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#Selfieswithsonya - Featuring Michelle C. Ifill

Sonya:  When did you first realize that you wanted to become an attorney? What first drew you to a career as an attorney? What do you enjoy most about your career now?

Michelle: I am actually one of those attorneys who started down the legal path early. I was still in Middle School when my Mother would exclaim in exasperation ‘Young lady! You have an answer for everything! You need to be a lawyer!’  So the seed was planted early. I always liked to read and wrote well, so in college I took a difficult, Socratic method course taught by a Harvard Law School Professor called ‘The Rule of Law.’  I enjoyed the challenge, aced it, and realized Mama was right!

I am blessed to have had a long and interesting career. In fact, this year I celebrated my 25th work anniversary at Verizon.  I have always taken pride in seeing young professionals develop and grow. The fact that I am in the position to encourage, teach and mentor those that are making their own career journey is incredibly rewarding to me.  I also feel it is imperative that I leave my mark and influence decisions that are being made in Verizon, specifically, and in the legal profession as a whole.

Sonya: Have there been specific people (real or fictional) or pivotal situations/events that have inspired you, helped shape your career?

Michelle: My parents have been a significant inspiration. My father came to this country from Barbados in his 20s, and he and my mother sacrificed a great deal to raise me and my three siblings in an environment that was not always hospitable to a young, growing Caribbean-American family. Both of them stressed the importance of education and not allowing anyone else define who it is that we could be or for what we could strive. This mental perspective most definitely created a strong foundation for me to succeed.

Sonya: Are there particular traits that you believe successful attorneys share? Traits that you believe you have yourself and which you look for in hiring outside and in-house counsel? How about common traits you’ve observed in other successful GCs?

Michelle: A trait that I find to be quite compelling in successful attorneys is also one that I find in successful professionals of any kind:  Having the ability to connect, to empathize, to feel.  This is a common desire that we all share: To be valued.  One way of demonstrating that you value someone is to simply listen to what it is that they are saying.  I don’t recall where I read this mantra, but I believe it holds true in law and in life: Seek to understand before seeking to be understood.  The best GCs and leaders of any organization have the ability to make those who they are in contact with feel valued and that their contributions, big and small, matter.

Sonya: What professional accomplishment are you most proud of? What would you like your legacy to be in your company/law department? In the legal profession?

Michelle: I have had the pleasure of working with some very smart, dedicated and dynamic lawyers and business people and have helped to shape careers. So I would like my legacy to be one that focused on the importance of our people, our clients and our customers.

Sonya: Have you had mentors/sponsors? Have you acted as a mentor/sponsor to others? Is mentorship/sponsorship important? How? Why?

Michelle: As we know, mentorship and sponsorship require different skill sets and investments. But they are both critically important for those who are interested in moving up within an organization. While mentors are helpful for the day-to-day feedback and technical as well as political/atmospheric guidance, sponsors are critical as well, as they are the ones that are in positions of influence.  These are the people who others respect and value their judgment.  Therefore, if they are willing to invest in an employee, as in use their social and political capital to speak highly of them, that is key.  In this day and age, I am hopeful that you do not find senior professionals that respond that they have not mentored or sponsored, This is a crucial and very rewarding component of my role as a GC and people leader. 

Sonya: Think about the legal profession over the course of the next ten years. What do you see as the big changes that are coming which you believe will most significantly impact the profession and the role of the GC/in-house legal department?

Michelle: Although some say that the Millennial Generation will soon ‘come of age’ and find much more acceptable the legal professional ways and means of the Xers and Boomers, I am not one of them.  I feel rather strongly that the legal profession and the role of the in-house counsel is being influenced by this huge demographic in very obvious and some not-so-discernable ways. As I could write an entire article on this dynamic, suffice it to say that the Millennials (generally, not every one of them, of course) place a lower value on in-person meetings, preferring the flexibility of using technology to communicate and collaborate.  They also tend to enjoy the ‘group project’ dynamic and do not place a heavy premium on the pyramid structure of most organizations.  Thus, we will find more intentional (and required) interactions in various interesting ways between those who are senior leaders and those working their way up the ladder. 

