Diversity - Organizations General Counsel Collaborate To Advance Diversity

Monday, March 1, 2004 - 01:00

Veta T. Richardson
Minority Corporate Counsel Association

Last November, the Minority Corporate Counsel Association ("MCCA") and the Association of Corporate Counsel ("ACC," formerly the American Corporate Counsel Association) hosted a first-of-its-kind networking forum for general counsel of color from many of the nation's leading law departments: Del Monte, DuPont, John Hancock, New York Times, Nextel, Merck, Pitney Bowes, Sara Lee, and Starbucks. In several cases, this General Counsel Forum represented the first chance several of the attendees have had to meet their counterparts. The atmosphere was one of camaraderie and respect as hands were extended, cards exchanged, and acquaintances renewed. But, given the composition of the group and collective brainpower in attendance, it wasn't long before initially social banter turned to a discussion that was all about business and advancing common values.

Led by Stacey Mobley, general counsel at DuPont, and Ken Frazier, general counsel of Merck, the forum's moderated, round table discussion format enabled a free-flowing exchange of perspectives. The role of the chief legal officer was discussed in the context of two agenda items: Corporate Social Responsibility and Diversity in the Legal Profession. But the exchange was more than just another discussion of the issues; this group was focused on identifying a set of next appropriate steps.

The meeting sparked a dialogue that will enable ACC and MCCA to work as "partners for progress" to empower in-house counsel to take a leadership role regarding diversity.

"It was a very powerful gathering," states Susan Hackett, ACC's senior vice president and general counsel, noting that "as association leaders, Veta and I appreciated the opportunity to sit back and listen in order to understand how our respective organizations can support the goals and objectives of these leading general counsel." Since the historic November meeting, ACC has started focusing on how to address one of the needs articulated by the general counsel. "The general counsel wanted to be able to more easily identify minority lawyers who possess expertise and experience in areas where the corporations need outside counsel. Since November, we've discussed a variety of ideas regarding how this need can be met," says Hackett. Offering a teaser of things to come, Hackett adds, "We're currently working in partnership with MCCA and a subset of the leaders who attended the November meeting to figure out how to meet this need in ways that are user-friendly and that add value for the general counsel community."

"As general counsel, each of us knows large networks of people and we know lots of outstanding lawyers," says Michelle Mayes, general counsel at Pitney Bowes and a participant at the General Counsel Forum. However, Mayes readily admits that individually, one's network can only extend but so far. "By leveraging the networks we've built, there are increased opportunities to identify talent in areas of the country that are beyond the geographic scope of one individual."

In addition to focusing on their networks, the general counsel expressed an interest in how their peers are undertaking diversity-related discussions with their outside counsel. The range of approaches included sending letters to engagement and/or managing partners, reviewing reports on the number of hours billed by minority lawyers as a percentage of total hours billed by a firm to the corporation, hosting gatherings of outside counsel and members of the in-house department to focus on diversity of representation, giving diversity-related feed back as part of the firm's annual performance evaluation, and the "hotter issue" of evaluating when it's time to seek new counsel should an existing firm demonstrate that its diversity values fail to meet those of the corporation.

"I'm an advocate for taking a closer look at the diversity reports collected from outside counsel," says Rick Palmore, general counsel at Sara Lee and a participant at the November forum. "If the matters handled for your corporation by a particular law firm lack diversity of representation and diversity is a core value of your company, I believe you have an obligation to raise this issue with the firm," Palmore states, adding that, "If you speak with the firm, give them a reasonable time to improve, but see no results, it's probably time to consider other firms who can deliver high quality service in keeping with corporate diversity values." In fact, Palmore's view is that it's time the profession move beyond statements of commitment and toward a call for action.

Palmore is not alone in his perspective. For example, diversity is one of the performance areas considered by DuPont as it annually rates the client service provided by its primary law firms. "We evaluate our firms in five key areas, and diversity performance is one-fifth of the grade," states Stacey Mobley, DuPont's general counsel. "In fact, it is so ingrained as a part of the way we approach client service that we don't have to spend a whole lot of time reminding our law firms that diversity is a corporate value," Mobley concludes.

But the way in which the questions are posed and the review is undertaken will be critical to determining whether a law department's diversity initiative succeeds or fails. "You have to think carefully about what questions should be posed," suggests MCCA Board member Jim Potter, general counsel of Del Monte and participant at the November forum. "For example, if a firm's overall demographic profile shows that 30 percent of its lawyers are women and 12 percent are minorities, it is not unreasonable to expect that your matters should roughly reflect that," Potter adds, suggesting further that "If you see that few minorities or women are working on your matters, it is a wake-up call that you and your staff need to remind the firm that diversity is a corporate value and you'd like them to take a more inclusive approach." But Potter also believes that there is a bigger issue beyond simply who is assigned to do the work and encouraging equal access with respect to assignments. "In addition to billing to the account, women and minorities are equally capable of managing the retention as the engagement partner and distributing the work to others within their firms," Potter adds.

Although unable to attend the November forum because of schedule conflicts, Jim Diggs, general counsel at PPG Industries and former president of the Association of General Counsel, echoes Potter's sentiments. "Minorities and women should have the ability to participate at all levels within the organization," Diggs states. He adds that he has been thinking a lot about the types of information chief legal officers should request from their law firms. "Many general counsel want to see that, like their corporations' internal efforts, the firms are taking steps to address diversity," states Diggs, adding that "this issue has continued to plague the profession for far too long. We've got to do more to make sure the next generation of lawyers inherit a more inclusive legal profession."

Concern about the next generation of lawyers was the driving force behind a general counsel panel organized at Howard University School of Law at the request of DuPont's Stacey Mobley, who received both his undergraduate and law degrees from Howard. Mobley invited several of the general counsel who attended the November forum to come over to Howard later that afternoon to participate on the panel. Co-hosted by MCCA and ACC, the panel was moderated by Howard Law School Dean Kurt Schmoke. Minority law students from throughout the Northeast region had the opportunity to hear first-hand from leading general counsel what it takes to ascend the ranks in today's competitive corporate world and engage in a stimulating question and answer exchange. This first of its kind event drew an audience of close to 150 students who were invited to linger after the program to network and enjoy refreshments at a reception which was sponsored by Sodexho, a corporation previously honored by the MCCA as an Employer of Choice.

Veta T. Richardson is Executive Director of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association. She can be contacted at vetarichardson@mcca.com.