Over my more than 25 years of practice as a litigator at Paul, Weiss, and more recently as a board-level counselor to many large corporate clients, I have been fortunate to have been encouraged, guided, and mentored by a series of remarkable lawyers. I truly owe my success to my mentors, who pushed me beyond my comfort zone, entrusted me with major client responsibilities, and offered me examples of professional excellence. Even today, I recall the lessons I learned from my former mentors, many of whom are now my close friends.
In June 2020, for example, faced with the daunting challenge of representing IBM in one of the first in-person trials in the disorienting early days of the pandemic, my thoughts kept returning to what my mentors might do in my shoes.
How would they stay focused amid the chaos? How would they effectively argue their case while wearing face shields in an eerily empty courthouse? How would they guide associates on the team through their first-ever trial in such circumstances?
No one comes at this, even after years of experience, knowing without a shred of doubt the right way to handle a unique and difficult situation. My mentors may not have had the perfect answer, but I tried to emulate some of their best qualities—unflappability, rising to a challenge, leading by example—to encourage and inspire my teams.
Today, my goal is to pass on my own experience to those coming up behind me, and to be an “active” mentor in every sphere of my practice, much the way I was mentored. In that trade secrets trial, in which we won a rare preliminary injunction enforcing a non-competition agreement against Microsoft, I trusted my talented senior associates to take the lead on crucial elements of the trial (which they handled wonderfully) and made time to ensure that everyone on the team fully understood each step of the process, from deposition designations to cross examinations.
As a woman litigation partner representing major firm clients in employment and other matters, I go out of my way to connect with associates who express an interest in employment law, especially women associates and associates of color. When an associate tells me they’re interested in employment law and workplace investigations, I make a point of reaching out to them the next time a relevant matter comes along.
I also try to be attuned to opportunities for them to take the lead and encourage them with “stretch” assignments. Whether that’s through encouraging an associate to lead a presentation, asking them to take the lead on investigative interviews, or letting them interface directly with clients, assignments like these are invaluable opportunities to hone their communications skills and to become strong, confident lawyers.
Currently, for example, I’m working on a board presentation, and Lissette Duran, an associate with whom I’ve worked very closely in recent years, is delivering a part of it. While it would be easy for me to just give the presentation myself and not work with her to decide where she could take the lead, I’m not really doing my job if I’m not also empowering the next generation.
Beyond the professional development needs of the mentee, the “active” mentoring relationship is important for the client relationship. It enables our clients to form growing relationships with the future generations of attorneys. Another associate of mine, Leah Park, for example, has developed such an expertise in the employment litigation field that some of our clients have started calling her directly when they have one-off, day-to-day questions.
Great mentorship requires effort and willingness on both sides. Part of what makes a mentoring relationship successful is when the associate embraces the opportunity to get out of her comfort zone and try new things when given the opportunity. I’ve offered Leah opportunities to be a published author on employment law, given her strong interest in this area, and she has run with it, taking the lead on drafting memos for our clients that break down timely employment law issues.
I often tell my mentees that mentorship begins in your earliest days at a firm. As soon as you’re in a position to be on a team, even as a first-year associate, you’re able to give guidance and support and feedback to other associates, to paralegals, and staff attorneys. Those early experiences can be some of the most rewarding, because you realize how much you’ve learned by your ability to help others.
From the start, it’s the mentor’s responsibility to be approachable and foster a welcoming environment. By building cohesive teams with open lines of communication, I try to create not only a better experience for those involved, but a better work product.
I want our younger lawyers to not be afraid to ask questions or to raise their hands and disagree with me. No one is master of all the factual and legal issues in a matter; I learn from them as much as they learn from me.
Being the best lawyer you can be is not a solo endeavor; it “takes a village,” and we are all continually learning and drawing inspiration from each other. We all rely on the support of others to succeed, wherever we are in our careers.
I would not have become an employment litigator without the many partners at Paul, Weiss who exposed me to employment-related matters and fed my interest in them. None of us would be here if not for the people along the way who believed in us and took an interest in us.
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
Liza M. Velazquez, a partner in Paul, Weiss’ Litigation Department in New York, represents corporate clients, financial institutions, media, and entertainment companies, and non-profit institutions in a broad range of employment-related litigations and investigations. She also regularly counsels clients on employment issues.