When Michele Coleman Mayes was 11 years old, she stood up in front of her family and made a declaration: “I’m going to be a lawyer!” She admits that even though Perry Mason was 100 percent the driving force behind this decision, she never wavered.

Thanks to an aunt who had friends in law, Mayes got an early taste of the legal world. During undergraduate school at the University of Michigan, she worked part-time at Legal Aid, a non-profit dedicated to providing legal services to low-income individuals, and spent a summer working at a law firm as a gopher. By the time she entered law school, Mayes thought she had a good idea of what law was all about.

“Law school is very different than practicing law. It stripped my gears to go in and read esoteric theories. They plea bargain,” she explains. “I had a tough transition from the years I spent in Legal Aid. My expectation was very different than what I encountered. It wasn’t a marriage made in heaven, but I came to grips with it.”

Mayes’ post-law school plans were to continue to work for Legal Aid. But upon graduation, her life took her work in a different direction. She got married and moved to Illinois with her then-husband, who was a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois. There, Mayes taught Foundations of Corrections at the university for 18 months before moving back to Michigan and taking a job in the U.S. attorney’s office.

For the next 16 years, Mayes worked in various capacities within the U.S. attorney’s office, and when it was time to make a move, her obvious choice was a law firm position. But when no offers came, her husband suggested she try going in-house. Her response: “What’s that?”

Today, Mayes sits at the helm of the legal department of Allstate Corp., one of the largest insurance companies in the country. And although she may not have been familiar with in-house legal jobs back then, she’s certainly made an impression on her colleagues since.

Q: Tell me about your transition to in-house practice.

A: I interviewed with Unisys in 1982. It was a computers company and that was sexy sounding, so I thought why not. I knew how to try cases. They had been under siege and had been sued all over the place. It was a disaster. They wanted a litigator. I was hired as the staff counsel for the Eastern Region.

After awhile, I had decided I wanted to be a GC. One of my mentors put that seed in my head, and I started telling people I was going to do it. I went to my boss, Andrew D. Hendry, and asked, “How do I become a GC?” He said I lacked a great deal. So I asked him, “How do I fix this?” He said he would think about it, and then he quit to go to Colgate.

So six months later he called me and said, “Let’s have dinner.” And I said “For what?” But Andy and I were yin and yang. I thought he was happy to have me out of his hair. I couldn’t fathom that he would actively recruit me.

So, I had dinner with him in 1991 and he said, “Do you want to interview at Colgate?” I said, “Why would I want to do that?” And he said, “Because you’re not ready to be a GC.” Then he promised to get me ready. That was our deal.

At Colgate I did several very different jobs. It was keeping with Andy’s commitment of getting me ready. At the time I joined, I didn’t work for the GC. I was on the business side. Then I became head of human resources. Then I went into the law department. It was four years later that I started working under Andy. Then he gave me two jobs: I became head of the corporate group and international. Then I said enough already. Then Sara called.

Q: How did you end up in your first GC position?

A: Sara Moss [the then-GC of Pitney Bowes] decided to leave her position and promised to help her boss find her replacement. They decided she would put together the slate of people for him to consider. She put me at the top and then she coached me all the way through. I got the job.

Q: How did you become GC of Allstate?

A: I had been at Pitney Bowes almost five years. I didn’t want to stay too long, and I thought I could be a GC one more time. I have experience, I like being a GC. But I wasn’t looking.

At the time, I was on a board, and that work became very stressful in summer 2007. The company had come under scrutiny about issues on how they handle reinsurance. I was asked to chair a special committee, which became a full-time job.

Then, I got the phone call to interview at Allstate. It was all I could do to keep my eye on my day job. I was burning the candle at both ends. But the woman doing the search for Allstate said I should look at this position. So I did. I came here in July 2007.

Q: What do you love most about your work? About being a lawyer?

A: I like that you get to understand and know the client and partners well. What their concerns are, what their appetite for risk is. You know them inside-out as opposed to outside-in. As a result, we all have a greater appreciation for what is important. You can impact behavior to get very concrete results, both big and small.

Q: What is the most challenging part of your job with Allstate?

A: There are lots of things. What is important for any lawyer is figuring out what you don’t know. If you know it, you can handle it. When you get blindsided, it’s much more difficult. You have to be careful not to get so comfortable that you have a false sense of hubris that you are in control. That’s an illusion.

Seeing around corners is a challenge–what should have your attention rather than what does. When you live and breathe one client, you still have to maintain your independence.

Q: You recently wrote a book about the history of women GCs. Tell me about it.

A: The book is called “Courageous Counsel.” Lloyd Johnson [co-founder of MCCA and CEO of Chief Legal Executive] was really the brainchild behind it. I co-authored the book with Kara Baysinger, a partner at SNR Denton. Lloyd approached me a couple years ago and said he had this idea. There hadn’t been many women GCs in the Fortune 500, so why don’t we collect their stories.

My vision is that the book will change expectations, inspire and be viewed as a call to action. It’s that the current high of 94 women GCs in the Fortune 500 will be surpassed.

Q: You’re also the co-chair for Inside-
Counsel’s Transformative Leadership Awards, which honors women. Why did you get involved?

A: Diversity is getting people in the room. Inclusiveness is hearing what people have to say and doing something about it. If you do that, you have loyalty and reason for staying. The TLA awards go back to the whole idea of sustainability. Women who have real books of business are players in their firm and are paving the way for others. It’s worthy of following and celebrating.

Q: What advice would you give a young lawyer who would like to someday become GC of a large company?

A: You need to be authentic, and you need to be very mindful that it isn’t a popularity contest. You have to make tough decisions that are not always popular. If you can’t do that, don’t suit up. n