Mentorship and sponsorship: ensuring diverse talent can succeed

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Mentors and sponsors play different roles in helping diverse lawyers thrive and climb the ranks. Here we asked five lawyers from Jones Day to give you their thoughts on how to make the most out of these crucial working relationships.

*Yvette McGee Brown, Esha Mankodi, Stephen Parrinello, Cortney Robinson, and Emmanuel Ubiñas are lawyers at Jones Day and contributed to this article. The views and opinions set forth herein are the personal views or opinions of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect views or opinions of the law firm with which they are associated.

 

Introduction

Chambers Associate: What do you feel is the difference between mentorship and sponsorship?  How have mentorship and sponsorship been important to your progression as an attorney? 

Yvette McGee Brown, partner: Mentors are necessary to success in any career. Mentors provide the road map to success – the unwritten rules of expectations. In a law firm, mentors help young lawyers develop their core legal skills, but also the soft skills and relationship building necessary to succeed. Mentors are a sounding board and a reality check. Sponsors are those people who choose you. Sponsors see something in you, perhaps not fully developed talent, but potential. Sponsors are those people who are speaking about you when you are not in the room. Sponsors push you, stretch you, challenge you to be better. They are not always warm and fuzzy in the way a mentor will be, but they are vitally important to your success. In my own career a sponsor (a white man), pushed me to communicate more effectively, less emotionally, when discussing matters on a case, to look at criticism as areas for improvement and not a personal attack, and to polish my presentation skills, “how you show up matters.” He literally changed me as a professional. Not overnight, but over time, as I thought about his words and I held up a mirror to my own deficits and worked to eliminate them. 

Emmanuel Ubiñas, partner: Mentors in my life advise and support me.  Sponsors advocate and vouch for me.  Especially early in my career, mentors helped guide me and avoid stumbles (or advised me on how to deal with stumbles).  Mentors helped me learn so that my work and experience stood out to co-workers, superiors, and clients.  Sponsors have become more visible to me later in my career.  In a crowded arena of lawyers and other business leaders, sponsors help promote me and advocate for me, especially in situations where I am unable to be “in the room” to advocate for myself.      

Esha Mankodi, associate:  A mentor is someone who guides you and gives you advice.  A sponsor is all of those things plus someone who will go out of their way to help you advance and succeed.  Mentors and sponsors have been important to my career progression so far by letting me do things before I thought I was ready, making sure I succeeded, and then shouting it from the rooftops when I did so I didn’t have to.

 

Mentorship

CA: D&I mentorship initiatives have been around for quite some time: how have they evolved to become more effective?

YMB: The most effective part of diversity and inclusion initiatives is inclusion. In the early days of D&I initiatives, law firms focused on diversity – getting numbers in the door. The evolution has been in focusing on inclusion. Law students today are savvy. They look at how many diverse lawyers are partners and in leadership positions in the law firm. Successful D&I initiatives create an inclusive environment, where people can bring their diversity comfortably to the workplace. It’s not just one on one mentoring but inclusion in the life of the law firm – partners reaching out to include diverse lawyers on their matters, stopping by their offices, or inviting them to lunch or social events. Involvement in recruiting, office committees, and engagement on high profile matters.  Practice leaders should be intentional in staffing diverse teams and hold partners accountable who fail to do so. Affinity groups help create a sense of inclusion where lawyers who share the same affinity can gather, either in person or virtually, to share community and support.

Stephen Parrinello, partner:  I think the evolution has been twofold.  On the one hand, I have seen a growing emphasis on visibility through more frequent and formal D&I sessions, on targeted mentor-mentee programs for summer associates and new or lateral associates, and on fostering communication with the entire firm (including, at Jones Day, across our offices around the globe) about the importance of D&I initiatives.  On the other hand, I have also seen a growing willingness among younger generations to reach out and make themselves and their interest in mentorship opportunities and D&I initiatives known.  

 

CA: What factors do you consider important when seeking out a mentor? 

