Isabella Fu: Mentoring In Context
Isabella Fu, a senior attorney at Microsoft Corporation, shared her thoughts with Lloyd M. Johnson, Jr., the founder of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, and publisher emeritus of Diversity & the Bar® magazine. This is the fifth of six articles that will be written this year on the topic of mentoring across differences—spotlighting how lawyers of different racial, gender, and cultural backgrounds build successful mentoring relationships.
Lloyd M. Johnson, Jr. is currently the vice president of national sales at Areté Legal in San Francisco, Calif. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.
For Isabella Fu, law wasn’t an expected career choice. Like her parents, who were both electrical engineers, Fu was encouraged to become a scientist. She earned an undergraduate degree in physics from Harvard/Radcliffe College, but instead of going to graduate school in physics, she decided instead to go to law school. But Fu has used her scientific training and observation skills in her work as a lawyer. While Fu credits her formal mentors for helping her career, she has learned more from studying the techniques and styles of informal mentors. By adapting what she has learned from those informal mentors, Fu has learned to apply that knowledge in appropriate situations. Now a senior attorney with Microsoft Corporation, Fu spoke with Lloyd M. Johnson, Jr. about how sometimes the most effective mentoring relationships can be the least structured.
As an associate fresh out of Columbia Law School in 1991, Isabella Fu's first job at a large, traditional San Francisco law firm was not the best fit. After about a year there, she found a better fit at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. While also a large firm, Wilson Sonsini was based in Silicon Valley and had mostly technology clients, which were often startups or small companies.
"Because the client base was pretty young and wanted work done at low cost, the newer lawyers with lower billing rates got substantial responsibility and client contact," she says. Also, the attorneys were focused not on just the litigation, for example, but on the business needs of the clients. Many of the attorneys wanted to understand the clients' business models, and what was important to them aside from just the legal issues.
By watching various attorneys (often fairly junior by years of experience in comparison to more traditional firms), Fu began to understand what issues are important to clients, and which ones aren't. While she didn't directly imitate any one mentor or attorney in particular, she learned over time how to adapt that sensibility and apply it in the appropriate context to her own work with clients.
Working side by side on deals with informal mentors on various cases and projects proved more valuable to Fu than the abstract discussions about career development that she had with formally assigned mentors.
"I never gained as much from my assigned mentors," she says. "I worked with many different attorneys and tried to learn from their styles, but not emulate any one person directly."
That has proven true throughout her legal career. Fu has often found that her formal mentors have been from other practice areas or had such different goals or work styles that it was difficult to learn as much from them.
Fu looked to those she worked with closely instead. Throughout her time at Wilson Sonsini, she noticed that some partners weren't necessarily role models when it came to managing associates, but they were very good in court. Other attorneys were particularly adept at managing client expectations or keeping costs low.
"I tried to learn from all these people," she says.
But after three years at Wilson Sonsini, in 1995 Fu decided to move to the corporate side, and joined Intel Corporation as an in-house litigation attorney.
While at Intel, she honed her intellectual property and litigation skills, as she developed additional skills to deal with her in-house clients. That involved learning to think more like a business person herself, and less as a lawyer. For example, the clients worried about public relations issues, speed of litigation versus speed of product development, international issues, and whether the law or civil procedure should be amended or adapted to changes in business or technology. She also learned how better to present to clients as opposed to other lawyers or judges. Her informal mentors guided her on the right level of detail and priorities for meetings, and how to guide clients through decision making. Discovering the correct level of detail that business people wanted was an aspect she learned from watching others, but something she also had to teach herself. "It was a gradual process," she explains.
At Intel, she also met other informal mentors, including many of the clients at Intel, both engineers and people more focused on the business side. Intel concentrated much on "execution" versus just activity, and she developed an appreciation for the urgency for obtaining results, particularly in the high-tech area. That was another lesson she took to her next experience, when she joined Microsoft Corporation in 2003.
Having learned so much from working with others, Fu is determined to help younger attorneys as well. For those who have less experience working with business people, she tries to teach them the best ways to present issues at meetings, for example. She offers pointers to her informal mentees about what level of legal information to provide and drilling down to what the business people need to know; for example, what the magnitude of the risk is, considering the timing of dispute resolution, the sales of the affected products, and whether the products might change.
Helping out younger attorneys in concrete, practical ways—not in hypothetical situations or with abstract legal theories—is part of Fu's approach to giving back. "When mentoring in an abstract way, I'm not sure the person gets as much," she says.
And while Fu is a strong believer in the value of informal relationships, she does serve as a formal mentor to others, when the fit is right. Because of her successes and experiences as a woman and a person of color, Fu is often asked to be a mentor. But she does not hesitate to turn down those potential mentees that she thinks could be better served by someone else.
"I don't want that person to not work with a better mentor," she says.
At Microsoft, Fu currently has one formal mentee. Fu is friendly with her mentee's manager and believes that manager is also offering a lot of good mentoring.
And while she may be modest about her contributions as a formal mentor, Fu is pleased to see her mentee learning from others she works with, just as Fu did. For smart, observant attorneys, it's one of the best ways to gain knowledge.
From the September/October 2005 issue of Diversity & The Bar®