Tom Sager: Champion Of Diversity In The Legal Profession

Monday, February 20, 2012 - 09:18

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

Editor: DuPont has long been known for its enlightened management. It established employee safety policies in the 1930s. It was a pioneer in protecting the environment. When you joined DuPont Legal in 1976, was diversity (in the sense of creating opportunities for women and minorities) also part of its culture?

Sager: We had a corporate program in place at that time called TEMPO - To Expand Minority Purchasing Opportunities - which was a corporate-wide program. It was DuPont’s way of focusing its legal spend and spend in other DuPont departments and functions on minority- and women-owned law firms and businesses.

Editor: Did the TEMPO program lay the groundwork for future developments?

Sager: Although the TEMPO program lost some of its momentum over time, it embedded in DuPont’s  culture a recognition of the value that minority- and women-owned law firms create in terms of their flexibility, creativity and resourcefulness. It also brought to the fore their keen interest in representing Fortune 500 companies like ours.

Because the TEMPO program, which began in the early ‘70s and continued over a number of years, created great value from a competitive business perspective, we decided that it should be taken to a new level of commitment. One of our in-house lawyers was assigned to track each new case filing to determine whether it could be placed with a minority- or women-owned firm.

Editor: Were DuPont’s CEOs supportive?

Sager: They all understood that having diversity as a core value and part of our fabric was critically important. They recognized that it gave DuPont a competitive edge because so many of the successes of the legal department were attributable to its ability to put together creative teams of diverse lawyers whose unique perspectives enabled us to develop approaches with a message that resonated with  judges, jurors, politicians and regulators.  

Editor: Why did DuPont conclude that greater support for women- and minority-owned law firms was needed?

Sager: It soon became clear that there were not enough women- and  minority-owned law firms with sufficient breadth and depth to meet our needs. As a matter of policy, we fostered an identifiable core of diverse firms that we could look to and support through case and work assignments. Nevertheless, it seemed to us that the group was getting smaller in terms of numbers of firms and their average size.  

We commissioned Crosby Communications to do a study that in fact validated those intuitive feelings. As a result, DuPont and four other companies under the leadership of my predecessor, Stacey Mobley, banded together to provide women- and minority-owned law firms with $16 million of business during the calendar year 2006 – and they achieved that goal.

Fast forward. I was recently approached by Susan L. Blount,  senior vice president and general counsel at Prudential, who told us that they really liked what been accomplished by the five companies that banded together in 2006. She suggested that we do this again with more companies involved, a larger monetary goal and with our two companies leading the effort. I welcomed her suggestion and recommended that we get the National Association of Minority & Women Owned Law Firms (NAMWOLF) involved because it would bring to the table a high level of enthusiasm and could help administer the program.  

Seventeen companies have now joined together in a new effort called the “Inclusion Initiative.” This time the goal is to provide women- and minority-owned law firms with $70 million of business this year. It’s a testament to the ability of like-minded corporations not only to provide business for these firms, but to assure such firms that many Fortune 500 companies are eager to send business to them.

Editor: The efforts of DuPont to further diversity are impressive. Has it led by example?

Sager: We knew early on when we built our network of primary law firms that we needed to lead by example. Therefore, we focused on attracting talented women and minorities to the legal department both from law schools and through lateral hires. The DuPont legal department has a very diverse management team whose composition serves as a role model for our primary law firms.

The legal department is not the most competitive in terms of compensation or benefits, but we have a lot to offer by way of the work environment. It’s very collegial, very inclusive and very empowering, and if that is what you’re looking for and if you like the mix of our work and our professionals, it is a place where you can have a very rewarding career. We have been very successful over the years in hiring extremely talented men and women who have assumed significant substantive and leadership roles.

Today, our diverse leadership team in Legal includes women and African-Americans. My predecessor was the first African-American general counsel at DuPont. That’s pretty impressive when you consider that we’ve had only 12 general counsel in the history of the company.

Editor: Tell us about the PAR Executive Report.

