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Bar President's Message

Nicole J. Benjamin, Esq., President, Rhode Island Bar Association

Leave the Ladder Down

Nicole J. Benjamin, Esq

President, Rhode Island Bar Association

“Some leaders have been accused of pulling the ladder up behind them as they ascend to the top. True leaders leave the ladder down so others can rise with them.”


Many of you have heard my story. I was selling vacuum cleaners at Apex, a discount department store, when I first thought about becoming a lawyer. When Apex announced its Warwick store closure, I landed on my feet selling women’s shoes at Filene’s. It was then that I learned about a scholarship for Rhode Islanders entering their first year of law school—the Rhode Island Bar Foundation’s Thomas F. Black Jr., Memorial Scholarship.

            As I have said many times before, to my good fortune, the members of the Rhode Island Bar Foundation’s scholarship committee saw potential in the 21-year-old who could tell you the amperage of a Hoover WindTunnel and that there is only one-eighth of an inch difference in half sizes of women’s shoes. I was the 2003 recipient.

            It is not lost on me that my rise from the stockroom at Filene’s to President of this venerable association was due, in no small measure, to the encouragement and sponsorship of others.

            At Filene’s, we hustled. We took requests from customers for shoes in their size, and we raced back to the stockroom where row after row of shoeboxes were stacked to the ceiling. To retrieve the right style, color and size, we climbed rolling steel ladders armed with a 5-foot-long wooden shoebox reacher that allowed us to pull down just the right shoebox from the wall. To do it without knocking over other shoeboxes was as close as I’ll ever come to an Olympic sport.

            When I left Filene’s and immersed myself in law school, that was the last I thought about ladders. At least until this year.

            This year I participated in a program sponsored by the Federation of Defense and Corporate Counsel called Ladder Down[fn 1] and it caused me to reflect on the symbolism of the ladder and what it means to leave the ladder down.

            Some leaders have been accused of pulling the ladder up behind them as they ascend to the top. True leaders leave the ladder down so others can rise with them.

            My involvement in the Bar Association was driven by my desire to give back and to pay forward what had been given to me. I never set out in search of a ladder. But along my journey, I had the opportunity to meet and work with many of our members who had already found the ladder, ascended the ladder, and left the ladder down for others like me.

            Whether they realized it or not, the members of our bar who left the ladder down were sponsors. We talk a lot about the importance of mentorship in the profession, but what we often actually mean is sponsorship.

            In her book, The Sponsor Effect: How to be a Better Leader by Investing in Others, Sylvia Ann Hewlett explains the difference between mentorship and sponsorship. She writes: “Sponsorship is a professional relationship in which an established or rising leader identifies and chooses an outstanding junior talent, develops that person’s career, and reaps significant rewards for those efforts.”[fn 2] Hewlett explains, “[a]s a mutually beneficial relationship, sponsorship is much deeper and more rewarding than traditional mentorship, a relationship in which a senior person ‘pays it forward’ by giving guidance to someone more junior, often casually and for not very long.”[fn 3]

            Within our Bar, we have many sponsors. Members who have left the ladder down and who have pushed others, step by step, toward and up it. Whether they think of their service as sponsorship or not, it falls clearly within the definition.

            I began my presidency by committing to you that I would do my part to carry forward what this community had given to me. The success of that commitment has been tied directly to our members’ sponsorship of others.

            As part of that commitment, we established the Leadership Academy to create a new and sustainable pathway to leadership in the Bar. Month after month, members of the Leadership Academy have been exposed to professional coaches, judges, and a wide range of members of our Bar. They have worked with mentors on projects for the Bar Journal and the Annual Meeting. Whether the participants in our academy know it or not, along this journey, many of them have found their own sponsors.

            We increased our outreach to law students in an effort to build a pipeline to the practice here in Rhode Island, as well as membership in the Bar Association.

            For the first time in 20 years, we hosted a new member reception and welcomed our newer members to our Bar committees. We also invited some of our newer lawyers to participate for the first time in our awards committees.

            For the first time in the RIBA’s history, we elected a young lawyer delegate to represent Rhode Island at the American Bar Association.

            And, this year, we had a record number of members interested in appointment to the House of Delegates.

            None of these efforts would have been possible, let alone successful, had it not been for the members of our Bar who left the ladder down.

            Sometimes, these efforts were so successful that some of our members who were already on the ladder made the decision to hop off to make room for others, a mark of a true leader. Those quiet decisions have not gone unnoticed.

            We do not talk much about sponsorship because, in most instances, it happens organically.[fn 4] Many of our members may not even know they are being sponsored. But each time their voices are amplified, their names are put forward, and they are offered opportunity, that is sponsorship.

            So, if sponsorship happens organically, how does one find a sponsor? First, Hewlett says performance is table stakes. You don’t get on anyone’s list unless you are outstanding at what you do.[fn 5] Second, is trustworthiness. You must be seen as someone who is on board for the long run.[fn 6]

            This year, the RIBA has tried to create as many forums as possible for organic sponsorship to develop. I have watched with great awe as our newer members have demonstrated their worthiness for sponsorship—outstanding professionals, committed to the long-term success of the profession in Rhode Island, who bring great ideas to the table. And I have watched as our members who have already ascended the ladder, have amplified the voices of those newer members, put forth their names, and offered them opportunity.

            As I conclude my Presidency, I want to sincerely thank so many of you who sponsored me and left the ladder down for me. As I step off the ladder, I am consciously leaving the ladder down, and I look forward with great excitement to seeing those who will soon be climbing it. They are well positioned to reach new heights under the leadership of soon-to-be President Christopher Gontarz, our officers, Executive Committee members, and our House of Delegates.

            Whether you’ve reached the top rung or you continue to climb, please join me in leaving the ladder down.




2 Sylvia Ann Hewlett, The Sponsor Effect: How to be a Better Leader by Investing in Others (2019).

3 Id.

4 Amy Bernstein, et al., Sponsorship: Defining the Relationship, Harvard Business Review, Women at Work Podcast (Oct. 29, 2019).

5 Silvia Ann Hewlett, The Benefits of Career Sponsorship Go Both Ways, Harvard Business Review on Leadership Podcast (Oct. 18, 2023).

6 Id

The Bar Journal assumes no responsibility for opinions, statements, and facts in any article, editorial, column, or book review, except to the extent that, by publication, the subject matter merits attention. Neither the opinions expressed in any article, editorial, column, or book review nor their content represent the official view of the Rhode Island Bar Association or the views of its members.