As vice president and deputy general counsel at Verizon Business, Michelle Ifill manages legal issues and contract negotiations for the company’s complex and specialized services deals. “Our global enterprise customers—drawn primarily from the ranks of the Fortune 500—hand over their IT and telecom needs to Verizon to allow them to better focus on their core competencies,” explains Ifill. “My role is to bring together Verizon’s various legal and business resources in support of that effort.”
Verizon Business was formed in 2006 when MCI merged with Verizon Communications. “There were some unavoidable bumps during that first year of integration,” says Ifill. “Whenever you bring two distinct corporate cultures together there are challenges, but it was important to keep communication lines open and to never lose sight of the fact that the focus is on our customers.”
After eight years as a corporate associate in two New York City firms, Ifill joined MCI’s legal department in 1993 as a global accounts staff attorney in the company’s Rye Brook, N.Y., field office. “I actually had no telecommunications background, and the environment was nothing short of ‘sink-or-swim.’ Within the first couple of weeks on the job, my supervisor sat me down in a conference room and handed me a 200-page contract to negotiate against a leading telecom attorney,” Ifill remembers. “Without a doubt, there were many long nights looking through the many federal and state tariffs and reading up on telecom regulations. Luckily, one of my strengths is the ability—and preference—to work independently.”
The oldest daughter of professionals, Ifill grew up in affluent Dix Hills, N.Y. Like many future lawyers, young Ifill was an opinionated little girl. “My mother told me when I was eight or nine that I was destined to be an attorney,” she says, laughing. After graduating from Brown University with a major in American literature and French language, Ifill went on to fulfill her mother’s prediction by earning her law degree from Harvard.
Ifill was pleasantly surprised by Harvard’s inclusive atmosphere and encouraging professors, but she was less than enthusiastic by its first-year Moot Court competition. “Let’s just say it was not one of my fonder memories,” she recalls. “I knew instantly that corporate litigation wasn’t for me. I’m someone who prefers to help parties figure out a positive resolution to business conflict, rather than potentially adding to the conflict through the litigation process.”
Negotiating and mediating all the way, Ifill has moved steadily up the ranks over the years. “When you’re finally in a position to effectuate change, you can’t be afraid,” says Ifill. “You need to go outside your comfort zone and shake things up a little. I look around far too many corporate legal departments and see 70 percent or more men at senior levels, and ask myself, ‘Where are all the women I knew at law school?’ This phenomenon appears even more prevalent in private practice and with regard to diverse attorneys.”
Ever since she was first in a position to make legal department hiring decisions at MCI, Ifill had aggressively recruited and mentored diverse candidates. She continues to do the same at Verizon Business, and that commitment is reflected in the number of diverse employees it has at many levels. “Over the years, it has been clear that Verizon takes the issue of inclusion and diversity very seriously, along with the value that perspective brings to the business.
“Today, I’m at a place in my career where I can work from a macro perspective on global diversity issues within Verizon Business, a fairly new initiative,” says Ifill. “I can reach out to our colleagues throughout the world and bring them onboard Verizon Business’ Legal diversity council, get their viewpoints, their assistance with diversity training and outreach programs. There are countless opportunities within and external to Verizon to be involved in fostering inclusion as a way of business, and I am pleased to be in a place that encourages me to do just that.” DB
Patrick Folliard is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md.
From the September/October 2008 issue of Diversity & The Bar®