Supporters, Mentors, and Role Models

“To my mother In Spirit-Life, Whose Form Memory Cannot Trace; to the Women of Pennsylvania, and All Women who desire to be free; and also, All the men, possessed of sufficient noble manhood to bear equality, I dedicate my first effort in Court.” —Carrie S. Burnham Kilgore, Philadelphia, April 4, 1873.

“The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.” —Steven Spielberg

Throughout life, each of us is presented with challenges that threaten to destroy our dreams. If we are very fortunate, we can experience the loving arms and encouraging words of supporters who help us meet our challenges and make our dreams reality. When speaking of these important individuals who shape our lives and help us imagine new futures, there is a mix of labels.


Mentors are often constructed as a formal relationship in a formal program with the assignment of a more senior attorney (mentor) to a younger attorney (mentee) without a prior relationship. Most of these programs assume that the mentor and mentee will meet periodically, at which time the mentor offers sage advice on career development.

The best of these programs offer an opportunity to the younger attorney to integrate into the legal community and understand the inner workings. Mentors can also be found all around us on an informal basis. They are the attorneys in our firms or those we meet through our bar associations. Mentors offer informal wisdom about our careers generally or about a specific problem we might be having with a client.


Sponsors are key supporters of an individual’s career. A sponsor is positioned and willing to make the effort to include a younger attorney with client contacts, projects, and credit for the work that they do. Sponsors create opportunities for success.

Role models.

A role model is someone admired from afar and often someone you never have the opportunity to meet. A role model can be someone in your office or someone from the halls of history. But whenever that person walked the earth, their life continues as an inspiration to others. You may not know if you are a role model to others, but my
guess is that if you have been practicing law for a while and look over your shoulder, it is likely someone is observing your life and you are a role model (for better or worse).


A trailblazer is a subset of role model, since that person’s life is inspirational from a distance. The special quality of a trailblazer is being a “first” in some aspect of their profession: a first partner in their firm, a first woman district court judge, a first woman to serve as a district attorney.


The peer relationship is one of equals, unlike typical mentor or support relationships. Peers within firms or across practices can serve as sounding boards, advisers, and collaborators. Women’s groups like Philly Mamma and local chapters across the country are just that—groups of young lawyers who get together periodically to discuss their
work-related and balancing issues. I joined one group in Philadelphia recently where the conversation ranged from day care to sitters, the wisdom and drawbacks of part-time work, and the dynamics of law firm politics.

It’s useful engage in this exercise of distinctions because there has been some controversy recently over the superior value of a mentor versus a sponsor. In many ways these roles can overlap, and in some ways they are different.

While a mentor can offer guidance, a sponsor is in a position to take action to advance a career.

A general term for a person filling any of these roles is “supporter.” A supporter is someone who believes in you and your dream. A supporter is there to lend a hand. Sometimes supporters come through with work or financial assistance, sometimes with emotional or moral support. Supporters can share our responsibilities so that we can turn our energies to pressing emergencies at work or at home.

Lead Your Most Successful Life
This post was adapted from the Law Practice Division’s publication Women-at-Law: Lessons Learned Along the Pathways to Success, Second Edition. In this book, author Phyllis Horn Epstein shares how women can redirect their careers, home lives, and interests in the long journey that is a successful life.

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