The Evolution of Mentorship in Legal Professional Development

13 Min Read By: Rafael X. Zahralddin-Aravena


  • When it comes to training of young lawyers, internal programs have had poor to mixed results.
  • More than mentorship programs, sponsorship has become especially popular in law firms.
  • How can your firm achieve the best results for young lawyers through sponsorship?

Lawyers have different professional development obligations at each stage of their career.[1] Despite that evolutionary arc, there is one constant: the best lawyers are engaged in life-long learning. Many firms have formalized the elements of the traditional training that young lawyers historically, and often organically, received from partners and other more senior lawyers within the firm. Whether by such internal training methods or going outside the firm to hear from special consultants such as law professors or industry experts, or to participate in bar and trade associations, firms develop their lawyers in a variety of ways. In addition, seasoned lawyers equally benefit from helping to train other lawyers, whether inside or outside their firm.

One of the more prevalent law firm initiatives related to professional development for younger lawyers has been assigning mentors and encouraging participation in organizations like the American Bar Association to seek outside mentoring within its ranks. Research from the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), a well-known think tank with a research focus in this area, shows that the vast majority of women (85 percent) and multicultural professionals (81 percent) need “navigational help” inside organizations.[2] Most law firms have some sort of internal mentoring program, and many local and state bar associations also have long-standing programs, several of which are at least in part able to trace their origins to an attempt to develop or retain women and lawyers of color.[3] Despite the availability and proliferation of mentorship programs, mentorship alone has been ineffective in helping to maximize the talent hired by law firms, and the investment in young lawyers, especially women and lawyers of color, continues to dissipate.[4]


The big push for mentorship programs is not only among law firms, but also within trade and professional associations, including bar and affinity associations, and in programs that have been created to assist in creating pipelines for potential law students. Mentorship can be defined as either one-on-one relationships between an experienced lawyer and another lawyer, law student, or potential law student, or it can be executed in a group setting. Individuals meet in person, via emails, or on calls, and the meetings can be on a regular schedule or on an ad hoc basis. Group mentorship programs can be especially helpful and can take the form of skills training in networking, relationship development, interviewing, professionalism, evaluations, and how to take advantage of opportunities to develop an industry or practice expertise.

Mentorship programs, especially in trade organizations, bar associations, and with young students, have been especially effective. Especially in communities of color and of women, a lawyer taking the time to visit or work with potential future lawyers is extremely impactful. When one of those lawyers or even a group of lawyers are lawyers of color or are women, it is especially important because their mere presence demonstrates to female students or students of color that they themselves can be a lawyer or a judge. These anecdotal remarks are backed up by teachers and students who confirm the effect on them and their classmates of these mentoring programs.[5] Similar success can be seen in the efforts by bar associations and trade groups to mentor young professionals. Both of these types of success stories have one thing in common: external mentoring programs. By comparison, internal programs have had poor to mixed results.

Shortcomings in Mentoring Programs

Despite the success of mentorship for students of all ages, the problem with mentorship programs within law firms has often been the execution of the mentor’s duties. Oftentimes the mentor will report on progress to firm administration, and mentors are not always advocating for their mentees. Indeed, some mentorship programs are seen with suspicion by associates, either as part of the firm’s apathetic bureaucracy, or part of the firm’s self-interested management.[6] A new concept has developed out of this discord and mistrust in the value of a sponsor, as opposed to a mentor, in the context of advancement within an organization and the role mentorship can play in that context.[7][8] On the contrary, mentors play a continuing and important role in professional development and, for example, help map out the unwritten rules and practices in an organization and pave the way for a sponsor.[9]

Sponsorship as the Cure to Failed or Faltering Mentorship Programs

Sponsorship has become especially popular in law firms. Many law firms have been criticized for not retaining lawyers of color and women. In the post-mortem analysis of “why,” it was found that key advantages related to professional development have not historically been provided to lawyers of color or women. For example, partners have provided the best assignments and, thus, one of the best professional development opportunities, to those they have chosen to informally mentor, which oftentimes were lawyers of the same peer groups, race, or gender as the partner. Institutionalized mentorship programs that work in tandem with a dedicated commitment to sponsorship by firm management could be the cure to the fatigue that many firm mentorship programs are currently experiencing.

Maryann Baumgarten, the head of Tech Diversity Business Partners at Facebook, has written a wonderful comparison of the key elements of being a mentor as opposed to a sponsor that illustrates where sponsorship can both add to the efficacy of existing mentorship programs, as well as become the next step in the evolution of such programs.[10] A mentor is anyone with experience who can support a mentee on how to build skills, professional demeanor, and self confidence in the workplace, whereas a sponsor is a senior member of management invested in the protégé’s success. Mentoring tends to be more general, whereas sponsorship is tailored to the protégé and involves using the influence and the networks of the sponsor to provide access to key assignments, people, and responsibility. Mentors help a mentee develop a career vision; sponsors drive that vision. Mentors will give suggestions on how to create a network; sponsors will open up their network to the protégé. Mentors will provide advice on visibility by encouraging the mentee to seek out key projects and people; sponsors will use their own platforms and mediums to provide direct exposure to the protégé.

