Canada: Increasing Sponsorship For Women Lawyers – Solutions And Insights (Final Part In Our Series)

As described in the first two parts of our series, Increasing Sponsorship and Sponsorship, we have challenged ourselves to use design thinking as a way to bring fresh ideas to the goal of advancing women in the legal profession. In this final post, we share some of the solutions and ideas generated at the Women's Leadership Forum as well as insights from our experience.

Sponsorship - New Solutions for Different Stakeholders

In design thinking, you look at the problem through the eyes of different "personas", particularly the individuals most affected by the problem. You develop an appreciation of how they are impacted by the problem so you can hone in on their specific needs to develop practical and creative solutions.

As described in previous posts, our problem was how to increase sponsorship for women lawyers. We used the definition of a sponsor as someone who: believes in the protégé and goes out on a limb on their behalf, advocates for the protégé's next promotion, and provides 'air cover' so they can take risks, while a protégé was defined as someone who: outperforms, is loyal to the sponsor and organization, and contributes a distinct personal brand.

We generated solutions for three different scenarios; women seeking to advance, men learning how to sponsor and advance women, and leaders looking for ways to accelerate sponsorship in their organizations. We developed the personas in the infographic below before the workshop to accommodate our tight timeframe. You will likely recognize some of these personas – you may be one of them.

Click the image below to download a PDF copy.

Each table was given a persona to work with and here are some of the solutions they came up with.

Women Seeking to Advance – Keisha's "Find A Sponsor Action Plan"

Seeing the issues through Keisha's eyes, the participants came up with a solution where Keisha would develop and execute a personal action plan to better position herself to access potential sponsors, while also presenting herself as a strong protégé. The self-imposed protocol includes:

  • incremental networking (coffees with peers, senior lawyers, internal clients, and external counsel who might be or identify potential sponsors);
  • proactively seeking out coaching and mentorship;
  • self-study (understanding what it takes to be a protégé, leveraging strengths, reading up on career strategies, etc.); and
  • lots of practice.
  • All the activities are meant to bridge the gap that women lawyers experience as a result of gender bias in getting access to the mentorship, coaching and networking opportunities that often lead to sponsorship. Keisha's plan supplements her ongoing efforts to develop excellent legal skills.

What we think

We loved this solution. While the individual ideas and "lean in" approach are not new, the idea of self-designing a tailored protocol, and then self-guiding through continuously practised new activities and skills, is great. It exemplifies the Growth Mindset philosophy coined 30 years ago by psychologist Carol Dweck:

In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment

Rather than see the skills and activities that lead to sponsorship as things she is either good at or not good at (a fixed mindset), Keisha's plan allows her to hone these skills over time through continuous and deliberate practice.

Men Learning to Become Sponsors – Derek's "Walk in Another's Shoes" Sponsor Training Program

Two main needs for Derek were identified: (i) understanding the meaning and responsibilities of a sponsor; and (ii) understanding the experiences, goals and challenges of potential protégés.

To meet those two needs this group created a shadowing program in which Derek would shadow three women in the organization. The program works as follows:

  • the women are not direct reports and are at different ages and stages of their careers
  • each of the women keeps a diary of their a.m./p.m. schedules and share it with Derek
  • Derek participates in sponsorship and unconscious bias training and undertakes self-study (reading the likes of Sylvia Anne Hewlett, Sheryl Sandberg and Anne Marie Slaughter)
  • Derek shadows each of the women two to four times over the course of a few months

Throughout the program Derek keeps a diary, recording key events for each of the women, as well as his observations, comments and questions. He then analyses the findings (with the help of an internal or external coach) and uses them to create practical resources that: (i) could help individuals, like Derek, be better sponsors "on the ground" for women in their day-to-day work interactions and (ii) help the organization educate people on sponsorship and increase sponsorship opportunities for their women lawyers.

What we think

This idea is brilliant in many ways. First, it puts the onus on potential sponsors and the organization to figure out sponsorship and the role it could/should play in their particular culture. Secondly, it engages men to play a critical role in the solution. Finally, it draws on the very principles of design thinking by stepping into the shoes of the person experiencing the problem to understand their actual day to day realities, needs and obstacles. 

Organizations Looking for Effective Institutional Strategies – Mia's "Make Sponsorship an Annual Partner Deliverable"

The group with this persona created a relatively simple solution to increase sponsorship - make each partner accountable for sponsoring a female associate on his or her team. This solution capitalizes on the fact that many partners are already working with women who meet the definition of a protégé, by outperforming, being loyal and having a distinct personal brand. The idea is to take these existing relationships to the next level by embedding sponsorship of women into the expectations for partners, similar to expectations on them to evolve their legal expertise, bring in revenues, develop annual business plans and train junior lawyers.