SP:  From a substantive work skills perspective, I think seeking out a mentor within the practice group that you are interested in and that you intellectually connect with is critical. I found that having someone both close in work years to me, as well as someone more senior, was a perfect mix. If those people also happen to be of a similar diverse background, all the better, but that may just be hard to come by depending on the size and demographics of the practice group. 

 

“I think seeking out a mentor within the practice group that you are interested in and that you intellectually connect with is critical.”

 

From an interpersonal work skills perspective, I think seeking out a mentor with the same diverse background as you is extremely helpful, in particular to the extent it creates a “safe space” to be honest about any concerns or issues. But seeking out similarly-situated mentors should not be done to the exclusion of developing mentor-mentee relationships with other people that you personally connect with. I have often found that people with different experiences and perspectives than me have helped me understand the impact of my own experiences and shaped my own perspective and how I work with others.  

EU: When seeking out a mentor, I first look for someone with relevant experience and knowledge, as well as someone I want to emulate. As a mentee, I want to be confident that the person giving me advice is leading me in the right direction.  Another important factor is someone with the desire and time to mentor. Last, but very important, the mentor has to be someone I can trust. I have to be able to discuss issues with my mentor openly and in confidence.   

Cortney Robinson, associate: When seeking out a mentor, I focus on the shared personality traits, affinities, and lifestyle similarities between myself and the person I’d like to be my mentor. I also consider my potential mentor’s work experience – in terms of skill set and not just seniority – and familiarity with the type of work I’d like to do, even if we are not in the same practice area.

 

CA: What are some of the traits you would use to describe an effective mentor, specifically an effective mentor for a diverse and/or female attorney?

YMB: The traits for an effective mentor are the same regardless of the gender or ethnicity of the mentee: honesty, insight, candid and objective feedback, and support. The mentor needs to be intentional in scheduling time with the mentee, look for opportunities to include the mentee in visible assignments, let the mentee know feedback you are hearing and how that person may course correct if needed. They provide soft skills advice – are they coming into the office too late or leaving too early for a new associate? Are they developing good social relationships in the office? They give practical advice on getting high profile work.

EU: While mentors can come from many backgrounds, it is important to have mentors that can understand you and your values, challenges, and goals. I have found having several mentors — ideally of different genders, races, ages, and backgrounds — beneficial. Even with issues relating to race or gender, having the perspective of someone “not like you” is helpful to ensure all viewpoints are considered.

 

“The mentor needs to be intentional in scheduling time with the mentee, look for opportunities to include the mentee in visible assignments, let the mentee know feedback you are hearing and how that person may course correct if needed.”

 

EM:  An effective mentor is someone who teaches you things and helps you navigate the system. My mentors have helped me get on the right cases, recover from my mistakes, and lent an ear when I was frustrated or struggling.  As a mentor, I have not hesitated to speak up to my colleagues on behalf of my mentees if I thought they were not being given a fair chance. Good mentors help you rewrite anxiety-inducing emails, talk though whether you should get on that case or deal, and let you painfully figure out how to file something for the first time while they sit next to you instead of doing it themselves in five minutes (one of my mentors did this for me late in the evening on a filing day once. He is a saint). They also tell you when you’re doing something wrong, or not doing enough, and help you fix it.

 

CA: What advice would you give to junior diverse and/or female attorneys on finding informal mentors early on in their career?   

EU: Meet people. Meet lots of people. You never know who will be your mentor. And don’t be afraid to ask people for advice. Generally speaking, people like to give advice and be viewed as a trusted confidant. Most of my mentor relationships have started with some variation of a simple question, “Can I get your thoughts on something?”  After getting the advice, follow-up and show appreciation. The one caveat here is to be mindful of who you are asking the question to – you don’t want to ask a question of someone who may judge you and ultimately hurt your career or life path. 