Sponsorship Is the Gift That Keeps on Giving

Many firms will ask, “What is in it for me?” Sponsorship is an active and engaged relationship; the protégé has just as many responsibilities and commitments to the relationship as the sponsor. The protégé must perform well, demonstrate loyalty to the firm and sponsor, and  actively look to enhance the team brand.[11] CTI has researched the issue of job satisfaction for sponsors and finds that a sponsor with protégés has far greater job satisfaction (11 percent) than those who have not worked to develop new talent.[12] In terms of retention objectives, sponsors of color have reported 30 percent more job and career satisfaction than those who do not have the same following of protégés.[13] In many ways, you can see this in the legal profession directly and poignantly in the legions of law clerks that have worked with our judiciary. It is a well-known and chronicled aspect of clerking that there is a bond between the judges and their clerks that survives deep into their respective careers.[14] Even closer to the bottom line, an important update to CTI’s research published in 2019 reported that 66 percent of sponsors were confident with their ability to deliver on difficult projects with their teams, and only 53 percent of nonsponsors had the same confidence.[15]

“My crown is in my heart, not on my head; Not decked with diamonds and Indian stones, Nor to be seen. My crown is called content: A crown it is that seldom kings enjoy.”[16]

The weakness of a sponsorship program is that it requires leadership from the sponsor. The most important aspect of that leadership is to advocate for the promotion of the protégé. CTI’s latest research shows that of the one in four employees that identify themselves as sponsors, only 27 percent are advocating for their protégés, and to the point of this article, 71 percent of the sponsors have protégés who are the same race or gender as they are.[17] Probably just as applicable as the quote above from Henry VI could be the quote from Romeo and Juliet: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”[18] Leadership has often been defined as the art of motivating a group of people to act toward achieving a common goal. Kevin Kruse in a 2013 Forbes article dismisses the notion that leadership is defined by seniority or hierarchy, titles, extroverted charisma, or being part of management.[19] He takes a mild shot at Peter Drucker, who has been quoted as saying, “The only definition of a leader is someone who has followers,” dismissing it as “too simple.”[20] He then castigates and rejects the definitions of leadership put forth by no less than Warren Bennis (leadership is translating vision into reality), Bill Gates (leaders will be those who empower others), and John Maxwell (leadership is influence—nothing more, nothing less).[21] Instead, Kruse’s definition of leadership is “a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.”[22] He emphasizes that leadership comes from social influence, not authority; requires others; does not rely on charisma or another personal trait (as leaders can come in all varieties); and focuses on a goal—and is not influence for the sake of influence—and does so by making the most of others’ talents.[23] Kruse’s definition punctuates and sums up one of the most effective executions of professional development programs: the marriage of mentoring and sponsorship, which managers in law and business should take to heart based on their collective experience in making the most of the talented professionals that they hire, train, and hope to retain.

[1] Director and practice chair, Elliott Greenleaf, P.C. Thank you to Courtney Snyder, business development director for Elliott Greenleaf, P.C.’s Delaware office, and Sarah Denis, Esq., for their assistance in the editing of this article.

[2] Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Melinda Marshall & Laura Sherbin with Barbara Adachi, Sponsor Effect 2.0: Road Maps for Sponsors and Protégés, Center for Talent Innovation (last accessed Feb. 25, 2020).

[3] The National Legal Mentoring Consortium lists a wide range of programs, including law firm, law school, ethics-based, local bar, and state-based. National Legal Mentoring Consortium, Mentoring Programs – Law Firms (Feb. 20, 2020). Organizations like the American Bar Association have extensive mentorship programs among the wealth of available professional development opportunities, including the Business Law Section Fellows Program and Business Law Section Diversity Clerkship Program.

[4] Endemic issues with lack of retention of women and minorities are not exclusive to the legal profession and have been the subject of many studies and articles about management in this area. See Joan C. Williams & Marina Multhaup, For Women and Minorities to Get Ahead, Managers Must Assign Work Fairly, Harvard Bus. Rev. (last accessed Feb. 25, 2020). An excellent overview of why diversity is important to the bottom line of law firms is Sheryl L. Axelrod’s Banking on Diversity: Diversity and Inclusion as Profit Drivers—The Business Case for Diversity, (last accessed Feb. 25, 2020).

