NY Public Library General Counsel Michele Coleman Mayes on Leadership, Diversity in the Legal Profession

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

On March 20, Michele Coleman Mayes, general counsel for the New York Public Library, spoke to a group of students, faculty, and staff about her career and diversity in the legal profession as part of University of Arizona Law's Mundheim Speaker Series. Mayes—pictured at left during her 2016 talk at Arizona Law—was previously general counsel for Allstate and Pitney Bowes.

Mayes noted that building meaningful relationships with those she’s worked with has been critical to her success throughout her career. In particular, she highlighted that trust is critical to a general counsel’s work with a company or organization’s board of directors.

“I think most boards are always afraid of what they don’t know,” said Mayes. Therefore, “It’s really about [trust].”

Mayes also discussed the importance of mentorship for young legal professionals, reflecting on how key mentors helped her advance throughout her career. She told the audience about one of her favorite mentors, a boss she worked for early in her career who possessed an often overlooked quality.

“We were as opposite as day as is to night,” said Mayes. “If I said left, he always said right,” adding that those differences were key to that boss being an effective mentor.

“People who are most unlike you are the ones you learn the most from,” she said. “It is the hardest to develop a rapport initially, but they typically are not going to just blow sweet thoughts in your ear. They’re going to tell you when you are coming up short, when you are making poor mistakes, or when you are just making excuses. So I prefer people who are not like me [as a mentor].”

In addition to her role as the general counsel for the New York Public Library, Mayes is also the chair of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Law. During her talk she highlighted projects that the commission is pursuing in order to better understand bias in the workplace.

Diversity in the legal profession is an issue that Mayes has had to confront throughout her career. She recalled an instance early in her career when she attended a meeting in the Deep South, and the opposing side said, “I thought you were bringing your lawyer” to her client.   

Near the conclusion of her talk, Mayes was asked about the importance of one’s reputation and how to develop a positive one.  She encouraged those in the audience to become involved in activities outside of work in order to develop their networks. She cautioned, however, that, “You can’t do it all and you can’t do it all well.” Her advice for success: focus on the things that you are passionate about and have time to fully commit to.