EM: Your mentors aren’t always going to look like you or have much in common with you.  That’s ok.  Don’t hesitate to ask someone who you want to get to know better or work with for a few minutes of their time over coffee, but be respectful of their schedule. As the mentee, you should take the initiative to maintain the relationship. Once the relationship is established, I’m a big fan of mentor-mentee breakfasts, because people usually don’t cancel breakfast and it tends to work for people in different stages of life as well (and you get to eat waffles).

 

“Your mentors aren’t always going to look like you or have much in common with you.  That’s ok.”

 

CR:  I would encourage junior diverse attorneys who are looking for informal mentors to reach out to the attorneys that inspire them. Do not be afraid to ask someone to be your mentor, and do not limit your mentors to just partners or senior associates – even attorneys only a few years your senior can offer great support and advice.

 

CA: What information, skills or advice have you sought to get out of your mentor relationships, and have you been successful in doing so?  How have you approached your mentor relationships to get the most out of them?

SP:  I have sought the full gamut of advice from mentors, which is again why I’d say that it’s important to find more than just one. Some of my mentors that were closer in years to me were great for getting answers to the “How does so-and-so-partner like to communicate?” or “What does so-and-so-partner like to see in work product?” Some of the more senior mentors I had were great for getting a sense of how the dynamics work between the more senior members and leaders within the Firm and with clients. 

EM:  I turn to my mentors when I am struggling with a decision relating to work – some are big (like how to balance competing demands or work towards filling a gap in my skill set) and some are small (one of my mentors helped me figure out how to word my out of office response for my wedding and honeymoon).  It should be a two-way relationship – if your mentor is having a bad day, part of the deal is that you take them to coffee and listen. 

CR:  I’ve asked my mentors for advice on almost everything – from how to balance work and life commitments, to best practices at the office, to case management techniques. By approaching my mentors with genuine interest and keeping my schedule flexible (people are busy and sometimes it can be hard to connect), I’ve been successful at picking up some amazing advice from my mentors.  

 

CA: In your experience, if a mentoring relationship has not been working, or if you felt like it was time for a change, how have you approached finding and requesting a new mentor?  What advice would you give to a fellow associate who is looking for a new mentor?

YMB:  You are allowed to have more than one mentor. There is no formal end to the mentor relationship and I don’t suggest you ask people to be your mentor. As you develop new relationships, mentors will evolve. Let it happen organically.

 

“I like to have several mentors so that if one mentoring relationship no longer works or feels outdated, I have other mentors to rely on.”

 

EU:  Seek out other mentors and perspectives. Again, you never know when and where you will meet your next mentor. Seeking a second opinion or advice from someone outside your current circle can lead to new relationships.  Ask others that may have been in your position who they have reached out to for advice. Don’t be afraid to ask people to lunch. Show interest in forming new relationships with those you view as potential mentors. And don’t view it as a one-way street – look for ways to help potential mentors, especially those that you work with. The mentee participating actively in the relationship is just as important as the mentor’s participation. 

CR:  I like to have several mentors so that if one mentoring relationship no longer works or feels outdated, I have other mentors to rely on. When finding a new mentor, I focus on natural connections and pay attention to the attorneys who have previously offered me advice and guidance, even without formally being considered my mentor at the time.

 

CA: In what ways did you find mentorship to be a particularly useful model to promote early career progression?

YMB:  I have mentored many young diverse lawyers – male and female – over my career. They have all been bright and capable, but in the midst of being one of a few diverse people in their offices, they sometimes let the voice of insecurity we all have become too loud. My approach is to get them to focus on the work, as doing good work builds confidence. I also encourage them to step out of their comfort zone. Don’t assume that because people look different to you that their experience is different from yours. Take the time to get to know people and give them a chance to surprise you. People are not always what they seem. And, most importantly, the key to success is surrounding yourself with all types of people. You need a variety of opinions and thoughts to stretch your own view of the world and to make you a better lawyer. Work hard to learn your craft. Spend time on developing yourself as a lawyer and block out any noise that interferes with that. Don’t worry about what someone else is doing – stay up to date on your area of the law. Raise your hand for stretch assignments. Stop by your partner’s office, let him/her know you are interested in working with them, let them know when you have accomplished a new skill, for example, if you’ve taken a deposition, prepared an expert, argued a motion, etc. Good work and strong relationships lead to better work and client opportunities.

