Mentorship and sponsorship: ensuring diverse talent can succeed

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What qualities should a mentor have? How do sponsors elevate careers? When (and where) should you look for a mentor or a sponsor? We asked four lawyers from Jones Day to share everything they know about making the most of these crucial working relationships.

*Miguel Eaton, Jennifer Everett, Justin McKithen, and Allison McQueen 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.


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?  

Miguel Eaton, Practice Leader, Washington D.C.:  There is overlap in the roles but they serve different purposes.  A mentor is someone who can give career advice but for whom you typically do not work directly. In the law firm setting, they describe the culture and unwritten rules – e.g., advantages and disadvantages of choosing a particular practice group, how business development works, etc.   A sponsor tends to be someone in your practice that advocates for you and perhaps sees you as their successor. They provide guidance directed at your particular practice – strategy on cases, pitches to make to clients, etc. 

Jennifer Everett, Partner Washington D.C.:  A mentor is someone who can provide career advice and counsel; you can bounce career-related questions off them, and they serve as a sounding board for visions you have for your career.

A sponsor is someone who focuses on your career development.  They may be in your field or practice of law but their goal and objective is to see that you receive opportunities to advance and succeed in your career. Sponsors may be in a position of leadership.

It is important for attorneys to have both in their progression as an attorney.  A mentor will be a sounding board when you receive a difficult matter or are working with a new partner for the first time – they can provide guidance and advice on how to work towards success.  A sponsor can be the catalyst that advances your career to the next level.  Seek out both.

Justin McKithen, Associate, Atlanta:  One of the best ways I’ve seen it summed up is this: “A mentor talks with you. A sponsor talks about you.” In any space, mentors have much to offer in the sense of providing support, advice and guidance. But while the mentor-mentee relationship is one-on-one, sponsors go that extra step in that they get others involved in ways that facilitate your growth and advancement. Being a sponsor means being an advocate and a promoter, often in ways that have no benefit to the sponsor themselves.

I’ve been very fortunate to have both mentors and sponsors who have been critically important to my development. I’ve had mentors who I can talk to behind closed doors for direction, but I’ve also had sponsors who have spoken on my behalf and advocated for me when I’m not even in the room. None of us get to where we are without the support of others. I owe much of my progression as an attorney and a professional to those who have taken the time to mentor me, or who have seen something in me that they felt was worthy of their sponsorship.

Allison McQueen, Associate, Chicago:  A mentor is someone who, at their core, is there to support, guide, and challenge you.  I think of sponsorship as a more intentional and honest form of mentorship.  A sponsor is someone who takes extra steps to help pave the way for your career—both by making you a better professional today, and by looking for opportunities to make the “future you” a greater success story. 

Mentors and sponsors have been crucial to my progression as an attorney at Jones Day.  Both have allowed me to take ownership of my day-to-day work and have challenged me to take on assignments and set goals I otherwise might not have considered myself qualified for.  Sponsors have gone above and beyond to ensure I feel like a valued colleague with a clear path forward.  My sponsors are often a step ahead of me when it comes to looking for opportunities for my professional growth—I think of them as both advocates and teammates. 



CA: Mentorship initiatives have been around for quite some time: how have they evolved to become more effective? 

Eaton:  I think technology has made networking easier to find effective mentors, and it is easier than ever to communicate and stay abreast of what mentors and mentees are doing professionally and personally.

McQueen:  I believe mentorship initiatives have become much more intentional, and much less formal.  A mentor shouldn’t feel like someone that was assigned to you—it should be someone who you will relate to, and who will help you honestly navigate the highs and lows of your career.  Rather than forcing a relationship, mentorship initiatives are taking more time to consider the value a particular mentor can bring, and are pairing that with the needs of an individual mentee. 


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

Eaton:  Someone who has success at the firm, who understands the culture of the law firm, and is respected by other partners. 

Everett:  You should seek out a mentor who you admire and whose opinion you respect.  Your mentor should have an interest in your development and growth and always have an open door.

McKithen: I think the best mentorships are those that develop organically. Whether the mentor or the mentee, I wouldn’t want to have a relationship that felt forced or transactional in nature. To that end, I think the most important factor is a genuine relationship between the mentor and the mentee. With that as a solid foundation, the mentoring aspect comes pretty naturally.

CA: What are some of the traits you would use to describe an effective mentor – specifically an effective mentor for an attorney who belongs to an underrepresented group or groups? 

