When discussing their career prospects, associates often note that promotion depends on close relationships with the rainmaking or other powerful partners. Although important, it can often be difficult for minority and female associates to form the right type of relationship with partners. At the Minority Corporate Counsel Association’s Creating Pathways to Diversity Conference, a panel of experts explained the difference between mentorship and sponsorship and provided tips on how minority and female associates can seek out effective mentors and sponsors.
A mentor is an associate’s shoulder to cry on, someone to act as a sounding board, explain firm policies and help the associate define goals. Conversely, a sponsor is someone who can help the associate achieve his or her goals. A sponsor has a voice at the decision-making table.
While many firms pair associates with partner or more senior associate mentors, the best mentorships are those that form organically. Associates should look for someone they want to be like, whether inside or outside of their firm, and reach out. The panel noted that associates are responsible for maintaining the mentor relationship by inviting the mentor for coffee, lunch, drinks, etc. Older attorneys are often happy to share their experiences or institutional knowledge about this firm and meeting for coffee every couple of weeks to talk does not require much of a sacrifice for the mentor.
Finding a sponsor can be more difficult. Sponsors are looking for the best protégés; associates that will make them look good because sponsors will go to bat for their protégés. So in a way, sponsorship is “earned” by providing excellent work product. Requesting assignments from potential sponsors and then asking for constructive criticism (and listening to it!) is a good way to begin a sponsorship relationship and get the sponsor to invest. However, associates need to go beyond a forming a good working relationship with potential sponsors, they also need to find common ground. A sponsor is most likely to recommend an associate if the sponsor likes the associate.
This is where many minority and female associates struggle. Powerful partners are often older white males and may have implicit bias against minority and female associates or they simply may already have a more obvious and easier connection with white male associates. In addition to asking for assignments and then producing excellent work product, minority and female associates also need to foster a relationship of mutual trust. This can be done by attending firm happy hours or chatting up the sponsor in the firm kitchen. Minority and female associates should target a sponsor that they already know that they have something in common with—maybe it’s a shared alma mater, interest in golf or taste in music. Use that shared interest as an icebreaker and develop a friendly relationship from there. That social relationship may then turn into a business relationship as the sponsor knows and likes the associate personally and has seen the associate produce A+ work.
The panel emphasized that finding a mentor or a sponsor is not a science, but rather an art. Associates aren’t going to hit it off with every potential mentor or sponsor, but they shouldn’t be discouraged. If it appears that one mentor or sponsor isn’t interested, it may be time to move on to the next. Although time consuming, the extra investment can reap rewards for minority and female associates when its time for promotions.
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