Why Mentoring Matters: Paul, Weiss’ Liza Velazquez

During my 25+ years as a litigator at Paul, Weiss and more recently as a board-level consultant for many large corporations As a client, I have been fortunate to be encouraged, guided and mentored by a number of remarkable attorneys. I truly owe my success to my mentors, who pushed me out of my comfort zone, trusted me with important client responsibilities and provided examples of professional excellence. To this day I still remember the lessons I learned from my former mentors, many of whom are now my close friends.

For example, in June 2020, when I faced the daunting challenge of representing IBM in one of the first in-person proceedings in the confusing early days of the pandemic, my thoughts kept returning to what my mentors could do in my place.

How would they stay focused amidst the chaos? How would they effectively argue their case while wearing face shields in an eerily empty courthouse? In such circumstances, how would you guide the team members through their very first process?

Even after years of experience, no one knows how to properly handle a unique and difficult situation. My mentors might not have the perfect answer, but I’ve tried to emulate some of their best qualities — steadfastness, meeting challenges, leading by example — to encourage and inspire my teams.

Today my goal is to pass on my own experience to those who come after me and to be an “active” mentor in all areas of my practice, just as I was. In this trade secret litigation in which we obtained a rare non-compete injunction against Microsoft, I trusted my talented senior staff to take the lead on critical elements of the litigation (which they handled beautifully) and took the time to do so ensure that everyone on the team fully understands each step of the process, from escrow designation to cross-examination.

As a female litigant representing large law firm clients on employment and other matters, I make every effort to reach out to employees who express an interest in employment law, particularly female employees and employees of color. If an employee tells me they are interested in employment law and workplace investigations, I make sure to contact them on the next relevant matter.

Offer the opportunity

I also try to be prepared for opportunities for them to take the lead and encourage them with “stretch” tasks. Whether it’s encouraging an employee to lead a presentation, asking them to take the lead in investigative interviews, or putting them in direct contact with clients, assignments like these are invaluable opportunities to improve their communication skills and develop strong, to become confident lawyers.

For example, I’m currently working on a board presentation and Lissette Duran, a staff member I’ve worked very closely with over the past few years, is delivering part of it. While it would be easy for me to just make the presentation myself and not work with her to decide where to take the lead, I’m not really doing my job if I’m not also empowering the next generation.

In addition to the professional development needs of the mentees, the “active” mentoring relationship is important for the customer relationship. It enables our clients to build growing relationships with future generations of lawyers. For example, another associate of mine, Leah Park, has developed such expertise in labor disputes that some of our clients have begun calling her directly when they have unique, everyday questions.

two-way street

Great mentorship requires effort and willingness on both sides. Part of what makes a mentoring relationship successful is when the employee takes the opportunity to step out of her comfort zone and try new things when the opportunity arises. Because of her strong interest in this area, I have offered Leah opportunities to become a published employment law writer and she has complied, taking the lead in writing memos for our clients that break down current employment law issues.

I often tell my mentees that mentoring starts in the first few days in a company. Once you are able to work in a team, even as a first-year associate, you can provide guidance, support, and feedback to other associates, paralegals, and associates. These early experiences can be some of the most rewarding, because your ability to help others will help you recognize just how much you have learned.

From the start, it is the mentor’s responsibility to be responsive and foster a welcoming environment. By building cohesive teams with open lines of communication, I try to not only create a better experience for those involved, but also a better work product.

I want our younger attorneys not to be afraid to ask questions or raise their hands and disagree with me. No one is master of all questions of fact and law in a matter; I learn as much from them as they learn from me.

Being the best lawyer you can be is not going it alone; it “takes a whole village” and we are all constantly learning and drawing inspiration from each other. We all rely on the support of others to succeed wherever we are in our careers.

Without the many partners at Paul, Weiss who introduced me to and interested me in employment law matters, I would not have become an employment litigator. None of us would be here without the people along the way who believed in us and cared about us.

This article does not necessarily represent the opinion of the Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

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Information about the author

Liza M. Velázquez, a Partner in the Litigation Department of Paul, Weiss in New York, representing corporate clients, financial institutions, media and entertainment companies and non-profit organizations in a wide range of employment litigation and investigations. She also regularly advises clients on employment law issues.

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