In a BigLaw career, much emphasis is placed on finding mentors, and for good reason. After all, building relationships is a powerful way to advance your career. But while mentorship is (rightly) encouraged, many associates are in the dark when it comes to the importance of finding a sponsor. As a result, far too few associates pursue this critically important relationship.
Although related, a sponsor is not the same thing as a mentor. Understanding the difference will shine light on why both types of relationships are important—and hopefully encourage you to pursue them.
Mentorship Gets Lots of Attention, but do You Really Know What it Means?
BigLaw associates are presented with many opportunities to find mentors. Starting in law school, students are encouraged to attend networking events, reach out to alumni, and generally seek out ways to connect with attorneys. Once at the firm, associates can take advantage of committees, formal mentorship programs, firm networking events, and various bar association events.
Of course, as the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. The onus is on associates to take advantage of these opportunities. Mentorship requires building meaningful relationships, which takes work. Many associates simply go through the motions of finding a mentor, because it’s something they are “supposed” to do. These associates are missing the spirit of mentorship.
To borrow an excellent expression of mentorship: “In a work setting, mentorship is a relationship between someone sharing knowledge and providing guidance (the mentor) and someone learning from that person’s experience and example (the mentee).” Mentorship can be a one-off interaction, but can also develop into a true growth relationship, which is ultimately the most beneficial.
Sponsorship is Not the Same as Mentorship
While a mentor is someone who provides guidance behind the scenes, a sponsor is someone who plays an active role in your career advancement. Think of sponsorship as next-level mentorship; sponsorship evolves when your mentor is willing to advocate on your behalf.
Most sponsors do not take on this role lightly; typically, a sponsor emerges after a mentee has demonstrated accountability, work ethic, talent, grit, and many other positive workplace traits. In other words, the mentee has proven themselves to their mentor, such that the mentor feels sufficiently invested in the mentee’s career as to align themselves with that mentee’s career success.
A sponsor can be a powerful force because they are throwing themselves behind you. A sponsor puts their reputation on the line to promote you; as a result, sponsorship is not to be taken lightly. Most professionals will not risk attaching their names to someone without a high degree of certainty that the risk will pay off. This is why sponsorship almost always evolves from a developed mentorship; the sponsor wants to be very sure of the person they are sponsoring.
Why are Sponsors so Important in BigLaw?
The most common context for sponsorship in BigLaw is at the partnership level, but let’s be clear: Regardless of your seniority or career goals, a sponsor can make a huge difference in a law firm setting. Here are just a few scenarios in which a sponsor (or lack thereof) can fundamentally impact your career.
If you’re a mid-level or senior associate seriously aspiring to partnership, a sponsor is practically essential. This is because in BigLaw, making partner typically requires a majority vote by the current partnership (although some partnerships grant veto power). In this sense, it is not unlike government—and in government, lobbying plays a huge role in getting votes.
Even for the most promising associates, partnership is competitive and difficult. Partners do not want to bring someone into their ranks (who will share their profits and represent the firm’s brand) without thorough consideration and vetting. Having a partner at the table who can lobby on your behalf can be the difference between a “yea” and a “nay.”
Sponsorship can pay off far earlier than partnership, however. Even a junior associate, who may not even want to make partner, can benefit significantly from having a sponsor.
In the early years of an associate’s career, particularly in a large firm/practice group, gaining experience can often depend on the vicissitudes of an assignment system. For example, a junior associate may get sucked into a massive litigation that offers very little variety of work but demands a huge amount of time; this associate could spend years at the firm without acquiring many marketable skills. Similarly, an associate may end up on a particular partner’s radar and be constantly staffed on their matters, even if it is not the area in which the associate hopes to focus.
In such instances, a sponsor can emerge as a deus ex machina, so to speak. While associates may not usually be in the position to advocate for themselves regarding staffing and assignments, another partner can intervene, whether that intervention is by directly staffing that associate on their matters or contacting other assigning partners.
In this way, a sponsor can directly influence an associate’s career trajectory, even at the most junior levels. Gaining marketable skills, in a practice area of interest, can make all the difference in a subsequent job search.
What’s in it for the Sponsor?
The one aspect we haven’t touched upon yet is why a person would be willing to become a sponsor. After all, as previously noted, being a sponsor involves a certain degree of reputational risk. What’s in it for the sponsor?
While you might benefit from sponsorship in the relatively short term, a sponsor plays the long game. In the partnership context, of course, the ultimate return is the contributions you will make to the firm that will also be a benefit to the sponsor, along with the added advantage of having their name attached to a success.
Even in the associate context, when there is greater uncertainty about the associate’s ultimate trajectory at the firm or beyond, sponsoring a talented young attorney can reap huge rewards down the road. At minimum, a successful sponsorship expands the sponsor’s network, but many associates can end up as future clients of their partner sponsors.
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One final note: It’s never too early to start cultivating relationships that could ultimately lead to sponsorship. From the moment you walk in the firm’s door, start thinking strategically about finding mentors—and about building your own reputation so that a sponsor will happily advocate for you.
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