 

“Over time, as my mentors have become familiar with my work and work ethic, they have provided me with incredible work opportunities.”

 

EU:  Coming from a family with no lawyers or business background and limited time in the United States, I definitely needed mentoring when I joined a large U.S. corporate law firm. I was fortunate in that I found people at Jones Day early on that were successful at what they did, showed interest in me, and mentored me.  Within the law firm, they included peers that started with me, mid and senior associates, and partners. At the time, I did not view most of them as mentors. But it was a group of people I trusted and who trusted me.  These people were key in helping me when I was taking on new changes, which in the early years could mean a new assignment or working for a new person. Many of them still remain mentors and some have become sponsors.  

CR:  Over time, as my mentors have become familiar with my work and work ethic, they have provided me with incredible work opportunities. My mentors are also often more willing than others to help me with new key skills or bring me into client-facing projects.  My mentors have also been incredibly affirming when I have done well on a particular matter or assignment and that kind of positive reinforcement builds my confidence as an attorney. 

 

CA: What results has the firm seen from mentorship efforts?

YMB:  People stay where they feel valued and part of something. Mentoring connects people to each other and to the firm. We have found mentoring relationships to be very effective at retaining diverse lawyers and advancing them to leadership/practice positions. In a large organization, young lawyers need a chorus of people singing their praises. Mentoring is a very effective way to develop visibility, skills, and relationship.

 

“We have found mentoring relationships to be very effective at retaining diverse lawyers and advancing them to leadership/practice positions.”

 

SP:  I think meaningful retention is the single most important result from the firm’s mentorship efforts. There are some people whose work personality may just not fit with the culture of the firm, and those individuals may self-select out. But for those whose work personalities truly fit with the firm’s values, matching them with the right mentors (especially mentors that may share a particular diverse background) such that they see a future here has done much to strengthen the underlying fabric of the firm’s culture.

EU:  The initial formal mentorship process adopted by the firm helps to make sure someone is there on day one to help a new hire.  But where the firm has stood out to me is its culture, which breeds mentor relationships.  I have not had a shortage of people I could go to during my career when I needed a mentor or advice – and I have felt obliged to pay it forward. I know other partners and senior associates feel the same way.  We are all in this together and are doing what we can to make sure we all succeed. Doors are always open for younger lawyers looking for advice.

 

Sponsorship

CA: When did sponsorship become widespread in the legal profession and how has the concept evolved in recent years?

Yvette McGee Brown, partner:  Interesting question. Sponsorship has been around forever. It’s the senior partner seeing a young partner that reminds them of themselves, taking a young partner under their wing, inviting him to the club for golf, introducing him to key clients. What has changed is the formal acknowledgement of this practice and its importance to advancement in the law firm setting, so that it can now be applied with intention to people the senior partner might not have natural affinity with. 

 

CA: What factors have you found to be the most important in finding a good sponsor?

YMB:  First, you don’t select a sponsor, they select you. It’s important to identify someone you would like to be your sponsor and look for opportunities to work with them. Practice group and seniority are key. A sponsor needs to be in the room where decisions are made. The least important factor is affinity or ally status. My greatest sponsors have been white men because they have been in the room. That is changing as more women and diverse people are in senior leadership, but don’t get bogged down on finding a senior leader that matches your affinity.

Emmanuel Ubiñas, partner: Within a law firm, I believe seniority is likely the most important quality of an effective sponsor. They are someone who is in the room or part of the conversation when evaluations or promotions are being discussed, or in a position to provide work or recommend you for work – these are also important attributes of an in-work sponsor. Outside of the firm, people in your practice area or experts in your field tend to be the most effective sponsors; they have the respect of others in your practice area and can be in the best position to promote you to others.  

 

“A sponsor needs to be in the room where decisions are made.”

