Using sponsorship to advance women in law firms

Across the country, the business community accepts that firms with diversity in leadership perform better financially, have better client relationships and increase their opportunities for innovation.

The Law Society of South Africa statistics confirm the trend over the past 10 years that more women are entering the legal profession at candidate attorney level and being admitted as attorneys. However, these institutional measures do not address why there are still insufficient women lawyers sitting on the board or in executive management positions in law firms.

A firm’s most valuable commodity are its lawyers who hold the relationships with clients. Traditionally, this has been the role of the senior male partner in the firm and the structure of this lawyer-client dynamic is based on trust. As a foundation for the business model, trust also becomes integral in the advancement of junior.

The "old boys" club is often mentioned as a barrier to the advancement of women, however, the model itself is one of sponsorship. A senior lawyer will transfer the trust relationship he holds with the client to a junior lawyer. As the legal profession is based on a referral system, clients will work with a lawyer who has been endorsed by another lawyer. Sponsorship becomes the ideal enabler to ensure that women not only advance, but are included in the big deals, the corporate pitches and in decisions concerning the firm. This is where law firms can build their strategy of inclusiveness around women to ensure that the traditional barriers are overcome in favour of female progression.

What does sponsorship mean in the legal profession today? Most women reach a stage in their career where they have to balance motherhood with career advancement. Sponsorship ensures that neither has to suffer. Flexible working hours and supportive policies are great to attract and retain talent. However, sponsorship advances women in terms of the type of work they get, the type of clients they work for and the fees that they write. Sponsorship is an endorsement of an individual's strengths - it is a public declaration that a thought, idea, position, or proposal made by the individual is deserving of consideration. 

Sponsorship has to be strategic and purposeful. It is not a mentorship or coaching programme, although these might well be part of the strategy. This may take the form of introduction to the firm's high-profile clients, being part of the team to work on big or complex instructions, being sent to conferences and seminars, or even building a media strategy and brand around the individual. 

Sponsorship should have clear timelines and objectives – what is the intended outcome in sponsoring this individual and has this been reached? Unlike mentoring or coaching, sponsorship cannot continue forever. Once an individual has the required client base, meets the fee targets or achieves the required management level, the sponsored relationship should come to an end. Sponsorship is an essential intervention that allows women to not only remain in the legal profession but to engage at the highest levels in the boardroom.


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