Editors’ Note: As part of our ongoing Diversity and Inclusion Spotlight series, Diversity fellows from the San Francisco office Alex Mathas, a rising 2L at Berkeley School of Law, and Monica Cai, a rising 2L at Yale Law School, interviewed San Francisco partner Michael Steel, a partner for over 10 years at MoFo, and Alejandro Bras, a seventh-year associate in the Environment and Energy Group, to discuss their career paths and what their mentor-mentee relationship has meant to them.
What led you to your practice area?
Alejandro: I was studying politics and National Security Issues around the time of Guantanamo Bay, which inspired me to go to law school. My plan was to go into government, but I ended up falling in love with the environmental clinic at Stanford. It presented the opportunity to do really cutting-edge work in climate change, and I really enjoyed the litigation aspect. I came to MoFo as a summer in the Litigation Department and halfway through started doing more work in environment and energy (E&E). It was a perfect fit.
Michael: I came from a family of lawyers, so law school was kind of a natural next step. As a young lawyer, I was guided towards environmental law, working with companies that manufacture a variety of products; everything from baby food to automobile parts to kitchen faucets. I really enjoyed learning how products are developed and the mix of disciplines I was able to practice.
Is there a pretty big overlap between transactional work, business advising, and litigation in your work?
Michael: In the environmental arena, we advise clients on what the law requires, counseling them on compliance issues and defending enforcement actions. We also end up in litigation from time to time. It’s a crossover practice between counseling and advising, with litigation on the other side. Many of the skill sets are common to both litigation and counseling—grasping the legal concepts, working with people with diverse interests, and developing and implementing a strategy for reaching a solution.
Alejandro: For me, the chance to blend counseling and regulatory work with transactional and litigation work is very rare in our industry. That is one of the most appealing things about being in the E&E group. It’s what actually drew me to the practice.
Michael, what brought you to MoFo?
Michael: MoFo offered a more energetic, entrepreneurial environment. I was also drawn to their clean energy practice. Having worked with oil companies in the past, I saw it as an intriguing next step.
Michael, at what point in your career did you decide you wanted to be a partner?
Michael: I had a three-year plan: get a good education from a top law firm, figure out what area of law I wanted to practice, and move on. But, working in a bigger law firm was more fun than I had expected. By the time my third year came around, I knew this is where I wanted to stay.
Has being a diverse attorney impacted your practice and your experiences?
Michael: I didn’t come out until I was 39 years old. During my time as an associate, I lived as a straight man. I came out around the time I was up for partner at my previous firm, and the impact of that was surprising. Some years later, I was the logical choice for department head, but one of the partners in my group threatened to leave if a gay man was made named as the leader. When I came to MoFo, I found a more open and accepting environment where I wasn’t held back because of my sexual orientation.
Can you tell us how your mentor/mentee relationship started?
Alejandro: Even though Michael is my mentor in the formal sense, our relationship began much more informally. We worked very closely from the beginning, being in a smaller attorney group, so our relationship really took on more of an organic mentor-mentee relationship long before it was ‘official’.
Would you recommend that young associates seek out multiple mentors?
Michael: In a big firm like MoFo, it’s important to build as many relationships as you can. As an associate, some mentors will be helpful in giving general advice and guidance. Others will become your champions. Partners are important, but don’t leave out the associates you work with. These are all colleagues that you leave an impression on — the people who will be in your court throughout your career, either as client, or colleagues.