 

Cortney Robinson, associate: I focus on practice groups, seniority and expertise when looking for a good sponsor.  A sponsor should be, first and foremost, your advocate, and it is important that the person vouching for you to other attorneys has a good reputation (both as a person and as an attorney) in your office and practice area.

 

CA: At what point in your career did you look for a sponsor (or are you thinking about looking for a sponsor)?  If you already have a sponsor, do you have tips for diverse attorneys on how to secure a sponsor?  If you don’t already have a sponsor, what is your plan or process for securing a sponsor?

YMB:  I don’t know that I ever “looked for a sponsor”. As my career advanced, I looked for people who were at the next level that I wanted to pursue. I sought opportunities to work with them, once I had a body of work to demonstrate my value on their team. At the end of the day, it’s about the work. What are you bringing to the table that will impress or encourage the sponsor candidate to work with you. You should be regularly checking in with senior partners in your practice. Again, look for opportunities to stop by their office, share a recent victory or stretch assignment, let them know what work you are interested in doing, ask for their help or tell them you would like to work with them. It’s a long-term process. You may not even know when they first become your sponsor.

EU:  It is never too early in one’s career to look for sponsors. Sponsors take time to develop and it’s a relationship that is earned. Typically, someone won’t (and shouldn’t) vouch for you until they know you are someone they should vouch for. The more experience the sponsor has with you and your work the better they can advocate for you.  Outside of the law firm, meet people. Join trade, civic and church groups and take an active role in leadership positions in those groups. Take on projects in those groups to show those around you the qualities you would want them to vouch for.  

 

CA: What are some of the traits you would use to describe an effective sponsor, specifically an effective sponsor for a diverse attorney as they look to climb the ranks to partnership?

YMB:  An effective sponsor provides opportunities for leadership inside the firm and places the lawyer on important matters for key clients. The sponsor should also share feedback (positive and negative) from other partners. An effective sponsor says “You need to improve X or you need to develop a better relationship with Y”. It’s not a one-way street, however. A good sponsor will periodically check in with the lawyer on their skills development as they make the run for partner. That said, sponsors are very busy, so the burden for keeping the sponsor informed rests with the lawyer. Be intentional with your sponsor on skills you need to acquire in order to prepare a good partner candidate file. If there is a key client you want to work with, tell the sponsor. Don’t assume the sponsor is up to date on everything you are doing.

 

“Typically, someone won’t (and shouldn’t) vouch for you until they know you are someone they should vouch for.  The more experience the sponsor has with you and your work the better they can advocate for you.”

 

CR: An effective sponsor should be a good advocate, preferably with strong relationships with decision makers at your office or in your practice area. For diverse attorneys, like myself, an effective sponsor also needs to be able to explain to others any specific diversity-related considerations that set you apart from other attorneys (or that even might affect your work performance) in a meaningful way.

 

CA: What information, skills or advice have you sought to get out of your sponsor relationship, and have you been successful in doing so?  How have you approached your sponsorship to get the most out of it?

EU:  A sponsor can be an important resource on the partnership process and the attributes the firm is looking for in a partner. The sponsor should know what is needed to navigate the process and be in a position to honestly and effectively advocate for you. Make sure the sponsor knows about you and your experience. If this is a person who is going to be advocating for you, they need to be armed with the right information about your experience inside and outside the law firm.  Depending on the relationship and the process, you should consider providing the sponsor a cheat sheet on you and the points you want to convey about yourself.

 

“A sponsor can be an important resource on the partnership process and the attributes the firm is looking for in a partner. The sponsor should know what is needed to navigate the process and be in a position to honestly and effectively advocate for you.”

 

Esha Mankodi, associate: I have tried to understand what skills are important for me to develop at each stage in my career and better understand Jones Day and what it values in its associates. I have approached these relationships with honesty and humility, knowing that these people know a lot more than I do. This is obvious, but it is also important to remember that the point is to have a genuine, non-transactional relationship with your sponsor and actually learn from him or her and help them any way you can as well.  

