Michele Coleman Mayes, ’74, has come a long way since her mother enrolled her, against her will, in a public speaking class when she was 11. 

“Back then, I was so shy that I would barely make eye contact or speak when I met a stranger, and it drove my mother insane. She would say, ‘Do you have a mouth? Do you know how to be polite?’” Mayes recalled. “Enrolling me in that class was one of the best things she did for me, but at the time, let me tell you—she was my worst enemy.” Surprisingly, she discovered that she excelled at public speaking. 

In 1967, she enrolled—voluntarily, this time, and, according to Mayes, wisely—at the University of Michigan, where she received two degrees. She went on to become a remarkably accomplished lawyer and force for positive change in the legal profession. And she did so as a Black woman who overcame bias and other challenges and thrived in places where she was too often the first or only person who looked like her. 

In recognition of these achievements, Mayes is the 2024 recipient of Michigan Law’s Distinguished Alumni Award, the Law School’s highest honor. 

“Michele represents the best of Michigan Law—a talented and hard-working lawyer who has made significant contributions to the profession and as a role model to the scores of young people she has helped over the years,” said Kyle Logue, interim dean and the Douglas A. Kahn Collegiate Professor of Law. “We are fortunate that she is a member of our community and that she has chosen to stay so involved with the Law School.”

Michele Coleman Mayes speaks to an audience on Senior Day
In her 2019 Law School Senior Day address, Michele Coleman Mayes, ’74, the 2024 Distinguished Alumni Award winner, advised the graduates to avoid snap judgements by slowing down, asking questions, and listening. 

Mayes, who recently retired from her role as vice president, general counsel, and secretary at the New York Public Library, began her legal career with the US Department of Justice as an assistant US attorney and served in Detroit and Brooklyn, New York. After rising to chief of the Civil Division in Detroit, Mayes entered the private sector in 1982 when she joined the legal department of Burroughs Corporation. 

For the next 30 years, Mayes rose steadily through the ranks of corporate America. After Burroughs merged with Sperry Corporation to form Unisys, she served as staff vice president and associate general counsel for worldwide litigation. Mayes then joined the Colgate Palmolive Company in 1992 and held a number of executive and leadership roles, including as head of international legal operations and deputy general counsel. 

In 2003, armed with two decades of in-house experience, Mayes joined Pitney Bowes as general counsel—at the time, she was one of only six women of color in such a role for a Fortune 500 company. After leading Pitney Bowes’ legal operations for four plus years, she assumed the position of general counsel at Allstate Corporation, where she served until joining the New York Public Library in 2012. 

Committed to inspiring others

Mayes has devoted considerable time to mentoring and aiding in the careers of younger lawyers, in particular Black women, and says that she does so with gratitude to those who helped her along the way.

“I became invested in being a mentor so that whoever was coming behind me had the ability to see the possibilities and avoid self-sabotaging—and, importantly, to develop grit and a growth mindset,” she said. “My overall North Star, what I reach for, is whether I’m inspiring someone else to reach their full potential. And that has probably guided me more than anything.”

Michele Coleman Mayes talking with people at the Black Alumni Reunion
Mayes, seen here at Michigan Law’s 2023 Black Alumni Reunion, says her North Star is inspiring others to reach their full potential. 

Mayes has taken an active role in improving the legal profession for decades, with a focus on removing barriers to success for women, minorities, and other marginalized people. She served as chair of the Commission on Women in the Profession at the American Bar Association (ABA), where she commissioned two studies that continue to influence the ABA and the legal field more broadly: “You Can’t Change What You Can’t See,” which examined how unconscious bias affects women and made practical recommendations for organizational improvements, and “This Talk Isn’t Cheap,” which developed a framework for productive dialogue between white women and women of color about gender, race, and ethnicity in the workplace. She is a recipient of the ABA’s Margaret Brent Award, which recognizes those who have advanced opportunities for women in the legal profession, and also served as an adviser to the ABA’s business law section.

She is a prodigious volunteer and has been involved with charities and other organizations throughout her career. She was on the board of Legal Momentum, an advocacy group dedicated to advancing the rights of women and girls, for 17 years and served as chair for five. She was appointed to the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, which President Obama established by executive order in 2013; she also has served as a fellow and is a current trustee at the American College of Governance Counsel. 

Mayes also serves on the board of two public companies, Gogo Inc. and Brookfield Reinsurance. She is the co-author of Courageous Counsel: Conversations with Women General Counsel in the Fortune 500, which was published in 2011 and chronicles the rise of women to this role. 

Michigan Law also has benefited from her involvement for many years, particularly through her work with the Law School’s Black Alumni Reunion and her participation in mentoring programs. She has served as a leader or volunteer for all four Black Alumni Reunions since the program was established in 2014, most recently as co-executive chair of the events in 2020 and 2023. In 2019, she delivered the commencement address at Michigan Law’s Senior Day.

Though she retired from the New York Public Library in March, Mayes plans to stay busy through civic engagement and with the Center for Reproductive Rights, where she has been on the board since 2020. She will begin a term as chair of the center’s board in June. 

“We’ve made a lot of progress in society and the legal profession, but much remains to be done,” she said. “You have to protect success—you can’t take it for granted. At the same time, you have to lead and embrace change. As Maya Angelou said, ‘Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.’”