New lawyers need a mentor and a sponsor. And they aren’t the same thing.

By Molly B. Hough

0420-Mentor-Sponsor-MountainI often find myself in conversations with new lawyers who either: a) do not have a mentor and do not make finding a mentor a priority, or b) who already have a mentor and don’t make earning a sponsor a priority. These relationships can easily take a back seat in your career when you are trying to establish yourself. It is crucial to understand the value each relationship offers, because both are essential as you progress in your career, and they serve different purposes. 

What are the differences between a mentor and a sponsor? 

Mentors will traditionally serve as guides throughout your career. They will steer you through workplace challenges, encourage you, and help you think strategically about short- and long-term career goals. Finding a mentor is a crucial first step when starting a career. This can often be overlooked because there is much more to focus on when you first become a lawyer, such as developing a network and learning the hard skills (writing, courtroom experience, detail work, etc.). But taking the time to cultivate a mentor relationship will offer you a guide when you truly need one, especially in the first year as a lawyer. In your first few years, you will encounter many obstacles within the workplace that law school simply did not train you to navigate. Engaging in repetitive conversations with a mentor can help you not only work through such challenges, but to think beyond the work that is in front of you to establish yourself as a great lawyer. 

A sponsor, on the other hand, serves as an advocate when you are not in the room. They speak publicly about you and tell others that you are capable of the task or project that needs to be distributed. These are likely senior-level people who have power or influence in the areas you wish to pursue. At their core, they believe in you and your ability, work ethic, and talent. Sponsors will help advance your career by helping you retain key assignments, meet clients, and earn leadership opportunities. 

When a sponsor vouches for you, they are putting their own reputation at risk. Eileen Scully, founder and CEO of The Rising Tides, a consulting and advisory firm, explains the difference between a mentor and a sponsor this way: “You can ask someone to be your mentor. You cannot ask someone to be your sponsor—they decide that on their own.”1

How to find mentors and earn sponsors 

There is more than one way to find a mentor. This can occur formally through a structured program, or it can occur organically. If you are in a workplace setting where there is a formal mentorship program, then you must be intentional in who you choose. This could be someone you work closely with who understands the ways in which you need to improve (or what challenges you might be experiencing), and can jump right into helping. Another avenue to choosing a mentor is selecting someone who is not in your direct practice area but has experience in the firm or organization. 

This is my preferred avenue to choosing a mentor. It allows you to speak openly and freely to your mentor about any workplace challenges; your mentor can then help you resolve such challenges through an objective lens, and encourage you when needed. Finding formal mentors outside your organization can be just as beneficial. There are many programs like this set up through the different bar organizations, so it is important to find ways to engage with the bar organizations, whether through volunteering or serving in a leadership position. Both of these formal ways to find a mentor can help you alleviate some of the stress and cultivate the patience required for a more organic relationship to form. 

If you are not in a workplace where there is a formal program, then finding a mentor will take patience, consistency, and intentionality. Many new lawyers want the mentor relationship to flourish without putting in the work. Organic relationships will occur, but not because of a lack of effort. Mentors are generally busy people and a mentee is not always their top priority. It’s important for new lawyers to take the lead by initiating an invite, following up, and scheduling periodic meetings. Do not be discouraged if a meeting is canceled; this is not personal. Rather, be consistent and patient, and over time this relationship will grow organically and require less and less work. Push yourself to find mentors and sponsors who look and act differently than you. Some of my most beneficial relationships have been with people who look and think differently than I do, and have allowed me to be challenged and grow in ways that have benefited me personally as well as professionally. 

Identifying sponsors in your workplace takes strategic and authentic relationship building. To identify a sponsor in your organization, ask yourself the following questions:2

  1. Who makes pay, promotion or project assignment decisions that affect you? 
  2. Which senior-level leaders could benefit from your career advancement?
  3. Which senior-level leader has a network or platform most equipped to help you advance in your career?

Take time to write down a list of people who satisfy these requirements; make strides as often as you can to showcase your abilities to these key people. To be clear, this is not done through grandstanding or false promises, but through excellent work product, asking good questions regarding their careers, conducting due diligence, demonstrating loyalty, and showcasing your value through your actions. This is how you earn a sponsor and advance your career in concrete ways. 

How to effectively work with both 

Working with a mentor and a sponsor requires a two-way street. New lawyers often cheapen these relationships by only thinking about what they can receive from it and how they can grow. If you want to be in the room or at the table, then you absolutely need to bring something to it. What unique value are you bringing to this space? Why should someone at a senior level be investing their time, energy, reputation, and resources in you and your career growth? Will you ensure they receive a return on their time and investment in you?3 

This leads to a very important exercise: Are you able to articulate your value? Take the time to understand how you can communicate your abilities, and then prove this value through consistent work product, conducting due diligence, and demonstrating loyalty and intentionality. In both mentor and sponsor relationships, it is very important to set expectations. Communicate early and clearly to each other what you are wanting out of the relationship. This will help eliminate frustrations between the two of you and allow you to operate in a consistent manner that is fulfilling to you both. 

Be patient but intentional 

None of this will occur immediately—but to advance your career development, you must start making intentional decisions now. Do you want a sponsor who will insert your name into the conversation and be your advocate when you are not in the room? Do you want a mentor to help navigate the ups and downs of your career, to think strategically about your goals, and to guide you in workplace challenges? Then be consistent, because they are also making a decision on whether they want to invest in you. Diligently appear in front of them communicating your value, showcasing your excellent work product and work ethic. Remind them of the types of opportunities you want. 

Repetition is key. But it does not always come easy and can be frustrating in the day to day. When trying to build authentic relationships that will last and prove beneficial to both people, patience is critical. When you can have this mindset of patience and understanding, the day-to-day work of being intentional will set you up for success. Finally, always be grateful and never forget to say thank you. 

Both relationships are crucial to your career. Treat them as priorities, add value to each relationship, and you will have both short-term and long-term career growth in ways that were not available to you before. Individually you are capable, but with mentors and sponsors you can have concrete benefits to super-charge your career. 

MOLLY B. HOUGH is a civil litigation attorney at Bassford Remele specializing in commercial litigation, employment and labor law, and consumer law defense.


1 Grensing-Pophal, Lin, “Mentor Versus Sponsor: The Differences and How to Find and Work With Them.” Ivy Exec. Accessed 12/21/2019. https://www.ivyexec.com/career-advice/2019/mentor-versus-sponsor-differences-and-how-to-find/  

2 Baumgarten, Maryann, “The Key Role of Sponsorship”, SLAC. Accessed 12/21/2019. https://inclusion.slac.stanford.edu/sites/inclusion.slac.stanford.edu/files/The_Key_Role_of_a_Sponsorship_for_ Diverse_Talent.pdf  

3 Supra note 1.