Steptoe protégés, from left: Tyechia White, Judy Wang, Yvonne Woldeab, Josh Oppenheimer, Lauren Azebu and Meghan Newcomer. Steptoe sponsors, from left: Steve Fennell, Eric Emerson, Toni Ianniello and Micah Green. Not pictured: protégé Kate Johnson and sponsors John Abramic, Mike Miller and Bob Rizzi.

While mentorship for younger attorneys may be informal at many firms and can seem all but nonexistent at others, Washington, D.C.-based Steptoe & Johnson has created a concrete “talent sponsorship program” that pairs associates with partner mentors at the firm.

The program is voluntary—those who want to participate must apply each year—and is designed to enhance and expand professional development opportunities and offer guidance for midlevel and senior associates.

For now, the firm has paired an initial group of seven associates—Lauren Azebu, Kate Johnson, Meghan Newcomer, Josh Oppenheimer, Judy Wang, Tyechia White, and Yvonne Woldeab—with partner “sponsors” John Abramic, Eric Emerson, Steve Fennell, Micah Green, Toni Ianniello, Mike Miller and Bob Rizzi.

While the initiative isn’t exclusively for diverse associates, diversity is one of the criteria looked at in selection, said Steptoe’s diversity co-chair Markham Erickson, who helped to develop the program.

“Every organization, even if it’s not a formal program, has sponsors and protégés,” Erickson said. “The problem, when you don’t have a formal program, is unconscious bias.” 

In order to combat that bias, Steptoe decided to take concrete steps to getting sponsor-protégé relationships started, he added.

“The ultimate goal is literally to have a firm that better serves our clients—and a firm that’s more diverse is a firm that is going to better serve their clients,” Erickson said.

In addition to firm-sponsored training and coaching sessions throughout the year, the sponsor-protégé pairs will team up for projects such as a specific legal matter or a business development effort, that will then later be presented to firm leadership to give the protégés the opportunity to demonstrate their skills.

“The idea is to have a sponsor-protege relationship where there is a formal way of putting a partner together with an associate where [they] develop a relationship that is one of trust,” Erickson said.

And while there may already may be associates at the firm with strong but informal mentor relationships in place, Erickson said this new program is a compliment to better support its younger lawyers.

“This is not a substitute for any of that,” Erickson said. “It’s just another way that those associates that are interested can look to be intentional about how they grow their careers.”