[5] The Leadership Council on Legal Diversity, which consists of more than 320 corporate chief legal officers and law firm managing partners, runs a leadership development program known as the LCLD Fellows, which debuted in 2011. The program works by identifying high-potential attorneys from diverse backgrounds with the objective of the Fellows becoming leadership within their organizations. The author was fortunate enough to serve on the fellows Alumni Council as the community outreach co-chair. He has first-hand knowledge of the profound impact of mentorship programs on communities of color and on women, especially in a group session with young students who are first-generation citizens, potential first-generation college students, and potential first-generation law students.

[6] See, e.g., Malaika Costello-Dougherty, We’re Outta Here, Daily J. (last accessed Feb. 25, 2020).

[7] See, e.g., Hewitt, S.A., Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-Track Your Career, Harvard Bus. Rev. Press, Sept. 2013.

[8] Sylvia Ann Hewitt, CEO of the Center for Talent and Innovation, a think tank based in New York, also chairs the Task Force for Talent Innovation, which is comprised of 75 global companies that focus on maximizing talent in corporations.

[9] Dan Schawbel, Sylvia Ann Hewlett: Find a Sponsor Instead of a Mentor, Forbes (last accessed Feb. 25, 2020).

[10] Stanford University, The Key Role of Sponsorship, Feb. 25, 2020; see also Katherine Hansen, From Mentor to Sponsor: Enlisting Others to Help Boost Your Life Sciences Career, (last accessed Feb. 25, 2020).

[11] Schawbel, supra note 9.

[12] Schawbel, supra note 9.

[13] Schawbel, supra note 9.

[14] See, e.g., Andrew Cohen, Real Mentorship: Do Judges and Law Clerks Still Do This (last accessed Feb. 25, 2020) (“Even lawyers and law students who have heard about Judge Hand probably don’t know that in addition to his stewardship of the 2nd Circuit for decades he also sort of invented the modern-day practice of federal judicial clerkships, which are nearly 100 years later still the gold standard in legal apprenticeship. . . . Most of [Judge] Hand’s clerks, fresh out of law school, were startled to find this experienced jurist; a near mythic figure, a household word to every law school graduate, the master judge of his generation, asking for help and insisting on candid criticism and continuous oral participation in the decision process. Was it really conceivable, they would wonder, that [Judge] Hand was seriously interested in their views when they were just months away from the classroom? . . . As the clerks got to know [Judge] Hand better, most realized that he was entirely serious about his constant prodding to elicit critical analysis, and that this unique way of working with his clerks was part and parcel of his distinctiveness as a judge.”); see also NALP, Clerkship Study Alumni Law Clerk Survey (last accessed Feb. 25, 2020) (“As expected, the relationships in their own judge’s chambers—their judge (87%), the other law clerks (71%) and the administrative staff (67%)—proved to be the most significantly enhanced. In addition, they developed relationships with other chambers, most reporting that their relationships with other judges, law clerks, and court personnel were also moderately or significantly enhanced.”); Chambers Associate, Clerkships, (last accessed Feb. 25, 2020) (“Clerks also build up a valuable network among members of the Bar, other clerks and judges. This comes in handy when practicing in the same state or district as the judge.”); Laura B. Bartell, A Splendid Relationship – Judge and Law Clerk, 52 La. L. Rev. 6 (July 1992) (last accessed Feb. 25, 2020) (“The partnership between a federal judge and the judge’s clerk can be a splendid and mutually rewarding relationship.”); Grace Renshaw, The Best Legal Job You’ll Ever Have, 40 Vanderbilt Law. 2 (last accessed Feb 25, 2020) (“She also gained two permanent advantages from her year as a clerk: a lifetime mentor and membership in a close-knit “family” of other former clerks. ‘Judge Collier is an amazing mentor to his law clerks,’ Johnson said. ‘He spent a lot of time talking with us and really seemed to enjoy the teaching aspect. He’s very patient and has a great understanding of the role that a clerkship plays in cultivating a young attorney’s career.’”).

[15] Center for Talent Innovation, Sponsor Dividend (last accessed Feb. 25, 2020). This survey was conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago under the auspices of the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), a nonprofit research organization. NORC was responsible for the data collection, whereas the CTI conducted the analysis. 

[16] William Shakespeare, Henry the VI, Pt. III, Act III, Scene I.

[17] Center for Talent Innovation, supra note 15.

[18] William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II.

[19] Kevin Kruse, What is Leadership?, Forbes (last accessed at Feb. 25, 2020).

[20] Id. To be fair, Kruse states in full that: “Drucker is of course a brilliant thinker of modern business but his definition of leader is too simple.”

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

By: Rafael X. Zahralddin-Aravena


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