DuPont's Tom Sager: True Champion Of Diversity

Sunday, March 1, 2009 - 01:00

The Editor interviews Thomas L. Sager, Senior Vice President and General Counsel, DuPont Company.

Editor: Tom, you have very actively promoted diversity throughout your career with DuPont. When did you begin to recognize its importance to DuPont and its lawyers?

Sager: DuPont began focusing on diversity and people as a core value at least 20 to 25 years ago. I was relatively new to the corporation when this was identified as a critical strategic issue. I was especially affected by an intensive five-day training workshop that DuPont sponsored with AT&T shortly after I assumed a managerial role in DuPont's legal department. The course focused on understanding the perspectives of women and people of color and issues involving sexual orientation. We were called to connect emotionally and personally with some of the challenges that they face.

That workshop struck a chord with me both personally and professionally. I understood how important it was for the company to continue and expand its support for diversity as a business imperative, which would serve our business extremely well in the years ahead.

What it also brought home for us as lawyers is that we and our outside law firms are ambassadors for the company. We interact on a daily basis with the external world - regulators, politicians, judges, juries as well as our clients' customers and suppliers.

So, the diversity initiative was really launched in the early 1980s and really began picking up steam in the '90s. We now have a senior executive, Craig Binetti, who serves as the "people's champion" throughout the company - so we're continuing to advance diversity as a core value along with safety and health, environment, ethics and people. Editor: What role does diversity play in the DuPont Legal Model?

Sager: The Model began with a convergence process, whereby we winnowed down law firms and suppliers. Our analysis of the firms looked at four elements: How do we form a strategic long-term partnering relationship with our law firms and suppliers? How can we embrace alternative fees? How can we leverage technology? And, how can we collectively identify, recruit and advance the careers of minorities and women and have them represent us in key projects and litigation matters?

We went around the country over a three-and-a-half year period and determined if the firms we interviewed possessed cultures consistent with our own.

Over time we learned to better explain our vision and define our expectations, and eventually we got quite good at identifying firms that shared our dedication to these four elements. The DuPont Legal Model, which was launched in 1995-1996, was our way of defining with clarity our expectations of how we were going to work and how the firms and service providers were going to support the network and DuPont as a whole.

Editor: I understand DuPont has programs that seek to arouse interest in the law on the part of young people.

Sager: Our own efforts were initially limited to working with middle school students, primarily from single parent homes, through a local Boys and Girls Club. We gave them a sense of what it's like to practice in various aspects of the legal profession, helped them identify with certain role models within our function and worked on their skills to enhance their confidence level. That was a fairly modest effort, and we worked with perhaps 10 or 12 young people in any year in this outreach effort.

From that point, we created a diversity pipeline kit with the ACC with an eye toward instilling interest among our fellow legal departments in developing their own outreach programs. Gloria Santona was the General Counsel from McDonald's who championed that cause. Then Street Law in Washington began to enlist additional corporate legal departments and later suggested that we do a similar pipeline project with Howard High School here in Wilmington.

Ernest Tuckett has done an amazing job moving this forward. We partner with a local law firm, Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, and through Ernest's experience and leadership this program has taken hold and flourished.

Our professionals in the Legal Department really enjoy mentoring these young people with everything from helping them prepare for SATs to interesting them in legal careers.

We've also enlisted Widener Law School, whose dean, Linda Ammons, is one of three African-American women deans in the entire country. They, too, participate with us and Young Conaway to support our pipeline effort, and devote a day on campus to expose these high school students to what a day in the life of a law student is like.

So it's a real multifaceted program that is now in its third year. We're very heartened by the reception we've gotten from the high school, the administrators, the teachers and the students, and now we're seeing some of the fruits of the investment.

Howard is a technical high school where not everyone who attends plans to go on to college, but with the help of the high school, several of the students we worked with were accepted to colleges throughout the country.

We're quite pleased with the progress to date, whether or not these young people go on to legal careers. And, our professionals at DuPont enjoy participating because it gives them a sense of giving back. They're able to identify with the students and are beginning to see significant results from their efforts.

Editor: Are you finding more corporate legal departments supporting this kind of outreach?

Sager: Absolutely. There is a host of corporations who have either had programs in place or are now entertaining the notion of doing so. In order to truly diversify the profession there has to be a great deal more work to increase the number of minorities in the pipeline because the numbers are not encouraging, to say the least. This is where a lot of the effort should be expended because we really need to get the numbers up before we can claim that we have a truly diverse legal profession.

Editor: What impact do you see the Obama election having?

Sager: I happened to be in DC the day before the inaugural and the level of excitement and hope was obvious. So I do think his election is going to have a tremendously positive influence on our profession. Eric Holder, the recently confirmed Attorney General, is another role model for young people of color to emulate.

Whenever a position of authority and stature such as the President of the United States - or a Cabinet appointee or General Counsel or CEO - is filled by a person of color, it reinforces aspirations and the message that opportunities exist if you are willing to work hard and hopefully get a break along the way.

