From basketball star to leading lawyer, Linda DeRenzo coaches The MENTOR Network’s all-star legal team.
By Andrea K. Hammer
In her role as Chief Legal Officer and General Counsel at The MENTOR Network in Boston, Linda DeRenzo focuses on lifelong learning and “constant improvement mode.”
Founded in 1980, The MENTOR Network is a national health and human services firm in 35 states. Its “mentors” and direct care professionals provide aid to those with special needs so that they may live independently in community-based settings. The Network supports tens of thousands of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities; at-risk youth with behavioral, medical and other issues and those with acquired brain injuries. Services range from day and transitional programs to in-home, educational and residential programs.
With her team of seven other lawyers, DeRenzo manages litigation and risk management as well as regulation and licensing. She also oversees the labor and employment legal function, along with corporate legal and compliance. In addition, DeRenzo serves as Secretary to The Network’s Board of Directors.
“In the legal profession, if you’re going to be a good lawyer, you have to be a lifelong learner,” DeRenzo said. “The law and markets are constantly evolving. There’s always a lot to keep up with, and you’re constantly being confronted with new issues. I think that applies, frankly, to a lot of other areas besides the law as well.”
DeRenzo, a college basketball player and avid sports fan, follows the coaching model at her “mini law firm.” She tries to offer enough feedback and constructive criticism so that her talented team members can do their jobs most effectively. In particular, DeRenzo supports a framework of continual learning and improvement in their professional journeys.
Her coaching concept was honed during 18 and a half years working at the law firm Testa, Hurwitz & Thibeault LLP. During this period, DeRenzo learned that advancement required constant and constructive feedback. Both were effective in improving performance for junior associates trying to become mid-level associates and for senior associates aspiring for a partnership (a feat DeRenzo achieved after five years).
Constructive Criticism & Positive Feedback
As the head of the firm’s professional development function at the time, DeRenzo had, on occasion, to fire employees. More than one later, however, reported that her system of providing constructive criticism ultimately helped advance their careers.
“I think that’s what I would characterize as a successful failure,” DeRenzo said. “It didn’t quite work out for those particular lawyers within our law firm. But they were advancing professionally and had received something valuable from the back and forth.”
DeRenzo attributes such outcomes to the performance management process. At The MENTOR Network, she coaches her team by reviewing positive results and lessons learned to improve performance during the next go-round. DeRenzo is confident that being loved a little and feared a little may help bring out the best in people; but balance, she adds, is the most important and elusive leadership quality.
“It’s getting that balance right between pushing people to be their best and making sure that we’re continuing to be supportive and positive about all of their accomplishments. If you’re praising all of the time, you’re probably not helping the person you’re supervising get to the next level. … If you’re criticizing all the time, you’re not going to have a positive effect or relationship.”
“So you have to make sure that you’re constantly in balance mode—recognizing when something is done right, and mentioning it as quickly as when something is not done right,” DeRenzo said. “It’s a constant challenge. If you find yourself doing too much of one or the other, you know you’ve gotten off balance.”
High Social Impact
DeRenzo’s careful assessments also have guided the strategic development of her own career. At Testa Hurwitz, she served as outside general counsel for fast-growth companies and handled corporate finance, mergers and acquisitions as well as the process of taking companies public. After a long stint, she decided that the next phase of her career needed to involve high social impact.
DeRenzo left the law firm in 2004, taking more than a year off thereafter. She was open to various new positions, including the possibility of working for a nonprofit. Then, she learned about the opportunity to work as inside general counsel at The MENTOR Network. The for-profit firm, with $1.1 billion in revenue, unifies its mission and values with business discipline and capital creation.
In 2006, she joined The Network as Senior Vice President and General Counsel before assuming her current role as Chief Legal Officer in 2011. DeRenzo’s previous experience as a business-law veteran continues to inform her work.
“It was really a perfect fit for me,” DeRenzo said. “It’s a very interesting company that is mission driven and has large social impact, given the work we do every day in providing health and human services and supporting people with special needs. We’re private-equity backed, and we do all sorts of interesting corporate transactions and mergers and acquisitions.”
DeRenzo’s work also includes advising the company as a “debt-only-issuer,” filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The Mentor Network does not have any publicly traded equity. She works on a cross-functional basis with management to help craft full and fair disclosure to the business and investment community. Some of her other “rewarding work” includes participating with senior management on the strategic business issues facing the company.
Although no longer working as a revenue producer at the center of a law firm business model, DeRenzo says that her current support function offers the benefit of being closely tied to the business.
“You’re inside and helping drive the business in a positive direction,” she said. “You’re working very closely with the business people on trying to accomplish their goals in a way that you never quite do when you’re an outside counsel.”
To share information effectively, increase efficiency and decrease expenses, DeRenzo has developed a “modified business-partnering model,” which assigns a specialized lawyer to each principle business unit and function at The Network (see sidebar for more information).
“First and foremost, I love my team,” DeRenzo said. “I have an extremely high-performing and talented group of lawyers working within this organization, and I’m extremely proud of them.
Modified Business-Partnering Model
When DeRenzo arrived at The MENTOR Network in 2006, three lawyers already were in place. She has since built up the legal department, adding four additional lawyers.
“We identified a few places where we didn’t have the appropriate depth of expertise on a particular subject matter,” she said. “So we structured the department to make sure we had all the areas of the law that routinely come up for the business covered.”
DeRenzo realized the organization needed an inside corporate lawyer as well as a labor and employment lawyer for greater cost efficiency. Then, she added a dedicated compliance officer (so that the regulatory lawyer could focus on practicing healthcare regulatory law) and a junior litigator.
“It’s like a mini law firm within the company. We’re focused and broken down by expertise and serve the company based on who is in the best position to handle the issue.”
Each specialized lawyer, however, is also attached to a business unit or function. He or she is required to understand the unit’s work and to educate the legal team. Following this model, each legal team member harnesses the collective knowledge of the group efficiently.
“What I mean by ‘modified’ is in the traditional business-partnering model, which is employed within my company in the HR and IT areas, you dedicate one person to a particular operating group to serve their needs on a dedicated basis,” DeRenzo said.
“In a modified business-partnering model, each of our specialized lawyers is attached to a particular operating group or function within the business. … They have a view into what’s going on at the management level in a particular operating group, and what the hot issues are. So it’s an effort to have the business partners bring back to the whole legal team what’s going on in the business; to get them up to speed on the business issues facing the particular function or operating group so we’re very closely tied to the business. But on the other hand, we still have our expertise model, which allows us to continue to hone our specialized skills and gets people answers to their questions in the most efficient way.”
Andrea K. Hammer, a freelance writer based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.