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Six Tips for Attorneys of Color to Find and Work with Mentors and Sponsors

Monica R. Parker, Esq., is the Director of Diversity & Inclusion and Community Outreach at Bracewell LLP. A former practicing attorney, Monica has worked in professional development and diversity & inclusion with law firms and other organizations for a number of years. Monica is also the author of What It Takes: How Women of Color Can Thrive Within the Practice of Law (American Bar Association). 

Mentors and sponsors are critical in helping all attorneys advance in their careers, but especially attorneys of color. As underrepresented members of law firms, we need advocates and champions to help us navigate and thrive in our careers. Let’s talk about how you can find and work with mentors and sponsors to help you grow and develop.

But first, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page about the difference between mentors and sponsors because both are important; but they are different roles. You’ve likely already worked with a mentor. Often firms assign mentors when you join a firm. They’re the folks that can “show you the ropes” (i.e., provide guidance and advice on how law firms work and being a lawyer, etc.)

Sponsors have a heightened level of responsibility. They take on the role of helping you to advance your career at the firm. That can include introducing you to other influential partners, identifying gaps in your knowledge and helping you fill them, supporting you in building a book of business, and advocating for you to make partner.

So how do you go about finding folks to serve as your mentors and sponsors and then working effectively with them?

Tip #1. Participate in your firm mentorship/sponsorship programs. At the risk of stating the obvious, be sure to take advantage of any mentorship programs that your firm offers. As mentioned above, mentorship programs are standard at firms. Your firm will make the match for you and provide some structure around the relationship, but it will be up to you and your mentor to meet and build a relationship. Prepare for those meetings by researching your mentor and coming with a few questions. If your mentor makes suggestions or recommendations, be sure to act on them. Also, be sure to report back to your mentor. That shows them their time has been well spent. It also helps build the relationship and makes them want to continue to support you.  

Not all firms have sponsorship programs; but if they do, they are often geared toward high-performing senior associates. If given the opportunity, of course, you should participate. Here too, the firm will provide guidance on the structure and manage the matching process. Similarly to mentors, sponsors serve an important role in helping associates understand and navigate the culture of an organization, as well as the unwritten rules—just at a higher level, such as what it takes to make partner.

Tip #2. Have more than one mentor. Just as one friend can’t be everything for you, neither can one mentor. You’ll learn different things from different folks and benefit from building relationships across your firm. And mentors don’t necessarily have to be in your office or practice group. As you connect with attorneys at firm-sponsored events and retreats, follow up with one or two of the folks you enjoyed talking with and ask if you can schedule a chat. They’ll likely be flattered.  

Tip #3. Not all of your mentors have to work at your firm; you can find mentors at other firms. When you attend industry events, introduce yourself to more senior folks. Pro tip: Get their business cards and email them afterward to tell them you enjoyed meeting them and invite them for coffee. Not nearly enough people are doing this. Join legal associations and participate in events; those are great opportunities to meet and develop relationships with possible mentors.

Tip #4. Finding mentors is easier than finding sponsors. In fact, it’s much easier to find a mentor. Most folks are happy to provide you with tips and advice. And if you’re not comfortable asking the person, “Will you be my mentor?” you don’t have to do that. You can just invite them for coffee or lunch and ask them questions about their experiences practicing law.

I’ll admit finding a sponsor is trickier (if your firm doesn’t have a formal sponsorship program). It has more to do with attracting the partners that will “go to bat” for you. And you do that by doing excellent work and making an effort to build relationships with influential partners within and outside of your practice group.

And absolutely, your firm has a role to play in that equation, even if they don’t have a formal sponsorship program. It’s about the firm making sure that everyone has the same opportunities to do high-value substantive work early in their careers, as well as exposure to partners across their practice groups (and beyond). That’s the work that DEI folks like me and other firm leadership are focused on.

Tip #5. Think outside the box. In the ideal world, you would find someone “like you” to serve as your mentor. But often women attorneys and attorneys of color are inundated with requests to be mentors. Consider folks who are different races and genders than you. Look for points of connection. A friend of mine who’s now a partner at a large law firm noticed photos of a partner’s daughter in his office. She asked the partner about his daughter, and he quickly realized that my friend was likely navigating similar challenges as his daughter who was around the same age. He ended up becoming a big ally of my friend.

Tip #6. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. You likely have gotten to where you are by working really hard. It can seem like asking someone for insight or their perspective might come across as if you don’t know what you’re doing. And that might seem as if it could be detrimental. The truth is that in order to succeed at law firms, you must have mentors and sponsors. In fact, everyone who succeeds at law firms has them. Rather than seeing it as a weakness, see it as an important tool in your toolkit—one that will help you thrive at your law firm.