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Courtney Burton, a partner in Dentons’ Calgary office, is a protégé in Dentons’ Global Women’s Sponsorship Program.David Chidley

When Courtney Burton, partner and protégé in Dentons’ Global Women’s Sponsorship Program, was preparing for her first meeting with her sponsor John Sandrelli, the firm’s Vancouver office managing partner, she started by thinking about what she wanted to achieve from the relationship.

“Before the meeting I provided [John] with details about me, as well as my career aspirations and objectives,” says Ms. Burton, a corporate lawyer in Dentons’ Calgary office and the co-lead of the Energy department. “I wanted to be clear about what I hoped to achieve and I wanted him to be able to consider his network and the pathways he could broaden for me.”

While sponsorship is often related to mentorship, it is not the same, says Tim Haney, CEO of Dentons Canada. Mentoring tends to focus on the goals and objectives of an individual, while sponsorship goes far beyond these general discussions, with people of influence opening doors, introducing opportunities and advocating for the advancement of women and underrepresented groups.

The objective of the sponsorship program at Dentons, the world’s largest law firm, is to create more pathways for women to establish their practice and to access senior leadership positions.

“In our sponsorship program, sponsors leverage their professional networks to directly advocate for protégés – with the goal of creating real, tangible opportunities that will further accelerate the advancement of women at our firm,” Mr. Haney says.

“We know that women are less likely to have access to the critical sponsorship relationships that can pave the way to career opportunities and advancement, whether they seek leadership roles or to grow their law practice. We take this seriously at Dentons with an expectation that all senior leaders take up sponsorship of our future leaders, whether formally or informally,” he adds.

Ms. Burton agrees that sponsorship provides benefits beyond what one would gain from a mentor.

“Mentors take the time to speak with you,” she notes. “Sponsors talk about you [to others], actively seeking to promote you and help generate opportunities which will assist you in reaching your goals.”

At this stage in her career, where she is managing client relationships and seen as a trusted business advisor, Ms. Burton is far more interested in the palpable benefits of moving her career to the next level. She is looking to grow her client portfolio by tapping into her sponsor’s network, for example, rather than simply having an inspiring pep talk once a month.

John Sandrelli is on exactly the same page. “I really want to see women advance in our firm,” says Mr. Sandrelli, an insolvency and restructuring lawyer who has spent much of his career in management roles.

“What excited me about the program is that it talks openly about the importance of advocating for others, including women and underrepresented groups,” he says. “[I think] it prompts all our leaders to recognize the influence they can have, regardless of whether they are in the program.”

Working collaboratively to create career pathways

Mr. Sandrelli sees himself as an “intentional” sponsor and advocate. “It’s about having conversations; understanding the struggles [protégés] face and opportunities they see,” he says, noting that he knows he benefited from informal sponsorship in his own career.

“It’s working collaboratively to create that pathway for the individual – and it’s using one’s connections and influence to widen that pathway,” he adds.

In Ms. Burton’s case, that has manifested as new relationships – made via Mr. Sandrelli’s introductions – that have led to collaborations, connections and file referrals (which is when one lawyer sends business to another).

“When we connected at our first meeting, it was the perfect mix of casual conversation and relationship building,” says Ms. Burton, noting they meet once a month over Zoom, since they work in different offices.

“Our conversations focus on my goals, what I want in my next stage of career growth, what skills I have – or need to acquire – to reach those goals.” There is an important element of personal accountability, she says, that comes with these regular meetings.

Toronto-based Dentons partner Kathryn McCulloch says that sponsorship provided “the kind of tangible support that generates opportunities for meaningful client exposure.”Kate Dockeray

Unexpected synergies

Sponsors and protégés also get to know one another on a personal level, which is a crucial element to the program.

One of the historical barriers to diversity in workplaces is “affinity bias,” where we tend to advocate for people who are like us, which can lead to getting to know or promoting someone who shares the same gender, race or other personal characteristic as we do.

“When you know people, it’s easier to directly or indirectly assist them,” says Claude Morency, a Dentons board member and partner in the Montreal office who is sponsoring Kathryn McCulloch, a partner based in Toronto.

Ms. McCulloch’s practice includes aviation and drone law, an area she is particularly passionate about, which is no surprise given she is also an accomplished pilot. In her first meeting with Mr. Morency, Ms. McCulloch says she was pleasantly surprised to learn that he was also an aviation enthusiast which gave her a strong platform to showcase her depth of knowledge about the sector and its growing intersection with legal regulation.

“I’m a construction litigator and I’m passionate about aviation,” Mr. Morency says. “I’ve learned so much from our conversations, including how important drones and the laws surrounding them are becoming in the building industry.”

Because of the sponsorship program and learning more about Kathryn’s practice, Mr. Morency was able to identify opportunities to introduce Ms. McCulloch to his client network.

“I tell my clients that one of my partners, Kathryn McCulloch, is a specialist in drones, you want to talk to her,” he says. “My role is to promote Kathryn and provide her with introductions. Her skills and knowledge are exemplary and if I am able to provide a gateway, I know that she can do the rest.”

Achieving results

For her part, Ms. McCulloch says that the sponsorship came at a time in her career when she needed “the kind of tangible support that generates opportunities for meaningful client exposure and client pitches, with someone there, on the ground, to help make connections.”

“Our sponsorship program pairs participants across the globe, because furthering gender equity is a global issue,” says Kate Broer, Dentons’ global inclusion and diversity officer. Dentons hopes to extend the program beyond women “to include people from other historically underrepresented groups […] who are [also] less likely to enjoy the benefits that come from the informal sponsorship structures that were traditionally relied on.”

In addition to facilitating mutually beneficial and productive relationships between participants, the sponsorship program has also been good for the firm’s bottom line.

“In the limited few months that [Ms. McCulloch and I] have been working together, we’ve already had concrete results with new mandates coming in that will grow in the future,” notes Mr. Morency.

After spending years in management, Mr. Morency says he is keenly aware of the firm’s focus on retaining women and its goals to increase the number of women in senior leadership positions at the firm, and he is committed to doing what he can to ensure the firm meets those targets.

“Kathryn is a phenomenal lawyer with a unique skill set in a burgeoning area of law,” he says. “Our clients need her expertise and if I can play a role in making sure the broader market knows about this, we will all gain from that – both our firm and our clients. That’s what this program is about – opening doors.”


Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with Dentons. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.