Retaining Attorneys of Color: A Deep Dive View into Sponsorship & Mentorship

Topics: Client Relations, Law Firms, Leadership, Leadership & Retention, Talent Development

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NEW YORK — This spring, the New York City Bar Association hosted its second Associate Leadership Institute (ALI), a multi-part, innovative leadership program designed to provide skill-development and networking opportunities for attorneys of color at the City Bar’s signatory law firms. The majority of faculty of the Institute were senior attorneys of color.

Gabrielle Lyse Brown, Executive Director of the City Bar’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion, sat down with two pairs of sponsors and protégés. One pair — Michael Blair, Presiding Partner of Debevoise & Plimpton and his protégé, Simone Hicks, a senior associate in the firm’s Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation group — resulted from a formal pairing at the firm. The other pair — Michele Hirshman, a partner at Paul Weiss, and her protégé, Yahonnes Cleary, a partner in the firm’s Litigation practice — had emerged from a mentoring program during Cleary’s second year at the firm and has since evolved into a sponsor-protégé relationship.

The Difference Between Sponsors & Mentors

The City Bar event focused on how to build connections between the sponsor and protégé. The panelists all agreed that it is critical to build affinity beyond the legal work itself, and discussed how in their respective relationships, the protégés’ consistent delivery of excellent work-product paired with an eagerness to learn and grow from the sponsor relationship allowed them to find commonalities in their personal and professional lives over time.

Sponsorship — The role of the sponsor is someone who is in a position of influence or power at the firm and is willing to leverage their reputation on behalf of their protégé. Sponsors may, for example, advocate for their protégé to work on significant client matters. An effective sponsor-protégé relationship relies heavily on trust and less on affinity. The sponsor relationship, when done right, will have a measurable impact on the protégé’s career.

Mentoring — A mentor is typically more involved than a sponsor. This is someone an associate can go to for advice, let down their guard and ask questions about the norms and culture of the organization, how to improve a particular skill, and how to stay accountable for their career development.

What a Sponsor Does

Ensure the Protégé Works on Significant Matters — Blair and Hirshman, the sponsors on the panel, described that making sure their protégés were considered for matters with the firm’s most important clients was one of their main responsibilities as a sponsor. They also discussed how they had advocated for their protégés within firm leadership, and also identified opportunities with their peers to get their protégés placed on high-level matters.

Share Positive Feedback from the Client about the Protégé with Key Partners — One sponsor indicated that when clients told the firm directly that they really liked the protégé’s work, the sponsor shared it with key partners of influence at the firm. As a result, the protégé was staffed on additional significant matters with the intention to showcase outstanding work.

Tap the Protégé for High-Profile Matters — Additionally, one sponsor shared a scenario where, as a result of their personal relationship, the sponsor went to the protégé with a significant matter despite not having worked together for some time, and indicated that the protégé was the person the sponsor trusted most to deliver excellent product for the client.

Advocate for the Protégé Behind the Scenes — One sponsor used their influence to advocate for their protégé to firm leaders when the protégé communicated that they were feeling stretched too thin between the long hours at work and family commitments, a discussion that may have been difficult for the protégé alone to approach with firm leadership.

A Description of an Excellent Protégé

Own and Deliver — The sponsors also discussed their views on what qualities and attributes make a great protégé. The entire panel agreed that doing outstanding work is a must, with one of the sponsors elaborating that to “step up and deliver is the number one requirement… my currency with partners at the firm is trust, and if I, as the sponsor, push my protégé to work on a top matter, I need to trust that the protégé will deliver.” Another panelist advised for protégés to “…take ownership of the client relationship like the lead partner working on the matter.”

Check-in Proactively — Both sponsors agreed that they appreciate an impromptu “thank you” or check-in from their protégé and noted that they were impressed when the protégé proactively shared with them the outcome of a suggestion the sponsors had given or the impact of their guidance.

Stay the Course — The panel outlined perhaps the most important aspect of an excellent protégé, which is commitment. “Stick around. Stay the course,” one panelist said. The sponsors and protégés agreed the best way to show appreciation is to be honest and clear about your career goals, expectations, timeframe, and deliverables to be met in order to achieve them.

Pathways to Sponsorship… Build Connections Across Difference

Analyze the Influencers in the Firm — All the panelists agreed that the pathway to sponsorship means doing great work above everything else, but relationships are a crucial part of the protégé’s long-term success. “First comes the work, and then comes the relationships,” one protégé said. The protégés discussed in detail how they worked to analyze their networks, identify the people of influence at the firm, and then figure out how to get in front of them with the long-term goal to work with them.

Be Proactive — To build relationships with the influencers, just “roam the halls and drop by,” advised one panelist. Additionally, the panelists encouraged the associates in the audience to be proactive and invite potential sponsors or influential partners for coffee or lunch. The panelists also offered advice on how to build connections during work on a common matter. Some successful strategies employed by the protégés included:

  • Showing up for internal meetings about a matter in person rather than dialing-in;
  • Using down-time in meetings to make small talk with colleagues, including asking where they are from, where they went to school, what they did on the weekend, or how the matter is going, etc.

The sponsors and protégés delivered a wealth of information based on their personal experiences to the ALI Fellows throughout the panel and in the Q&A session that followed. In post-session feedback, the Fellows expressed that they better understood the often-elusive mentor/sponsor relationship after hearing the panelists’ firsthand experiences. The Fellows also expressed that they felt more empowered to think about relationships within their networks that could have a lasting impact on their career progression.

In addition to the mentor/sponsor discussion, the Fellows received training on executive presence, communication skills, brand-building, management skills, and business development in the course of the eight-week program. The Institute culminated in a mock pitch, where teams of Fellows were paired with a client to pitch a potential matter and receive on-site feedback on their presentation.

The program, in its second year, has graduated more than 110 fourth- to eighth-year associates in New York City law firms. The City Bar hopes to continue this important initiative to help bridge the skill gap for mid-level attorneys who seek to make partner, thus helping to diversify the senior ranks of law firms.