Mentoring, Women in Leadership

The Lunch That Launched a Supreme Court Justice: How Sonia Sotomayor Met Her Mentor

By Mike BergelsonApril 16, 2014

Look back through the life of any successful person, and you’ll find a critical moment.  In Sonia Sotomayor’s case, it was a lunch at Yale Law School in 1976, when she first met the mentor who would set her on the path towards becoming the first ever Hispanic U.S. Supreme Court justice.

As with Nelson Mandela and the other famous protégés we’ve looked at so far in our series, mentoring played an important role in Sotomayor’s success, and she later became a mentor to others. In this post, we’ll look at who her mentor was, and how the experience changed her.

Sonia Sotomayor’s Mentor

The lunch in question was with Jose Cabranes, Yale’s general counsel at the time. Sotomayor had tagged along with a friend, but ended up talking with Cabranes for three hours and forming a relationship that would last more than three decades and help shape her career.

Cabranes introduced his protégé (Everwise’s term for a person being mentored) to powerful people like the president of Yale and the secretary of state, and got her a prestigious position on the board of a Latino civil rights group he helped found. Then he recommended her to Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau, who she said helped her become a judge.

He also gave his protégé a clear roadmap of how she could progress. A fellow student recalls that Cabranes “was the first guy we found who was like us and actually inside the system, doing well, navigating it — like sailing up a difficult channel and finding a marker light.”

Sotomayor acknowledged her mentor’s influence on many occasions, calling him a “career adviser” and a “good friend.”

But as she matured as a judge, Sotomayor sought to distinguish herself from her mentor. “The mentee was all grown up,” Cabranes later recalled.

Sotomayor generally takes a more liberal line than Cabranes, and has developed a very different judicial style. The two crossed swords over an affirmative action case in 2009, with Cabranes issuing a blistering dissent from a ruling by Judge Sotomayor and two others.

Passing It On

In the opening statement for her Senate confirmation hearings in 2009, Sotomayor acknowledged the help she’d received from mentors, friends and family over the years to “make this day possible,” and added: “I try to pass on this legacy by serving as a mentor and friend to my many godchildren and students of all backgrounds.”
It’s a theme she’s repeated often. In a recent speech, Sotomayor said she urges young people to “find someone you admire” to act as a mentor, and her autobiography also talks about the mentorship she has both received and given over the years.

Former clerk Julia Tarver Mason has seen Sotomayor’s mentoring commitment at first hand. “She’s one of the best mentors I’ve ever had,” Mason said. “She’s given me advice about working in the legal profession, advice about my career, and about my personal life, about relationships.”

Lessons from Sotomayor and Cabranes

  • Mentoring relationships can sometimes start with a chance encounter, and forming a close initial bond (as Sotomayor and Cabranes did during that first three-hour lunch) is critical to their success.
  • Being a protégé doesn’t mean imitating your mentor. Sotomayor learned a lot from Cabranes, but then developed her own distinct style, and openly disagreed with her former mentor on certain issues and cases.
  • As well as advice and guidance, mentors can often provide access to a powerful network of contacts, and help advance their protégés’ careers.
  • Successful protégés often become great mentors themselves.

Could you be mentoring the next Sonia Sotomayor? Share your wisdom with rising talent today.

Mike Bergelson

Mike Bergelson

CEO at Everwise

About the Author

Mike Bergelson is the CEO and a co-founder of Everwise, a talent development startup that connects employees to the people, development resources and experiences they need to thrive at every stage of their career.

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