Editor: Some of our interviewees from economically disadvantaged and minority backgrounds have attributed their success to the fact that they had to work harder and smarter to achieve success.

Sager: Certainly, the richness of one's background and diversity will strengthen the effectiveness of the overall business or legal function. Different perspectives help us identify with our markets, our customer base, how we position the company, how we market ourselves and our products and services and how we deal more effectively with the external environment. I have found that an environment that is welcoming and highly inclusive creates increased levels of trust, which in turn results in higher levels of productivity and better outcomes. As people become more comfortable and believe that their views are welcome they are likely to be more free flowing and creative in thought. With that comes a whole different level of performance. HR specialists will attest that the quality of the company's environment, its reputation and ultimately its success depend upon its ability to attract people with diverse backgrounds who believe they are going to have meaningful work opportunities and a rewarding career.

Editor: Do you also see that happening in the law firms and service providers you use?

Sager: We certainly do. It's not easy to discern or pick up, but you can get a good feel for how people are viewed. Is this a caring and a welcoming place? Is it one where people are introduced? Is it one where you have a team meeting and more than just the lead partner attends? Is it one where the partners seek to create meaningful work opportunities for the young associates and are willing to assign them important matters on behalf of the company? Are the most senior people in the firm setting the tone and affording others the opportunity to work with the client directly or feel like a valued member of the team serving DuPont? Those are the firms we're looking for. They could be very large or very small firms. Even within very large firms where people could tend to get lost, there is usually a dedicated team serving the corporation. In a small firm you get a pretty good feel as to how that firm operates because they are far fewer in number.

Editor: You gave a speech recently in which you mentioned that there may be a backlash regarding public funding of diversity initiatives.

Sager: The American Intellectual Property Law Association wanted me to make the business case for diversity at a luncheon before several hundred people. As I was preparing for that speech I came across an article discussing how at least five states were dealing with initiatives to eliminate funding for affirmative action programs. They seemed highly divisive and likely to create more negative feelings than advancing the interests of all citizens of these states. Based upon my experiences, I believe affirmative action has served the country well. That's not to say that those programs need to be in place forever, but I certainly don't think we've yet overcome the adverse affects of past discrimination.

Editor: Given the economic crisis, will we see cutbacks in diversity programs?

Sager: In times of recession and economic uncertainty there is very heavy focus on the cost of programs and initiatives within corporations as well as firms. In DuPont, for example, the Legal Department has sponsored Black History Month for the last six years with a celebration and an event. But this year we were unable to underwrite the program because of the current state of the economy. Similarly, we're going to have to either cancel or postpone our Women's Network meeting and our Minority Counsel meetings this year, even though these are highly beneficial programs. One thing that won't go away, though, is the minority job fair in four cities around the country that we have sponsored in partnership with our firms for 15 years. I'm also concerned for the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA); we have a major campaign underway and it's going to be difficult to meet our goal. So we will have to find creative ways to help MCCA to continue to promote diversity, to advance critical research and training and hopefully keep its scholarship program alive.

Editor: Tell us more about MCCA.

Sager: I'm quite pleased with the evolution and growth of the organization. Veta Richardson deserves a great deal of credit for her leadership, outreach and fiscal discipline. I've just stepped down as chairman and have been succeeded by Don Liu, General Counsel of Xerox. Don's been with the MCCA for many years and he's going to be a tremendous chairman. I'll remain on the board as an active member.

MCCA's "Tenth Anniversary Campaign: 10x10x10" has raised three million dollars to date to advance research and training and to support its scholarship programs. We're hitting a few headwinds now with the current recession, but I have all the confidence in the world that Veta and Don and our board will continue to raise money and advance the diversity effort.

Veta has come up with a number of great ideas and its new mentoring program is one of them. A thing that distinguishes MCCA is that it collaborates and works with other associations of color, foundations and research institutes. It realizes that resources are scarce and that we're far better off working collectively together to identify areas that need to be addressed. So MCCA routinely extends its hand to groups that share mutual interests. It's not in competition with anyone, and Veta has been exemplary in this regard.

Editor: MCCA established the Thomas L. Sager Award in recognition of your efforts on behalf of diversity. What does that honor mean to you?

Sager: I'm extremely humbled and very grateful. Over time, the Award has really taken hold and firms receiving it have demonstrated for years their commitment to diversity. The level of competition for the Award is also heartening because people are paying attention and trying to demonstrate to the world that they are truly unique in this regard. And once a firm receives it they are unlikely to back off from their commitment.

Firms see the importance of this Award in positioning themselves in the marketplace and being viable and competitive. In some instances they've actually run ads promoting their receipt of the award. The Award is designed to recognize the collective effort of the professionals in the firm. I think it serves a valuable purpose and hope it continues.

Editor: Will DuPont continue to promote diversity despite the current economic crisis?

Sager: Diversity has been embedded in our core values for years. We remain steadfast in our commitment to these core values and are confident that they will enable our company and our supporting law firms and service providers to emerge even stronger from the economic crisis.