The other area I feel compelled to mention that will have a significant effect on the legal profession is the incredible explosion of data, as well as the risks and remedies that come along with the handling of data.

Sonya: Describe a significant challenge you have faced in your life or career. How did you overcome it? What did you learn from it?

Michelle: My most significant challenge actually bridged both my professional and personal life: this was the 2002 Chapter 11 filing of MCI/WorldCom. There were so many lessons learned by that experience: The criticality of remaining (externally) calm for our team; the importance of being visible, accessible and empathetic while watching so many lives and futures impacted; and the heightened responsibility I had as a manager to help lead the team through this tumultuous period in their professional and personal lives. The experience also taught me to trust, but verify.  Integrity and transparency are crucial.

Sonya: What does Diversity & Inclusion mean to you? How important is D&I to you personally? As a GC? To your company/legal department? What advice do you have for GCs and others seeking to make a positive impact on the progress of D&I in their organizations and in the legal profession?

Michelle: Anyone who knows me, or even knows of me, is aware that I have been a long-standing vocal & visible proponent of the importance of diversity and inclusion in our industry – in fact – ever since my 1992 MCCA panel presentation on ‘The Myth of the Meritocracy.’  The numbers are dismal and they are not showing signs of improvement in the pipeline.  Verizon has an established reputation as a Fortune 15 company that makes it clear that having diverse voices and perspectives focused on finding innovative solutions for our customers is the only way for us to maintain and grow our market share.  Our customers expect for us to have an employee population that reflects the communities which we serve.

While a mere five years ago it may have been helpful for me to provide a laundry list of ways for others to help make a positive D&I  impact, the legal community now has a plethora of resources available to it to change the disturbing trajectory. So the easiest advice is to just do it.  Between the extensive and in many ways ground-breaking ABA Committee on Diversity Report and Proposition 113, expertly led by then ABA President Paulette Brown, the  Mansfield Initiative, developed by Caren Ulrich Stacy, The 3,000-strong efforts of Laurie Robinson- Hayden of CCWC, The Inclusion Initiative led by Rick Meade of Prudential, The ACC Foundation WITH initiative under Veta Richardson & Jen Chen, The 2025 Black GC Initiative or the law firms — diversity metrics and incentive program,  Engage Excellence, that I have spent four years rolling out at our firms, the resources are there, accessible and impactful. I am personally willing to speak with any GC or legal leader who would like to have an offline conversation on how to help move this needle. 

Sonya: If you were not General Counsel of your company (or of any company or even a lawyer at all), what career do you think you would most like to pursue?

Michelle: Great question!  Or perhaps it’s the timing of this question that I fancy. I actually have two post-GC careers in mind, and I truly am not sure which one I favor.  Lately, I have been spending a fair amount of time with a new women’s organization that I founded, The Women of Excellence Network (website in formation: www.GWEN2017.com).  The WEN mission is focused on empowering women in the legal profession to find avenues to expand their professional networks and business opportunities by creating synergies and suitable environments to allow for relationship-building and structured collaboration.  As I enjoy travel and working in this area and the need is so apparent, the idea of coordinating and hosting WEN Retreats has been on my mind.

Sonya: Knowing what you know now about being a lawyer and a GC, if you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be? At what point in your past would you give yourself that advice?

Michelle: My advice would be in 3 parts:

  • Trust your instincts
  • You are at least as smart or smarter than anyone else in the room
  • Take up the space you are given and take the rest that you deserve

Sonya: Tell me something fun about yourself. A personal skill or hobby that, while not directly related to your day job, you feel makes you more well-rounded, helps you be better at your day job and/or helps relax and focus you to do your job as a GC better.

Michelle: Although corporate lawyers, especially in technology, are not typically known to be artistically inclined, I get to explore my creative side through interior design. This has always been a passion of mine, as my mother likes to remind me of how precise I was in picking out my college dorm room décor in Bed Bath & Beyond (for hours and hours) way back when.   Thankfully, I’ve come a long way:

Check out www.lammbarbadosvilla.com

Sonya: Hashtag/Brand yourself in 5 words or less (For example, mine is #SelfiesWithSonya)

Michelle: #MusingsbyMichelle     #FillTheSpace

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