It is a truth universally acknowledged that for every question to which we find an answer, there’s another one waiting to confuse us yet again. There will always be unanswered questions.
As a law student, perhaps we have more questions than most. Indeed, as a student you are supposed to ask for help. There is zero expectation for anyone to traverse the legal field alone. But, too often, we don’t ask for help when we need it. Often, this is because we just don’t know who to ask.
I recommend a mentor and a sponsor. A mentor is a person in a position of experience who can offer advice and support. A sponsor is a person who is in a senior role that takes a direct role in advancing their protégé’s career. Both play a critical role in career development.
A mentor is a person in a position of experience who can offer advice and support. A sponsor is a person who is in a senior role that takes a direct role in advancing their protege’s career. Both play a critical role in career development.
The hardest part is getting one. The process of finding a mentor or sponsor can feel disingenuous because the organic relationship development we crave can be nonexistent. These tips can help you better find a mentor and a sponsor and find answers to those nagging questions.
The first day of law school can be terrifying for it is nothing like undergrad. In undergrad, the first week of class can be a literal joke where the professor goes through the syllabus and has ice breakers, and they almost inevitably get out of class early. In contrast, the first day of law school involves cold-calls and utter, terrifying confusion. But mentors can help demystify the terror at each step of the law school process.
The Upper Class Student
The upper class student is your first mentor in just understanding what law school even is. Some law schools have student-lead mentor programs where students are either assigned a mentor or given the means to find one. While those programs are helpful and can create a meaningful relationship, if your school doesn’t have such a system, you can have an equally fruitful search on your own. The ideas is to approach an upper-class student, human-to-human, and ask them about their experience. People love explaining their path, spreading wisdom, and paying it forward. Start by looking for mentors at student organization events. Try to approach someone with similar interests to you, and let it bloom naturally. Don’t be afraid to approach multiple people and ask for help, finding an upper-class mentor should feel as if you are finding a new friend.
Making friends may seem too easy (or hard), but it is the best way to fall in to wonderful relationship with an upper-class mentor. If you are a person who finds making friends to be hard, this New York Times article and this pop-science cheatsheet may help.
Professor-mentors help guide your big-picture plans. As your law school career progresses, you will find yourself gradually going to a professor or administrator to talk with. And if you don’t have a faculty or staff person to talk with, find one! Not only are they amazing resources to get feedback and advice on your academic performance, most professors love talking with students to help them discover and articulate their dreams, goals, and area of practice. Find one who won’t try to dismiss you or cut conversations short. Further, your professor-mentors can help you in your long-term career path by writing your recommendations and advocating for you.
Note that, in regards to finding a mentor, it actually doesn’t matter if you were the professor’s student or how well you did in their class. Sometimes the best relationships are formed with the professor who gave you your worse grade or with a professor who you never even had.
An attorney-mentor can help show you the ropes. They can discuss the nitty-gritty details of being a lawyer and have the power to help shape a legal career. The cool thing about attorney-mentors, though, is that there are just so many attorneys, that you can easily find a mentor.
In law school, there will be loads of events with currently practicing attorneys that will enable you to reach out and network with potential attorney-mentors. Ask for their card, and follow up. Try to schedule a date to discuss the attorney’s career path.
Alternately, you can also reach out to professors or to career services to see if they know any attorneys you can connect with, especially those who might share common interests or backgrounds with you and provide you even more particularized advice.
Bar associations are also excellent resources for mentors. There are a multitude of bar associations in every state, and many have mentorship programs either directly through the bar or via a student organization. The best way to find bar associations in your state is a simple Google search of “[state name] bar associations” or to consider databases like this one or this one. You can also find diversity or affinity bar associations, which organize around a social identity rather than a geographic organization, and also make for amazing mentorship opportunities.
Furthermore, you should also look for a mentor at each legal job at which you work. That person can help answer your questions, acclimate you to the organization, and assist you in networking with the right people. Finding an attorney-mentor at work can be as easy as having lunch with someone or working on a project with them. Developing a mentor this way can help you tremendously: you will have someone who knows your work style and can possibly turn into a sponsor that will help you get a job after law school.
The sponsor truly comes into play once you have a job. The sponsor will fight for you, uplift you, and support you. A sponsor is someone in a senior level or other influential role who can openly advocate on your behalf for raises and promotions or otherwise vouch for your abilities to fast track your career. So while mentors typically serve as advisers to help you define your goals and identify paths to get there; sponsors put you in place to achieve your goals. (This checklist further helps identify the difference between mentors and sponsors.)
Sponsors are the people that make sure you get face-time with the right partners/directors and participate in the most important projects. In short, sponsors put their integrity and reputation on the line to garner your success.
Some jobs have formalized mentorship and sponsorship programs that you can use as a launch pad for finding a sponsor. Regardless if your organization has such a formal program, however, you always have the opportunity to network with– or just really impress with your work product– power players who can become your champions. In addition to exposing yourself to new opportunities and always performing at your best, Business Insider offers three tips to impress a power player in your organization into taking you under their wing as your sponsor:
(1) Exceed expectations, and make your performance known.
(2) Demonstrate that you are trustworthy and loyal.
(3) Bring something special to the table.
Pro tip: alumni from your school often make the best sponsors. They’re rooting for you because of your commonalities already; your alma mater makes for great small talk at a networking event; and your shared background means they may have even more poignant and fitting advice to offer, having already walked a similar path to your’s.
Finding a mentor and sponsor will greatly benefit your legal career and mental health. You can’t do it alone and there is no problem with reaching out for help; in fact, it is encouraged! Find someone who you can trust and that you feel comfortable with to be your mentor or sponsor. Good Luck!