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Ellen Dwyer: Creating a Sponsorship Culture

As the managing partners and general counsel of top law firms and corporate legal departments, LCLD Members are some of the most powerful legal leaders in the United States. But some of our Members go above and beyond in applying their leadership to advance diversity and inclusion at their organizations and in the broader legal profession. These individuals exemplify LCLD's mission to make the legal profession as diverse as the nation it serves. 

LCLD asked Ellen Dwyer, Executive Committee Chair of Crowell & Moring LLP, to share one of the most innovative, impactful ways her organization is advancing inclusion. 

1. Provide a brief summary of your initiative. 

Crowell & Moring launched a year-long sponsorship program designed to build the relationships and careers of its women and minority attorneys. Key elements of the current program include: 

  • The program is focused on enhancing opportunities and relationship building for our women and diverse lawyers. While the program is open to majority attorneys, our initial focus has been on the retention and advancement of our women and minority attorneys. 
  • Participants are divided into Sponsorship Circles that include two partners and two associates or counsel who have been in practice for three to five years. These Circles allow our "proteges" to develop relationships with and benefit from the influence of more than one sponsor. 
  • Participants share their personal stories and ambitions, and spend time during the sessions focused on building relationships of trust, understanding the formal and informal paths to advancement within the firm, and developing strategies to expand their networks both within and outside the firm. 

2. What inspired you to take action on this element of D&I?

We understood the well documented research findings that we all tend to sponsor others who look like, or share things in common with, us. Given that our firm, like most firms, is majority male at the partner level, we appreciated that we had work to do to ensure that our partners were actively reaching out to our women and diverse attorneys.  

Based on informal surveying we did at the time, we also learned that our majority attorneys were more likely to report having a sponsor than their women and minority peers. While sponsorship and advocacy is not always visible, we wanted to ensure that all of our top talent had access to strong advocates and sponsors.

3. What makes your efforts innovative and different?

We were the first AmLaw 100 firm to launch a sponsorship program in 2012. 

We have also experienced success through the program, with many of our associates and counsel earning promotion to counsel and partner following completion of the program. Two participants were recently elected to our Management Board. 

4. Are there lessons you learned? Are there things you would do differently?

In our initial launch, we did not assign participants to sponsors out of concern that one-on-one assignments might not work. We moved to a “Circle” approach which affords participants the opportunity to build relationships with more than one sponsor.

We have also learned that it is essential to focus from the outset on developing foundational relationship building skills.  

5. Has there been a ripple effect for your majority attorneys?

Through our broader efforts to embed sponsorship as a cultural value of the firm, our majority attorneys have learned the importance of earning sponsorship and paying it forward. As a community, we have also learned about the tendency to reach first to those who we appear to share common experiences with. The sponsorship program and related education campaign have taught us all how to resist that habit and reach to lawyers in our broader community of women and diverse lawyers.  

If you have questions about Crowell & Moring's sponsorship efforts, reach out to Ellen Dwyer at edwyer@crowell.com or Sarah Stein at sstein@crowell.com

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