As a first-generation Egyptian American, Michelle Morcos Smith started her career wanting to make her parents proud. “They placed a huge emphasis on education, as so many immigrant families do,” she says. “I always knew I would continue my education beyond my undergraduate program.”
Smith’s parents also emphasized the power of hard work. Their lessons, combined with the power of strong mentors, paid off. Now vice president and associate general counsel at MetLife, Smith heads up the legal team for the Western region of the company’s investment management arm, supporting its large commercial real estate portfolio.
Her parents also indirectly sparked her interest in law. When Smith’s father opened his own jewelry manufacturing business in Providence, Rhode Island, the lawyers helping him set up the business would come to the house. Smith saw firsthand the important role lawyers could play in business.
Serving as a page in the US Senate as a high school student sharpened her interest. “Seemingly everyone I met during that experience was a lawyer,” she says. Then, right before entering law school, her work on the campaign of a US Representative and lawyer running for governor of Rhode Island reaffirmed her career choice.
She first joined MetLife’s legal affairs team in 2001 as assistant counsel of real estate debt and equity investments. Her rise at the company has been impressive. She started as a junior counsel on the team, developed a close mentorship relationship with the then vice president and associate general counsel, and took on his role when he retired in 2017.
“He pushed me in areas where I needed to develop and recognized where I excelled,” she says. “With his encouragement, I took advantage of MetLife’s leadership development programs and moved into larger roles.
“His guidance helped me build up the skills I needed to become an expert in our practice area and lead a team,” the VP continues. “Whenever I’m confronted with a new challenge, I think about how he would urge me to ask the right questions and dive deep into the issue.”
“The goal is to surround yourself with people who will be honest with you, have your best interests at heart, and be willing to take the time to help you grow.”
Getting chosen to replace her mentor upon his retirement was a huge honor, Smith says. Of course, the new role was not without its challenges. Smith had to forge her own unique leadership style and take charge of guiding her team’s career development, all while continuing to evolve the practice area to meet the business’s constantly changing needs.
Among her proudest accomplishments is her legal team’s role in supporting the growth of MetLife Investment Management’s commercial real estate portfolio, which exceeded $100 billion in 2019. “We support the business team on virtually every aspect of commercial real estate throughout the West Coast,” Smith says.
In 2020, Smith and her team have been focused on supporting the business through the uncertainty of COVID-19-related issues on its properties. She and others within MetLife also worked with local, state, and federal agencies to repurpose properties in its hotel portfolio in light of the pandemic. Possible uses included free housing for medical workers on the pandemic’s front lines and logistics space. “Since we had hotels across the country, we wanted to be a good corporate citizen and help,” Smith says.
Looking back on her career trajectory, Smith says having strong mentors has made all the difference. Early on, they helped her with big decisions as she approached major forks in her path, like whether to stay in politics or go to law school and whether to stay at a firm or take an in-house role.
Her mentors also coached her through important conversations with her bosses. “To be able to role-play the conversations I would have about a promotion and why I was ready and what I could bring to the table—I’m certain I wouldn’t have gotten those promotions when I did without having the guidance of mentors,” she says.
She says mentors are also key to increasing the representation of women in leadership roles. “They create a safe environment to have deep conversations about your personal and professional goals and help you gain confidence in your skills so you can advocate for yourself. They also can help you navigate difficult situations you might run into in the workplace.”
Smith now pays it forward, mentoring others as she’s moved up in her career. “It’s gratifying when a mentee tells you they’ve gotten their dream job and that the advice you gave helped push them toward that,” she says.
For those wishing to tap into the power of a strong mentor, Smith says outside the workplace can be a good place to look too. For the past twenty years, she’s had what she calls a “personal board of directors,” which in addition to former managers and colleagues includes women she met while attending Barnard College and other close friends.
“You want a variety of people with different perspectives,” she says. “The goal is to surround yourself with people who will be honest with you, have your best interests at heart, and be willing to take the time to help you grow.”
Shartsis Friese LLP:
“Michelle is a gifted real estate attorney and leader who works seamlessly with MetLife’s legal and business teams, outside counsel and the many companies Met does business with to ensure smooth closings of complex, sophisticated, and often one-of-a-kind transactions.”
–Alan Robin, Partner