CR:  I look to my sponsors for practical and strategic advice about progressing in my career at the firm. To get the most out my relationships with my sponsor, I try to be clear about my goals and the skill sets I hope to learn each year.  It’s also important to build a relationship with your sponsor before you need them to be your advocate. Do not wait until a week before evaluations, for example, to ask someone to be your sponsor – foster your sponsor relationship early on.

 

CA: In what ways did you find sponsorship to be a particularly useful model to promote senior career progression?

YMB:  In a law firm, sponsorship is key. Associates don’t become partners just based on good work. It’s a variety of factors, including relationships. The law firm model is dependent on senior partners developing their replacement – who they introduce to clients, as well as the assignment and administrative opportunities they provide. 

EU: National, state, and local minority organizations have been very useful to meet potential sponsors, develop relationships, and show my expertise in certain areas. You never know when someone may be asked, “Do you know someone that can help with this issue?” The person being asked should know that you can help with the issue and that you are someone they can trust as a recommendation. If a sponsor does advocate for you, don’t let them down.  Be responsive and attentive to the person the sponsor mentioned you to. The easiest way to lose a sponsor is to not perform well.  Another important point: as your career progresses, more often than not your sponsors are also your “sponsees.”  Look for ways to help your sponsor’s career progression, such as promoting them for awards, work, or other job opportunities.

 

“National, state, and local minority organizations have been very useful to meet potential sponsors, develop relationships, and show my expertise in certain areas.”

 

EM: At a large law firm, it is particularly helpful to have a sponsor to help make sure the people who need to know you are doing well actually do. My first oral argument was written up in a Law360 article, unbeknownst to me.  The partner who supervised me saw it, and without telling me beforehand, forwarded it to the leader of my office to demonstrate that the argument had gone well. He didn’t have to do that, and I might have felt a bit bashful doing it myself as a junior attorney at the time.      

 

CA: Once at the partnership level, do sponsors exist to help diverse attorneys on business development efforts?

YMB:  Yes, the sponsorship should not stop once an attorney makes partner. The junior partner may need to seek additional relationships for business development but the sponsor relationship should remain. Unless the relationship was completely transactional, the sponsor will remain a sponsor and likely a friend. 

EU:  Yes, I have found sponsors to be the most important people in business development efforts.  Doing great work and being responsive and attentive to client needs often leads to more work – from other clients.  Your current clients can be some of your best sponsors.  Clients are often asked by other potential clients who they recommend.  If you are top of mind and someone that has done a good job for that client, they are very likely to recommend you. Also, as mentioned above, people I have met and worked with on national, state, and local minority initiatives and groups have been a tremendous help to me in developing clients and business-generating relationships.

 

“…the more law firms understand the importance of these relationships to female and diverse attorneys, the more law firms will counsel mentees and “sponsees,” as well as potential mentors and sponsors, on how to create and foster these relationships.”

 

CA: What results has the firm seen from sponsorship efforts?

EU:  The promotion of talented attorneys to partnership is one of the most important aspects of building a successful law firm. Connecting younger promising attorneys to sponsors through work, client development, and internal committees is something Jones Day strives to do. Outside the law firm, sponsoring lawyers for jobs at clients, government, and even other law firms can help develop and strengthen business relationships with individual lawyers and clients.     

 

The Future

CA: How do you think mentorship and sponsorship relationships/initiatives will evolve in the future to better ensure the retention and promotion of diverse attorneys?    

EU:  Natural and unforced relationships are the most fulfilling and effective mentor and sponsorship relationships. With that said, the more law firms understand the importance of these relationships to female and diverse attorneys, the more law firms will counsel mentees and “sponsees,” as well as potential mentors and sponsors, on how to create and foster these relationships.  Mentors and sponsors can identify when these relationships are needed and look to carry out these roles for younger attorneys. None of us get to where we are by ourselves, and hopefully the more potential mentors and sponsors realize that, the more willing they will be to help the next generation.