Sager: To attract the women lawyers, to retain them and to assure that they produce the best work means understanding the new reality that has emerged as we recover from the recession. The PAR Executive Report showcases research and case studies that are effectively changing the landscape for women in the industry.  Each year, PAR grows more valuable as a resource for measuring and supporting the advancement of women. It’s high time for the PAR to get the attention of managing partners and general counsel because the new reality requires that they must develop new business models that emphasize work/life balance through offering all attorneys opportunities for alternative work arrangements, such as elastic schedules, job sharing, telecommuting and things of that nature. We understand that need at DuPont, and I believe our primary law firms do so as well. I have written about this in forwards to a number of books, including Debbie Epstein Henry’s excellent Law & Reorder published by the ABA.

Editor: How did its convergence program make it possible for DuPont to launch a program that encouraged its primary law firms to focus on the need to achieve greater diversity?

Sager: Our vision was to focus on sending our business to a much smaller group of law firms that would work as an effective team to achieve mutually beneficial goals, such as use of strategic partnering, technology, alternative billing arrangements and the advancement of women and minorities. We went about the convergence process in a way that would ensure that the firms that we were selecting were going to live by this vision. We evaluated their progress and assisted them in meeting the goals that the firms had set for themselves and that we had set as partners with them. One of the most important of these goals was to stimulate the hiring of minorities and women by our primary law firms.  So early on, we set the bar high and as time goes by continue to raise it.

Editor: DuPont seems uniquely dedicated to assuring the success of its law firms.

Sager: Our relationships with our primary law firms are a two-way street. With some exceptions, we select them on the basis of the geographic area they cover or their special expertise for almost all of the work we have for outside counsel. What we realized early on is that if it’s not working for the firms, we ultimately are going to have a parting of the ways or a very unproductive relationship. This meant that we had to invest in the firms by educating them with respect to our challenges, our direction and how they can play a role. Working with us, they learn to serve other clients more effectively through use of early case assessments, offering alternative fees, networking with other members of the DuPont legal network to handle multistate litigation, using innovative legal technology and strategies - and most importantly by emphasizing diversity through participation in our minority job fairs, our minority and women’s networks and the annual meetings of our primary law firms.

We are willing to invest in our primary law firms because they reciprocate by investing in us by applying their most creative thinking to the legal challenges we face and, where appropriate, participating in alternative fee arrangements in which they put some money or skin in the game. Because they develop intense loyalty to DuPont they become its legal eyes and ears in the areas in which they operate, bringing to our attention activities that jeopardize its interests, such as violations of its trademarks.

Editor: Does your investment in your primary law firms include the substantial time that you and other senior DuPont lawyers spend meeting with representatives from other law departments to promote their use of DuPont’s primary law firms?

Sager: A hallmark of our model is sharing with other law departments, government entities and even law firms information about what we are doing. We also learn a great deal through those exchanges about what they’re doing and how they’ve improved the delivery of their services – including how they have promoted greater diversity. Part of the appeal to us is that it gives us the opportunity to talk about things like the legal successes achieved by the DuPont legal network, about our minority and women networks and our use of alternative fees. Our primary law firms have benefited significantly from those meetings because we also take the opportunity to encourage other corporations to use their services. It sounds very time consuming, but the time and effort expended has been well worth it. We benchmark with well over 250 corporations, government entities and of course law firms.  

Editor: In conclusion, do you find that the dedication of the primary law firms to diversity and advancing the role of women has made them more attractive to other law departments?

Sager: I do, and I’ll give you one example: Lisa Gilford is a partner and a litigator with the law firm Alston + Bird. Lisa has represented us from the get-go. She became a leader within the firm and in our network. She told me when I was in Los Angeles recently that her elevation in the firm and the identification of her as a future leader and star litigator was attributable in part to the efforts of the DuPont legal network to advance diversity and the role of women. Her success was confirmed by the heartening news that she is one of the lead trial lawyers for Toyota in their major litigation in California. 

Please email the interviewee at thomas.l.sager@usa.dupont.com with questions about this interview.