I remember the first time I heard Sheryl Sandberg’s story. It was 2013, and the book that would be heard around the workplace, Lean In, had just been published. I was a first-year associate at a large, prestigious New York law firm. I had checked all the boxes to get there: top law school, Ivy League undergraduate, summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, writing awards. Reading Sandberg’s story should have empowered me—a 24-year-old woman starting out in the professional world—to do more, to lead, to ask for a seat at the table. But it didn’t. It made me feel, instead, 100 percent inadequate. While Sandberg was an undergraduate at Harvard, Larry Summers—the Larry Summers—had personally picked her out of an anonymous pool of undergraduates, anointing her with a special gold star that would follow her through life, and through all of the successes that are, by now, the stuff of women-who-work legend: Chief of Staff at the U.S. Treasury by age 29, an early executive at Google, Chief Operating Officer at Facebook. On the other hand, I had done well as an undergraduate and throughout law school, but no one was knocking down my door to be Chief of Staff at the White House upon graduation. It felt like I had already blown all my chances before I was ever even given a chance to prove myself. Was it too late? What did it mean, as a lawyer, to find the right mentor?
In the years since then, I’ve learned the answer to that question lies in attacking the problem from as many angles as possible, relying on a “trifecta” of networks, mentors, and sponsors, rather than hoping to be discovered by the one person who will make your career. Sandberg’s story was aspirational but not inspirational, because it didn’t feel replicable. The trifecta approach, however, is not just replicable—it gives young lawyers something to actually work towards, rather than wish for.
Part of the problem with the current approach to mentorship lies in the advice “If I excel, I will get a mentor.” This is not a bon mot unique to Sandberg’s brand of leaning in but an idea drilled into many high achieving millennial professionals. For a generation of individuals raised to believe they could be anything they wanted to be, we are used to relying on external feedback to calibrate our own sense of self worth, while simultaneously waiting for great things to just happen to us because … don’t we deserve it? My own path to the law may sound more familiar to many lawyers than the exceptional Sandbergian one. I did well in school. That was, mostly, the problem. I did well enough in enough subjects and extracurriculars that I had considered, at varying times, pursuing a career as a novelist, a film critic, a pianist, a rock journalist, a fashion editor, a biologist, an art curator, and an English professor. And like so many in my generation, the world seemed at once my oyster and an inexplicable Rubik’s cube. I did know some people who arrived at college as a fully-formed 18-year-old with a 10-year plan. But for most of us, we were just kids, learning by trial and error and hoping to figure it out along the way.
So I went to law school. Law school gave order and a natural intellectual rigor to the otherwise endless openness of real life. (Not to mention, it stalled the advent of that real life for a few more years.) Real life is a different beast completely, as I discovered upon graduation. Unlike in school, there are no A+s handed out at a corporate law firm. There are long hours. Everyone is extraordinarily busy. Adults have lives: children, families, long commutes home. No one ever seemed to have any time—for heart-to-hearts, for the mentoring that I’d been told was so important, let alone for the Summers-style sponsorship of not just vouching for you, but pushing for you.
At some point along the way, it finally occurred to me that mentors don’t just drop into your life because you happen to be smart and good at what you do. Finding them means being relentlessly proactive, and, at times, maybe even being a bit of a pest to make that first connection. It is simply not enough to rely on whatever formal mentorship program a firm may already have in place. You have to be out there: unabashedly, unashamedly, unequivocally. Sandberg advises not to ask “Will you be my mentor?” because if you have to ask, “the answer is probably no” (this advice goes hand-in-hand with “If I excel, I will get a mentor”). Needless to say, I find this advice incomplete. The choice young lawyers face isn’t between a blunt ask and the decision to put your head down, do good work, and hope to get noticed. The choice is between either being the first person to take an interest in your career or hoping someone else does. “Will you be my mentor” is rarely the right question to ask, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t others. How about: Hey, how do you think I’m doing? How can I improve? Or: What are you looking for in an associate? Or: Do you think I have what it takes to [insert end goal here]? Or: I know I made a mistake, and here’s how I’ll do better next time. Or just, simply: Do you have time to get coffee and chat about other opportunities I could get involved in?
Which brings me to what I mean when I’m talking about the trifecta. Why is it actually important to have all three? Other conventional wisdom teaches that what you really need is a sponsor—forget mentors, who are “only” there for informal advice and to bounce ideas off of. Again, I respectfully disagree. Experienced mentors are indispensable for young lawyers. I stayed a thorn in the side of a very senior partner at my first law firm, a partner who is brilliant, a killer litigator, and also very kind. I keep in touch with him regularly—through emails, text messages, and phone calls. We’ve talked over everything from litigation strategies I’m thinking about and procedural issues I’ve never dealt with to advice on my first cross-examination and deposition. Smart mentors teach you how to think like a specialist, which is a very different skill set than thinking like a general “lawyer.” Mentors can also be there to help guide you when you’re feeling uncertain about where you want to go or who you want to be—an uncertainty that may feel out of place to share with a sponsor.
Sponsors are advocates rather than teachers. For many, a key sponsor likely works at the same company or law firm, but finding the right one can be a tricky task. It feels intuitive to seek out the most powerful person at your organization, but these people are often hard to reach and may have limited time if and when you do get to them. We can all be drawn in by the allure of big names and rainmakers but, in my experience, the sponsors with the greatest impact are the closest “person in charge” on the matter you’re working on, so they can vouch first hand for your work product and push for you because it ultimately benefits them, as well. When you meet a sponsor, you’ll know. There’s a synergy and ease in both working together and just getting to know you. Sponsors take an interest in who you are as both a person and a professional. But don’t treat your sponsor as a sounding board for your internal dialogue, as you may a mentor. You should always be your best and most polished self when approaching a sponsor—a resume of perfect professionalism, not the novel most of us are (warts and all).
And, finally, there’s the third element of the trifecta: your network. These may be colleagues from prior roles, friends-of-(powerful)-friends, or your former classmates. Any good business development seminar for senior associates will remind you to “keep tabs” on this network, which is easier said than done. But it’s also not enough to just keep track of your existing contacts. A network should be a web of relationships that keeps growing. Leverage your existing contacts to meet new ones, with the simple question: Is there anyone you know who you think would be good for me to talk to? A large, ever-expanding network increases the chances not just of netting business (if that’s your end goal), but also of getting your name on more people’s radars for that next dream opportunity.
There is still luck involved in all of this, no matter how disciplined you are. As with anything worthwhile, the benefits of the trifecta are part skill and part luck. At 24, when faced with this cold, hard fact (that, as with all things, sometimes it just all comes down to being in the right place at the right time), I felt terribly and hopelessly discouraged. These days, the possibilities feel more thrilling, and learning not to take stalls in momentum personally is actually liberating. A setback is only another opportunity to put yourself out there again. After all, the laws of probability tell us that the more we play, the better of a chance we have at making it.
Reprinted with permission from the April 18, 2018 edition of New York Law Journal © 2018 ALM Properties, Inc. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.