To Thrive in Biglaw, You Need a Sponsor

Career Support System

Editors Note: Over the past few weeks, I’ve been attending conferences about professional development. Each has left me with information too important not to share.  The article below stems from a discussion that took place at Catapult 2013: Tools for a 21st Century Legal Career hosted by Law School Toolbox.

When we think of career guidance and support we tend to think of mentors – seasoned veterans willing to impart wisdom on an ongoing basis.

But to be successful at your law firm, you need more than a mentor.  You need an entire career ecosystem to support your biglaw life.  Surprisingly, the most important part of that support system is not a mentor, but a sponsor.

Sponsors v. Mentors

What’s the difference between a mentor and a sponsor?  Mentors offer behind-the-scenes guidance.  Sponsors are publicly engaged and willing to employ their influence on your behalf.  Sponsors:

  • Advocate for you.  Sponsors help shape the perception that you are a rising star.  They sing your praises in those partner-only meetings where many an associate’s career aspirations have been dashed.  Their unbridled enthusiasm gets other senior attorneys excited about working with you.
  • Give you opportunities to thrive.  Sponsors tap you to work on high profile assignments.  They staff you on matters that allow you to showcase your skills and/or help you gain new ones.  They shepherd your development.
  • Protect you from career killers.  By keeping you busy, sponsors shield you from dead-end assignments and abusive senior attorneys.  They share constructive criticism so that you can immediately address it.  They counter rumblings about your occasional mistakes – and you will make them – with the refrain “I am sure that was a one-off. That associate is typically excellent.”

In short, sponsors use their capital to invest in your success. 

Other Members of Your Support System

So, you have sponsors, the holy grail of career support.  You also have mentors, who share the wisdom gleaned from their experiences.  In an earlier post, I discussed the following other potential members of your support system:

  • Advisors: Advising is an informational interaction to provide facts or clarification about a topic.  Advisors give you basic answers or an explanation about a process.
  • Coaches: Coaching is a forward-looking, action-oriented partnership to help you achieve specific career goals.  Coaches help you learn specific skills or set career goals.
  • Counselors: Counseling is help from a licensed professional to tackle personal obstacles to your career success.  Counselors help you overcome personal matters that may be impacting your career.

Finally, you’d be remiss to overlook your peers as a source of support.  They are navigating the biglaw waters right along with you and can empathize with your all-nighters, help you learn in real-time from their successes (and their mistakes), and help you remember that you are not alone.

Who is a part of your career support network? Let us know in the comments below.

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Melinda Hightower

Melinda Hightower

Founder and Chair at Blueprint JD
Melinda Hightower is passionate about legal diversity, literature and community activism. When she’s not busy earning her keep as an attorney, she operates Blueprint JD, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to building diversity in the legal profession.