wisdom says you’re good to go if you find a couple of experienced mentors and do what they tell you to do. The modern viewpoint, however, is a bit different.

Now just having good mentors isn’t enough — you need to find a sponsor.

Okay, stop hyperventilating! Yes, it’s one more thing to pay attention to, but this might actually turn out to be useful for you, so pay attention.

What’s the Difference Between a Mentor and a Sponsor?

You probably know what a mentor is. It’s someone whose judgment you trust, who has more experience than you do in certain areas, and who’s willing to invest time and effort in helping you out — formally or informally. Some businesses have formal mentoring programs, which assign mentors and facilitate interactions, but these relationships can evolve more casually, as well.

Mentors are very useful, and can be critical in helping you navigate the workplace, get your work done successfully, and figure out how to get to where you want to go. However, and this is important, your mentors might not be able to actually get you where you want to go.

That’s where your sponsor comes in! A sponsor is someone who goes to bat for you when you’re not around, making sure that you’re getting plum assignments, promotions, and praise.

A sponsor has two key characteristics:

  1. Sufficient power to pull the necessary strings.
  2. A willingness to do so on your behalf.

Could one person be both a mentor and a sponsor? Sure, if that person has enough power to help you, and enough time to coach you. But it’s often the case that these roles will be split — because people who are able to serve as sponsors are often too busy to spend much time mentoring!

How Can You Find Mentors and Sponsors?

As you’d imagine, it can be difficult to find good mentors and sponsors. (Studies suggest that women, particularly, have trouble finding sponsors, even if they have a plethora of mentors.)

So, what can you do?

  • Keep your eyes open, and know what you’re looking for. The most critical step in finding a mentor or sponsor is to know what you’re looking for, and think strategically about how to get it. For example, if you meet someone you admire in a summer job, make a point to keep in touch with that person. Offer to come by for coffee once every few months, or send an email when you come across something that they might like or find useful. (Obviously you don’t want to overdo this, but who wouldn’t appreciate a link to an article that’s of particular interest?) Building up these loose ties is one of the best ways to create a strong network of support for yourself.
  • Seize professional opportunities when they arise. When I was a law firm associate, I encountered an interesting situation where a very senior partner (a potential sponsor) wanted me to work on a trial that we’d suddenly acquired. By all accounts, it was going to be an absolutely insane case, with tons of travel and stress and ridiculous hours. I was presented with the opportunity by a more junior partner (an excellent mentor) who came to my office and said, “Here’s the deal. Personally, I don’t think you should do this, because it’s going to drive you crazy, but it would be a great career move. It’s up to you.” Frankly, she was right on both counts. I took the assignment, did the case, and developed a very close relationship with a powerful sponsor. On the flip side, it did almost drive me crazy, and was part of the reason I eventually left the firm. So, you never know! But at least I understood what I was getting into, and why it made sense to say yes. These sort of opportunities don’t come along every day, so you have to grab them when they surface.
  • Position yourself to be indispensable. The fastest way to get a sponsor to go to bat for you is to make it impossible for them not to. How? By making yourself indispensable. I’ve written before about the dangers of becoming indispensable in a law firm, but, if you’re committed to the path you’re on, it’s one of the best ways to succeed. Imagine decisions are being made about who to promote to partner (or who to lay off). You want a powerful sponsor to stand up and say, “I need this person to do my work. We have to keep them.” How do you become indispensable? There are many ways. You can take on necessary, but thankless, tasks and do them really well. You can be the person who knows everything about a particular case or client. You can be the go-to person for difficult assignments, like writing a compelling brief on any topic on short notice. In a nutshell, be really good at what you do!
The Bottom Line

In the end, you need a lot of stars to align to find the perfect mentor or sponsor. So don’t shoot for perfection right off the bat!

This is really a more-the-merrier situation.

As you’re starting your legal career, look for mentors everywhere and be open to advice.

Express your appreciation when someone helps you out, and make a mental note that this person seems to have taken an interest in you. Cultivate the relationship.

As you advance in your career, you’ll probably start encountering more powerful sponsors. Keep your eyes open, and pay attention to who’s got the real power in an organization. Those are the people you want on your side, so they can go to bat for you when you’re not in the room!

Naturally, there’s an element of luck involved with all of these relationships, but — by understanding the rules of the game — you can position yourself to be in the right place at the right time more often than not, ready to seize opportunities as they arise.

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Do you have any advice for young lawyers looking for mentors and sponsors? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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