Eaton:  First and foremost, someone who has your best interest at heart.  Second, someone who understands the unique challenges that underrepresented attorneys typically face (although the mentors themselves do not need to be from underrepresented groups). Third, someone who has the respect of other members of the firm.

Everett:  A mentor should be someone who has knowledge and experience in your working environment or similar places. A mentor should provide you with honest and unbiased advice to guide you in your career development. A mentor does not need to be someone who is of your same gender or race. Mentors are simply individuals who have a vested interest in your development and advancement. Seek out multiple mentors that you trust to provide honest opinions and valued advice.

McQueen:  When seeking out a mentor, I look for someone who embodies one or more aspects of what I hope my future professional self will be: someone successful in the areas of the law I am most interested in, someone well-respected by their colleagues and peers, and someone who manages to balance their professional goals with time dedicated to their friends and family.  While I certainly have mentors who encapsulate all those things, I have been just as touched by mentors who practice in a completely different field.  One of the first partner mentors to make me feel comfortable being my authentic self in a professional setting was randomly “assigned” to mentor me (even though there is no overlap in our respective practice groups).

CA: What advice would you give to those from underrepresented groups on finding informal mentors early on in their career? 

Eaton:  Look for someone with whom you have something in common (shared interests, school, etc.) and be direct in asking for help.  Also, be sure to do good work and work hard.  Mentors are much more willing to help someone who demonstrates a commitment to the law firm.  

Everett:  Seek them early and often. You do not need to rely on mentors who may be officially assigned to you. Do your own homework to find mentors you trust and can be great advisors.

McKithen:  Don’t just fall into the trap of thinking that all your mentors have to look like you. Being in underrepresented groups, it’s very easy to gravitate to others in the same group because it’s comfortable. But mentors – like mentorship itself – can come in many different forms and from many different kinds of people. Personally, one of my most valued mentors is a South Asian woman. Our relationship began in the workplace, but over time it grew into much more and now I reach out to bug her about anything and everything. Developing relationships with your colleagues will set the stage for those types of connections, and they’ll also pay dividends in the future.

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? 

Eaton:  Mentors have helped me at every stage of my career – from choosing a practice group, to dealing with so-so evaluations, to helping with a business development, plan, etc.

McKithen:  To me, the greatest thing mentors have to offer is the wisdom that comes with their experience. I love to ask mentors the question, “What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were in my shoes?” If I can equip myself with their knowledge, I can better avoid pitfalls that they encountered or take advantage of opportunities that I otherwise might not know were available. Similarly, I try to share that same wisdom with junior lawyers.

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

Everett:  Mentors will push you to do your best and seek out opportunities. My own mentors pushed me to advocate for myself to seek challenging work from different partners to continue to expand my skill sets across data privacy and cybersecurity. They – like sponsors – can advocate for you or help you to plan and strategize your career. Mentors are teacher, role models, confidants, advisors and agents for mentees and as such, are just as critical as sponsors in early career progression.

McKithen:  As a young lawyer fresh out of law school, I was always painfully aware of the fact that I knew very little about practicing. I was equally aware, however, that the best way to learn was by working with and observing others. The mentorship I received from senior lawyers about the right way to do things, both substantively and practically, was invaluable.

McQueen:  Early in my professional development, finding mentors at various stages of their careers provided me with a rough roadmap of what I knew I was working towards.  As a young associate, I relied on associate mentors who were just a few years ahead of me to help me navigate day-to-day questions and mishaps, and to serve as a beacon of what I could become with hard work and dedication.  Older mentors similarly served as beacons for the future, but they were also there to challenge me and give me perspective—particularly when I might have doubted myself.

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

Eaton:  We have a lot of up-from-the ranks partners … more-so than almost all our peer firms.  That does not happen, in my opinion, without strong mentoring relationships because it means people are staying and making partner.

McQueen:  There are two results that stand out to me: (1) the creation of an environment where people want to stay and develop professionally, and (2) the rise of new mentors looking to pay it forward.  The incredible mentorship so many attorneys receive makes them feel connected to their work and to the firm.  Great mentors make you feel valued and heard, so much so that it is hard to imagine finding a similarly supportive environment elsewhere.  The work environment good mentorship fosters is key to the firm’s retention.  The shift we see from mentee to mentor is also a great testament to the firm’s mentorship efforts.  My mentors’ efforts to provide me with professional development opportunities allowed me to grow in both my skill set and my confidence as a lawyer, and I want to ensure I provide the same opportunities for those who are just joining the firm.



