How Sponsorship (versus Mentorship) Assists Lawyer Retention

Mentoring initiatives throughout the City and beyond are now hugely popular and most reputable law firms offer – or at least are working towards – such programmes. The mentor-mentee relationship is now so widely used that last month we saw the celebration of National Mentoring Week. Increasingly more, however, we are beginning to hear and read about sponsors and what the sponsor relationship can add over and above the traditional mentoring programmes. Sylvia Ann Hewlett in her book ‘(Forget A Mentor) Find a Sponsor’ (Harvard University Press) writes ‘Sponsorship is the mechanism by which people of vision attain their goals, which is why no one – male or female, millennial or boomer, start up employee or multi-national manager – can afford to dismiss it or miss out on it.’ It is a particularly competitive and sometimes fiercely (and expensively) fought candidate market out there. Law firms are a homogenous lot and differentiating yourselves is easier said than done.

Sponsorship is a clever (and largely inexpensive) way law firms can differentiate themselves to ensure they are not just winning the best talent but retaining it for the long term.

Here’s how:

  1. Before you can establish any formal sponsorship scheme it’s important to understand the difference between a mentor and a sponsor and its important those with influence at your firm understand the differences too. At risk of over simplifying things – but in a few words – mentors give, sponsors invest. The whole purpose of having a mentor is to have someone who listens to their mentee; to guide them, give advice and opinions based on their own experiences. Almost always, it’s an asymmetric relationship with the energy flowing from the Mentor to the Mentee. A sponsor, of course, takes an interest in an individual and their career but not out of altruism but self-interest. A sponsor sees the furtherance of the individual they might choose to sponsor as materially beneficial to their own career. For example, they may be looking for an associate with a certain language skill, or cultural understanding within a certain region. Perhaps, they need someone with a particularly strong technical background in a very niche area of law.
  2. Sponsors can be role models, leaders, and most importantly, critically important senior firm members that invest heavily in individuals, in turn maximising junior team members’ loyalty and allegiance to the firm. Unlike mentors who, generally speaking expect very little in return for their time, sponsors expect a great deal because of the extent to which they can throw an individual’s hat in the ring and open doors s/he and others could not. Sponsors have a voice at the decision making table and will champion individuals such that the person they are sponsoring develops a very real sense of loyalty, which drastically reduces the likelihood that s/he will actively pursue other opportunities.
  3. Sponsors help avoid the problem of ‘dead wood’ otherwise known as under-performing fee earners who bring little to the table. Because of the immeasurable impact they can have on career progression, sponsors are extremely well placed to identify a firm’s top performers (and invariably those lawyers that are most at risk of being poached and/or those wanting a greater sense of career achievement). Sponsors can be integral players in providing assurance to top performing associates that their career objectives will bet met beyond the cheque book because sponsors are well placed to give such high performers serious traction within a firm. In turn, this helps law firms identify those lawyers that, even after providing the right support, realistically wont. This in turn also helps minimises the presence of rebellious associates; those that are intent on damaging staff morale.
  4. Lawyers with sponsors hang on to their ambition. Employee engagement has been considerably better for lawyers that have sponsors than those without. Law firms end up with lawyers that are more effective at their job, and more profitable for their firm, than those firms which create a culture that simply measures success against the recordation of high billable hours rewarded with ‘large’ bonuses.
  5. Sponsors create protégés that can assist with gender smarts, cultural fluency and/or other forms of diversity. Employees that search for sponsors can often include exceptional lawyers from a demographically diverse or situationally different background. These employees will often recognise that they might need to be that little bit more proactive in finding someone that will help them fly heir flag. Cleverly, they recognise that certain key individuals can help them reach their career goals because of the target sponsors clout and influence in the organisation. Initiatives that improve gender smarts and cultural fluency can draw great attention to a firm’s market profile and presence.

At Mimoza Fleur we continue to guide our clients towards a more profitable, longer term, and well being focused recruitment strategy because it is win-win for all concerned. Lawyers (particularly those at the junior end) are more alive than ever to the exploitative culture created by heavy billing targets. The research undergirding much of what has been written about law firm cultures demonstrates that lawyers are no longer motivated just by bonuses particularly in working cultures where they genuinely get no opportunity to spend (and more importantly enjoy) what they earn. Instead, they are wanting to have a better sense of fulfilment, career acceleration, air time, personal recognition and a sense of meritocracy. Introducing effective sponsorship programmes can radicalise a law firm culture to minimise employee attrition, employee absenteeism, significant time recording write off, maximise client conversion and retention. All in all, sponsorship can go a significant way to building a genuinely more loyal and well-balanced law firm.

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