Diversity - Corporate Counsel Building Diverse Teams Starts At The Top

Wednesday, February 1, 2006 - 01:00

The Editor interviews Robert J. Gerrard, Jr., Executive Vice-President and General Counsel, Scripps Networks, Inc. and Sheila Davidson, Executive Vice President, Law and Corporate Administration, New York Life Insurance Company. Their law departments received the Employer of Choice Award for the Northeast Region in 2005 from the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA). The award honors industry leaders who succeed in creating and maintaining an inclusive corporate legal department.

Editor: Congratulations to your law departments on being celebrated as MCCA's Employers of Choice. How has your workforce evolved over the years?

Gerrard: A division of the EW Scripps Company based in Cincinnati, we have grown to approximately 1100 employees. Our location in Knoxville, Tennessee is the largest since that is the location of Scripps Network's headquarters. That is followed by our New York City and Los Angeles locations. With significant locations in different parts of the country, our company has cultivated alliances with a range of local and national organizations that promote diversity.

Our workforce has evolved by focusing on how we attract people who provide the best source of information and ideas on how to meet our customer needs. Drawing people together from all walks of life empowers our company to stay at the leading edge of providing content and advertising services via television and the internet. For example, we recently acquired Great American Country, a network that is generally regarded as a leader in lifestyle programming. Like all segments of our business, the new network's services spread across a broad swath of backgrounds, age, gender and ethnicity.

Davidson: New York Life has also been very dedicated to taking steps to build an inclusive workforce. When you look back at our history, the Company began hiring women employees and agents in the 1880s - and by the 1890s, women agents were recognized among our top producers. Today, in the Office of the General Counsel (OGC), for example, we now have 44 full-time attorneys, of which more than 50 percent are women or minorities - and five of our 10 executive officers in OGC are also women or minorities.

And, our sales force truly reflects the diverse customer base we serve. In fact, one of our sales offices in New York City boasts more than 250 agents from 44 different countries. At the corporate level, we continue to proactively instill a commitment to diversity through mandatory Mutual Respect programs for employees at all levels, and a Diversity Task Force, which is charged with promoting and improving the Company's diversity initiatives throughout the organization.

Editor: Please give an example of your company's best practices that have put your commitment to an inclusive workplace into action.

Davidson: When our Human Resources area conducted employee focus groups a few years ago, we found that while most people were generally satisfied with their careers, fewer women were confident in the likelihood of advancement. This led to the launch of the Women's Leadership Project (WLP), an initiative designed to enhance leadership development of female employees. Through seminars, workshops and networking events, the WLP brings together senior executives and outside speakers to share their knowledge and experience on topics including financial literacy, work-life balance, communication skills, and leadership. Last year, more than 1,000 women participated. Through the WLP, New York Life is providing tools to employees to enhance their leadership skills and to help the company grow and flourish.

Gerrard: Our company has implemented several different projects. We developed a significant company-wide initiative to emphasize diversity in the workplace including the formation of a diversity committee chaired by John Lansing, the President of Scripps Networks. Supported by our top executives, the committee helps the company incorporate diversity into all of its business practices, including hiring, on-air talent, vendor selection and marketing.

We also established the position of vice president of strategic sourcing who is responsible for partnering with organizations and agencies. The position's responsibilities include championing the policies and practices that promote the diversity of our workforce as a business matter.

Reflecting the importance of diversity throughout our family of companies, our parent contributed $10 million to launch the School of Journalism at Hampton University. We at Scripps Network welcome interns from Hampton University at our Knoxville headquarters.

Editor: How can in-house counsel leverage and encourage increased diversity in law firms?

Gerrard: Our engagement letters with outside counsel include their acknowledgement of the importance of diversity when assigning counsel to our cases. By selecting from the broadest base of attorneys within the country, we get the best representation by way of creativity and skills. We also know that careers are built on assignments and the nature of the client and work done. Creating equal opportunities for outstanding legal talent translates that into a practical requirement for the firms that work with us.

Davidson: It is important for in-house counsel to make their policies known to all. Whenever New York Life seeks outside counsel, it's no secret we place a premium on doing business with firms that share our beliefs and promote diversity. I completely agree with Rob that unique backgrounds and experiences shape individuals. So when you put together a team of diverse individuals, you cannot help but do a better job of sparking innovation and creative thinking - and those are certainly attributes we expect from outside counsel.

Editor: What was the best advice you received that helped you to advance your career?

Gerrard: Early in my career I was frustrated with my lack of career development and growth and advancement. I talked with a good friend who told me to look at myself as a general counsel and act accordingly. That piece of advice helped me a good deal. I tried to develop leadership qualities through a broader understanding of legal issues and how they intersect with our company's businesses. This mentality enables a corporate counsel to be a better partner to the CEO or president of the company.

With respect to our younger attorneys, I always have them work on a multiplicity of matters so that they can develop professionally. I try to provide the guidance and development that I would have liked to have received when I was beginning my career.

Davidson: The best advice I received was to push myself outside of my comfort zone. Earlier in my career, I resisted an assignment to lead the Corporate Compliance Department. A mentor urged me to do it, and the experience ultimately taught me the operational skills needed to run a department, which in turn better prepared me to run OGC. I've since taken on oversight of other areas. I am glad that I leapt at the chance because I learned you have to stretch in order to advance.

Editor: What still needs to be done to ensure diversity in the legal profession?

Gerrard: We have a long way to go in that regard. I am constantly in touch with lawyers, partners and associates in law firms and in-house counsel who do not feel that they are getting a broad based opportunity to excel.

I think that law firms should rethink their economic models so that diversity efforts have more success. The current model is to have clients remain with the partners who brought them into the firm. While this practice makes sense in terms of relationship development, it leads to low participation on important projects by minority and women attorneys. I believe that some of the larger law firms should revisit this model so that the newer and more diverse partners are able to provide support on some of these projects. This will facilitate their development within the firm and in the end would ensure more retention of these attorneys. We should make sure that the quality and depth of the work is spread out as evenly as possible.

Davidson: I'm a big believer in mentoring, and I think women and minorities who are already successful have more to offer to others than they may realize. We need more people to step up to the plate as role models. On the other side, law firms and companies must make an unwavering commitment to promoting diversity. It's important to hire the best and brightest - and it's equally important to seek out individuals who best complement your team. Once you recognize diversity will only strengthen what you have, that unwavering commitment becomes an inherent part of how you manage your organization.

Gerrard: We know that there is a real and discernible business case for diversity. Companies with diverse work forces do better financially than those that fail to practice diversity which we know from surveys and studies. That is because they get the broadest group of people who can make the best and broadest contributions. The cable industry is a creative and intense environment. It is important for us to reach out and extend our programming in terms of the age, ethnicity and gender perspective. Accomplishing this goal requires an ever vigilant commitment to inclusiveness.