Editor: Joe, please describe the purpose of MCCA’s 14th annual Creating Pathways to Diversity Conference and Awards Gala, which was held on September 16 and 17.
West: Even though the Pathways Conference and the Gala occurred on successive days, they were actually two separate events. The Pathways to Diversity Conference is our flagship CLE conference, one of our three conferences during the calendar year – there is also our CLE Expo, which occurs in March, and our General Counsel Invitational, which takes place in April. The Conference required a major effort to construct the agenda and develop the curriculum with cutting-edge topics. Also, we had first-rate speakers as well as a workshop component to each of the different tracks so that our attendees not only got their CLE hours while engaging in lively discussions on interesting topics, but they also gained tools that they could take back to their respective organizations and implement right away. The Pathways Conference was an exciting event this year, having been held at the Marriot Hotel in New York City while the Gala was held the following day at Lincoln Center.
Editor: Each year you tend to expand the Conference agenda. What new topics were added this year?
West: In addition to the three main tracks – Professional Development, Diversity and Inclusion Practitioner, and Leadership and Management – we had two plenary sessions, which stimulated our attendees. One of them focused on the Fisher v. University of Texas case. After the Supreme Court rendered its decision, there was a lot of chatter about interpretation of the ruling. We had a number of subject matter experts who talked about the decision itself and in what direction the Court may be leaning in terms of other decisions likely to come down – in essence, what the decision and the direction of the court may mean for the future of the legal profession and the impact it will have both on the current workforce and on the pipeline. There were also some broader discussions about what this might mean for the diversity and inclusion movement generally, beyond the legal profession and throughout the workforce.
The other plenary subject focused on the role of general counsel. There was a general counsel roundtable discussion coincidental with the release of our annual GC survey. Since 1999, MCCA has surveyed the number of women and minority general counsel in the U.S. The annual release of that survey has served as the benchmark for tracking the progress of those in-house corporate lawyers and their ascension to the chief legal officer role. And so in releasing the GC survey for this year, we had that plenary discussion with a number of prominent general counsel, both on the panel and attending in the audience, talking about the changes that have occurred in-house; the opportunities for women and minorities to ascend to the highest ranks in corporate law departments; the ingredients that exist in-house that make it much more likely for women and minorities to be retained and advanced to leadership positions than is the case with law firms; and how those ingredients might be replicable elsewhere.
Editor: Please tell us about the Diversity Honors Gala held on September 17.
West: The next night following the Pathways Conference was our Diversity Honors Gala, which for the third consecutive year was held at Lincoln Center. The Gala actually gave us the opportunity to do three things: First, to celebrate, acknowledge, and recognize those Employers of Choice – corporations that have distinguished themselves with their efforts to promote diversity and inclusion. We had a number of deserving companies that were honored this year: Entergy Corporation, Target Corporation, Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc., Comcast Cable Communications and Aetna. Second, the Gala gave us the opportunity to honor a deserving lifetime achievement awardee. The first year, 2011, we honored Vernon Jordan, followed by Dennis Archer in 2012. This year we continued this tradition in honoring Ursula Burns – an absolutely fantastic honoree and the CEO of Xerox Corporation – a trailblazer in her own right and an inspiration to so many people! Third, the Gala functions as our primary fundraising vehicle. The programming that we do is supported by the funds that we raise at the Gala, so the extent to which it is successful helps us to carry out our mission and focus even more on the issues and problems that need to be addressed in our profession. And of course, it is a fun evening as well, and there is certainly some value in that!
Editor: Please describe the Lifetime Achievement Award’s purpose in recognizing a distinguished leader in the legal profession. What criteria were used for her selection?
West: We wanted to provide a vehicle for acknowledging and recognizing someone who has, over the lifespan of her career, created a body of work and accomplishments that exemplify the ideas of diversity and inclusion, who merits acknowledgement and recognition. But also someone who has made an effort to provide support and mentoring, who plays an active role in helping to increase diversity and inclusion in the corporate arena and provides an example of how others can aspire to do the same. I think each of the honorees we have selected exemplifies that perfectly, and Ursula Burns is no exception.
Editor: Please describe the other diversity awards, the George B. Vashon Innovator Award and the Paula L. Ettelbrick Award.
West: The George B. Vashon Innovator Award went to four recipients: Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP, New York Life Insurance Company, Pepper Hamilton LLP and Prudential Financial. This award is given to legal departments, law firms and bar associations that have been outstanding examples of using best practices to assist diverse attorneys.
The Paula L. Ettelbrick Award went to the Human Rights Campaign, honoring extraordinary achievements in advancing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender attorneys.
Editor: Why was the Diversity Honors Gala particularly important this year, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington?
West: Both the March and the Gala illustrate the progress that has been made in the name of diversity. I attended the ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial where the President spoke a few weeks ago, and, interestingly enough, one of the speakers mentioned Ursula Burns by name as an example of the progress that has been made in the 50 years. However, when you start calling the roll of female minority CEOs of Fortune 500s, it still is a relatively short list. This illustrates that even though a lot of progress on the diversity and inclusion front has occurred in the last 50 years, there is still a need to provide opportunities for women and minorities to both enter the workforce in corporate settings, particularly corporate legal settings, and to provide opportunities for them to advance to the highest ranks. I think it is fitting in this year of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington that we recognize the position that she has attained – because it illustrates both the value of the progress that has occurred and the progress that is yet to come.
Editor: How does this all-important Conference and Awards Gala foster the mission of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association?
West: Our mission quite simply is to increase opportunities for diversity and inclusion in the corporate law departments and in the law firms that serve them. We accomplish our mission in a number of ways – through research, publishing, educational and training opportunities, and awards and acknowledgements. These two events, Creating Pathways to Diversity CLE and the Gala, help facilitate this mission. The CLE obviously provides training and educational opportunities, both on substantive areas of the law and also on diversity and inclusion issues. It provides a forum for a diverse range of lawyers to illustrate their skills and expertise in substantive areas of the law and gives them and their respective organizations greater exposure. And the Awards Gala simply acknowledges and rewards those organizations that are working to make progress and provides an incentive for those organizations that need to make those necessary improvements in their diversity and inclusion space. As organizations become more judicious about their resources and the areas that they want to support, it is incumbent upon us to provide as many opportunities for networking and relationship building as possible. You cannot and will not find a better premium opportunity for networking anywhere in the corporate legal profession than was made available at the Awards Gala.
2013 Employer Of Choice Awards
Winners of these five awards were chosen based on exemplary commitments to diversity and creating and maintaining inclusive workplaces.