In 2009 Michele Coleman Mayes, then the general counsel of Allstate Insurance Company, teamed up with SNR Denton partner Kara Baysinger to write a book about women GCs. Their first plan was simply to recount the stories of women in a field traditionally dominated by men. But another idea soon took shape: to pass on the wisdom of one generation of top women lawyers to the next. With a team of SNR Denton partners, they interviewed dozens of former, current, or potential general counsel on how they had reached the top­—and what they had learned on the way. “Long after I’m dead, if people read that book, those messages are timeless,” Mayes says of the result, Courageous Counsel: Conversations with Women General Counsel in the Fortune 500. “And they are true regardless of gender or ethnicity.”

Her book is perhaps the highest-profile example of Mayes’s passion for mentoring. Usually, she says, she’s mentoring five people—ranging from professional contacts to law students to the children of colleagues—in addition to her own staff. “I worked hard,” she says of her three-decade in-house career, “but there were times when people would give me the benefit of the doubt and a helping hand. So my question was always, ‘Where is the next person, who isn’t getting a helping hand?’ “

Video Extra: Michele Coleman Mayes offers advice for young lawyers, explains what mentoring means to her, and reflects on the role mentoring can play in fostering diversity in the legal industry.

The impulse to offer a helping hand has made Mayes, now 63, a strong advocate for pro bono work and for racial and gender diversity. Taking the helm of Allstate’s 600-lawyer in-house department in 2007, Mayes launched a pro bono program. “It’s her legacy to our department,” says Susie Lees, who took over from Mayes as GC. Today the program includes 45 in-house lawyers; one recent project is a partnership with Cabrini Green Legal Aid to help Chicagoans with nonviolent convictions clear old criminal records that block them from job and housing opportunities. Mayes also instituted a scorecard to rank Allstate’s outside law firms on their diversity and mentoring of minority and women lawyers, then collaborated with the firms on diversity action plans.

Mayes has taken a leadership role in diversity efforts outside her legal department, too. When she joined the board of Legal Momentum (formerly NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund) in 1996, then-president Kathryn Rodgers was delighted to have such a high-profile corporate lawyer on board—and surprised by her availability: “It didn’t matter if she was in Brazil or the Middle East, she never missed a call.” Mayes collaborated on projects such as a program to help women secure work in nontraditional sectors like construction and firefighting. As a member of the American Bar Association’s Center for Racial and Ethnic Diversity, Mayes helped convince corporate legal departments to participate in the center’s 2009 survey of diversity in the profession, says Cie Armstead, the center’s director. “There’s much more success reaching out to GCs when it comes from one of their peers,” Armstead says.

And Mayes has the credentials. After six years as an assistant U.S. attorney in Brooklyn and Detroit and a decade in-house at Unisys Corporation, she rose through the ranks at Colgate-Palmolive Company to become vice president of global legal affairs. In 2003 she left Colgate to become general counsel at mail services provider Pitney Bowes Inc., guiding it through acquisitions to reduce its reliance on the postal industry. As Allstate’s GC, she helped the company navigate the 2008 financial crisis and its $1 billion purchase of Esurance Inc. and Answer Financial Inc. last year. In August she joined The New York Public Library as its general counsel.

But Pitney Bowes chief legal officer Dan Goldstein says that Mayes’s interest in helping her colleagues grow has set her apart as much as her legal acumen. “She taught me how to be a general counsel,” Goldstein says. “She continued to be a mentor after she stopped being my boss.”

 

IN HER OWN WORDS
Most significant professional achievement: Working in a wide range of industries and doing it well.

Most significant personal achievement: That people see me as a role model they can emulate without being a clone.

Biggest regret:
Not taking more risks sooner.

Advice to 2012 law school graduates: Find something you are passionate about, but be willing to break the rules.