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

McKithen:  More than anything, I’ve found that doing good work and being a great team player have been essential to finding a sponsor. You just can’t expect a sponsor to advocate for you if you haven’t given them a reason to do so. Once you’re lucky enough to get a sponsor, I think the goal then becomes making sure you take full advantage of the opportunity, because doing so leads to more opportunities, and perhaps even more sponsors. Sponsors aren’t just senior lawyers – they can also be clients and former colleagues. You never know where someone’s career will take them and how your paths may cross in the future.  

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? 

Eaton:  Early on.  I wanted to work for someone who needed help and had work.  My practice is a technical / specialized one, so there were not a lot of associates who wanted to learn it.  So it was a good fit.

McKithen:  I can’t say that I’ve ever looked for a sponsor, because when it comes down to it, your sponsor has to choose you. There’s a lot more at stake when it comes to sponsorship compared to mentorship, because your sponsor has to be willing to put their neck on the line for you. Because of that, I think the best tip for securing a sponsor is simply to do good work. Doing so will help you develop a strong reputation, and a strong reputation will help you get noticed. It won’t necessarily happen overnight, but eventually, someone will likely take an interest in you and your development, and become a sponsor. 

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? 

Eaton:  Someone who is secure and successful in their own practice.  That kind of sponsor is more willing to feed you work, has the respect of their partners when they advocate for you, and will generally help your career progress.

McKithen:  I think it goes without saying that a sponsor has to be in a position of influence to be effective. Being “in the room where it happens” is what it’s all about. But with that as a given, I also think an effective sponsor for diverse attorneys has to be willing to break the mold and take risks, because there’s a risk that the attorney they choose to sponsor won’t succeed or will have some missteps along the way. (And if there isn’t any risk of that, that attorney probably wasn’t in much need of a sponsor to begin with!). No one wants to vouch for someone who will make them look bad, and the surefire way to prevent that from happening is not to vouch for them at all. So, an effective sponsor for a diverse attorney should be prepared to not just provide visibility and opportunities, but also to be in a position to provide assistance if the attorney struggles.

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

Eaton:  Sponsors definitely exist at the partnership level, especially for junior partners.  They help with business development plans and give you substantive advice as you start to first-chair cases.

Everett:  Yes, sponsors at the partner level are critical to developing business. New partners have to continue to develop their own brand and bring in new clients and matters. Forging relationships with more seasoned partners is a great way to develop your own book of business and client relationships as a diverse partner.

CA: How can sponsors use their skills and participate in other DE&I initiatives at the firm, like affinity groups and wellbeing efforts? 

McKithen:  Diversity has been in the spotlight in recent years for the legal profession, and rightfully so. But one could question whether law firms are truly intent on improving diversity or whether they are just paying lip service to the matter. It’s one thing to talk-the-talk, like how nearly everyone has a diversity section on the firm website, but it’s another thing to walk-the-walk and implement meaningful DE&I initiatives that move the needle. That’s where sponsors can come in, because they have the ability to actually effectuate change. Sponsors can help drive recruitment, mentorship and retention efforts.

I think Jones Day does a tremendous job in this regard, because you see individuals who have the capacity to be sponsors also participating in Firm efforts along these lines. For example, I’ve always found it impactful that our Atlanta office’s hiring partner makes it a point to attend and conduct law student interviews at minority job fairs. I’m very appreciative of the Firm’s efforts on DE&I initiatives.


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? 

Eaton:  It will take strong mentors and sponsors for each diverse attorney to help with retention and promotion.

Everett:  Those who serve as mentors and sponsors should continue to take conscious and deliberate steps to promote and guide diverse attorneys who may not have the same background or life experiences.  This is how mentorship or sponsorship relationships become beneficial to both parties to foster new relationships beyond the beaten path.

McKithen:  I’m a big believer in the idea that promotion breeds retention. I think diverse attorneys are more likely to be in it for the long haul if they feel valued and primed for success. So it’s important that mentorship and sponsorship initiatives are geared towards developing and promoting diverse attorneys in meaningful ways. Over time, I think a by-product of those efforts will be improved retention, because younger diverse attorneys will have stronger support systems and see plenty of success stories that can serve as a blueprint for their own careers.