To make this successful, the firm would need to clarify the expectations for both sponsors and protégés, train partners on the value of sponsorship, train associates on what it takes to be a protégé, identify best practices for sponsorship, offer unconscious bias training, set out the metrics for measuring success and monitor progress.

What we think

This solution impressed us with its simplicity and its personal rather than institutional focus. It engages partners personally to use their power and influence in the firm to drive change. It also highlights the crossroads many organizations face in relation to advancing women. We've tackled most "low hanging fruit" - mentorship, women's leadership development, supportive policies and programs, etc., but to accelerate progress and change behaviour, the focus will have to shift to initiatives that may be more difficult to implement, or which people disagree about. Making sponsorship of women a part of partner expectations could fall into this category. However, it harnesses the desire for personal action that many partners have, and in the end, could have very lasting effects.

Insights on Sponsorship and Design Thinking from the Workshop

We learned a few things at the workshop about sponsorship going forward, and we also gained some key takeaways as we test and adapt our design thinking workshops.

Women put the onus on themselves

The most interesting insight is that all of the groups assigned personas of women seeking sponsorship putting the onus entirely on the women themselves to solve the problem. The "Find a Sponsor Action Plan" described above is one example. There was no expectation in these solutions that managers or mentors play a role in helping the protégé find a sponsor. Nor did the proposed solutions frame this as an organizational responsibility. We found this to be a concerning pattern and we're not alone. Proactive ownership by women of their own career advancement is a necessary element for success, but it is clearly not sufficient. In a recent study at Duke University, a group of neuroscience professors found that highlighting women's responsibility for their own advancement (promoting themselves, taking more risks, speaking up) leads people to ignore the systemic and societal obstacles that exist for women. They write, "the more we talk about women leaning in, the more likely people are to hold women responsible, both for causing inequality, and for fixing it."1

Has the "lean in" pendulum swung too far? To us, it's a sign that law firms and legal departments need to be clear that while women need to take an active role, it is not their responsibility alone to fix this problem.

We fell into groupthink

We were also struck by how similar some of the ideas were. Different groups working separately with the same persona came up with very similar solutions.

We have a couple of theories:

Pitfall of random seating: Attendees at the forum seated themselves and people who know each other sat together. Participants at each table were, therefore, more likely to have a common perspective. If we had mixed up the table compositions, we could have exposed participants to different perspectives.

Outside voices are needed: Even with assigned seating, we didn't have enough thought diversity "in the room". You won't be surprised to learn that our participants were mostly women lawyers. Could we have created more diverse ideas with a broader group in the workshop? And who else should be included? The obvious answer – is men of course. We need more men in these conversations – not just because we need to engage men, but because they have different perspectives that could add to the body of possible solutions. Adding perspectives from different organizations and industries would also lead to new possibilities. All of this left us determined to think carefully about who is involved in these issues at our firm and to challenge ourselves to expand and refresh that group.

Where Do Technology and Data Analytics Fit In?

Only one of the ten tables at the workshop had a significant technology component to their solution. This group was looking to collect and analyze data from multiple sources to assess whether everyone has the same access to information and opportunities and if not, why not. While the lack of technology solutions may not be surprising for a problem that is primarily people-centric, we are wondering whether this is a missed opportunity. Data analytics are being used to provide evidence of bias and lack of advancement for women, and research shows that people are more likely to believe information if accompanied by data visualization. Look for an upcoming blog post on "Getting Started with Data Analytics", aimed at those of us who aren't data scientists and don't have a data analytics team.


The engagement and enthusiasm from our participants in the workshop has inspired us to do more "quick study" design thinking sessions at our firm on other legal operations challenges. The workshop also led us to deepen our own efforts to increase sponsorship for our women lawyers. Building on ideas from the workshop, we recently developed a session for senior leaders that explores the studies on the impact of sponsorship on career success and trains people on the key aspects of sponsorship and the role of sponsors and protégés. This initiative is led by our Director of Associate Programs, Barbara Schechter. Feel free to reach out to Barbara if you would like to discuss, and best of luck with your own design thinking-worthy challenges!


1 Grainne Fitzsimons et al., ""Lean In" Messages and the Illusion of Control", Harvard Business Review, July 30, 2018, online:<>.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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