Charles R. Morgan: Leading General Counsel - And Their Law Firms - Up The Path To Diversity

Wednesday, March 1, 2006 - 01:00

The Editor Interviews Charles R. Morgan, Executive Vice President and General Counsel, OnSite E-Discovery.

Editor: When you were Executive Vice President and General Counsel of BellSouth Corporation, you launched the Statement of Principle. Tell us why you did this?

Morgan: I joined BellSouth as Executive Vice President and General Counsel in February of 1998. I brought to the job the conviction that entirely aside from legal concerns about discrimination, businesses throughout America could, through greater diversity, build shareholder value. To do this they needed to be sensitive to the fact that increasingly large percentages of their customers, employees and other constituencies would be minorities and that if they were to be successful in the marketplace they must encourage different perspectives and ways to address problems. However, diversity had not yet fully seized the imagination of corporate America. Up until that time there had been little activity. Some years before, Harry Pierce, who was then General Counsel of General Motors, had sent a letter to GM's outside firms urging them to practice diversity. It did not seem that diversity was a "front burner" issue for the legal profession as a whole, however.

I believed that corporate counsel were in the best position to encourage their corporations aggressively to pursue diversity. Management looks to the lawyers not only to solve day-to-day legal problems, but also to alert the corporation to emerging issues that might impact it in the future. I felt that the best place to start an active campaign for greater diversity was the Law Department. One of the first things I did soon after I arrived at BellSouth was to establish a Diversity Committee within the Law Department.

Working closely with BellSouth's Assistant General Counsel, Joaquin Carbonell, who is now General Counsel of Cingular Wireless, I looked for other ways to move the diversity ball forward. We recognized that, if we could get widespread support among the general counsel of America's leading corporations, it would be a wake up call not only for them, but for their corporations - even corporate leaders in the diversity effort like BellSouth would derive encouragement from the greater momentum on the part of corporations generally.

It seemed to us that general counsel were not only in an excellent position to promote diversity in their own corporations, but also throughout the profession because of their ability to influence the behavior of their law firms. Therefore, we needed to get the attention of as many general counsel as possible in order to influence the maximum number of law firms.

That was the genesis of the Statement of Principle. Joaquin and I devoted considerable care to working out the language. We wanted language that was short and simple and which did not dictate the way in that it would be implemented. We felt that by keeping the Statement of Principle general and leaving the manner of implementation open, we would get significant support within the corporate counsel community - while their law firms would get a clear message, but not feel that they were being subjected to undue pressure. Today over 500 companies have signed the Statement of Principle. We wanted to impact the legal community by demonstrating that the Statement of Principle had the support of a large number of general counsel. Diversity was not on many people's radar at the time I launched the Statement of Principle - great progress has been made since that time. Hopefully, the improvements are to some degree attributable to the Statement of Principle.

One of the principal reasons I joined On Site E-Discovery was its commitment to diversity. Fifty-one percent of On Site's key staff are individuals of color. Seventy-three percent of our technicians are of color. Forty-one percent of our professionals are women. Fifty-one percent of our professionals are of color. Our coding staff of over 400 people is predominantly stay-at-home mothers. Our employees come from 31 countries and speak 23 languages, including American Sign.

Editor: How did BellSouth justify the support it provided for your efforts with respect to the Statement of Principle?

Morgan: BellSouth's management felt that the Statement of Principle had provided a catalyst for people to speak out on the issue in a way that was supportive of BellSouth's own diversity efforts. It was almost as if people were waiting for something like it. Its warm reception spurred the BellSouth Law Department's own diversity program. Because BellSouth is a for-profit corporation, I did not feel that it was an appropriate use of the company's resources if there was not a strong tie to shareholder value - and the response to the Statement of Principle made that evident. Ralph De La Vega, the then President of BellSouth Latin America, recently spoke at a diversity conference in Atlanta sponsored by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights under Law. Ralph told a moving story of how he came to the U.S. when he was only ten years old with nothing. Joaquin Carbonell has a similar story. I believe strongly that the business case for diversity is made by the success of people like Ralph and Joaquin.

Most of BellSouth's principal outside counsel came together for a big meeting at which I rolled out the Statement of Principle to them personally. Everyone knew we were serious about this. It is important to keep the tone right. Even though we were serious about this, it had to be a collaborative effort. It is ironic that the legal profession as the protector of our fundamental values still does not reflect the diversity of the country.

Editor: Could you mention some of the major companies whose general counsel were supportive in the beginning?

Morgan: The general counsel of companies like American Airlines, American Express, Bank of America, Colgate-Palmolive, DuPont, General Motors, SBC, Shell, Verizon, and Wells Fargo Bank were among the earliest signatories.

I had a vision of law firms gathered in conference rooms around the country where the firms' managements would discuss the letters they got from their clients. I thought about the many discussions that must have ensued as they looked for ways to respond to the challenge posed in the Statement of Principle. That is the dynamic I was looking to create when I sent out the Statement of Principle. My hope was to give ammunition to progressive law firm leaders to work harder to achieve diversity. Today, most law firms serving corporate counsel are committed to diversity.

Editor: Did the fact that the Statement of Principle focused on influencing law departments' principal suppliers - law firms - affect their companies' minority supplier efforts?

Morgan: The fact that BellSouth's Law Department had taken the lead related to BellSouth's efforts to use minority suppliers in other areas of its business. While I was on the corporate diversity committee at BellSouth, I mentioned the effect our wholehearted support for diversity was having on our outside counsel. A lot of companies will focus on minority owned enterprises. We were focused on that in BellSouth's Law Department. But, we also wanted to encourage the hiring of minorities and women by majority firms. Outside the legal profession, how many companies are focusing on diversity with respect to other majority-owned vendors such as accounting firms, investment banks, consultants and so forth?

Editor: What about the future?

Morgan: When I talk to law firms across the country, they will say that they get a mixed message from companies. Some law firms say that they are asked for statistics about diversity, which they provide - but then they hear nothing from the client or potential client. They do not get feedback on how they did. There is room for improvement in mentoring. There is a significant issue of whether women and minority attorneys feel comfortable at their firms. And, there are not enough minorities in the educational pipeline to remedy the pitifully low percentage of minorities in our profession - and more needs to be done to rectify this situation. Here is an opportunity for law departments and law firms to step up to the plate and provide minority young people interested in pursuing careers in the law with scholarships and part time and summer jobs.

There will always be a small group of dedicated leaders like BellSouth, DuPont and Shell. I am heartened by the fact that so many general counsel of leading companies are insisting that their law firms give women and minorities leadership positions in matters being handled for them. As this trend develops, hopefully all will be convinced of the merits of diversity.

If the lawyer is capable, he or she should have an opportunity to succeed. That is all that women and lawyers of color are asking for. They do not want entitlements, they want an equal chance. That is what this is about. The commitment to diversity should not imply a diminution in the capabilities it takes to make a great lawyer. The thinking in the past was that only those that made the Harvard Law Review would make great lawyers. Now you need to search more broadly and be more sophisticated in searching for outstanding people. I am delighted that BellSouth and Marc Gary, its General Counsel, are continuing to be leaders in these efforts.

Diversity In The Workplace:

A Statement Of Principle

As the Chief Legal Officers of the companies listed below, we wish to express to the law firms which represent us our strong commitment to the goal of diversity in the workplace. Our companies conduct business throughout the United States and around the world, and we value highly the perspectives and varied experiences which are found only in a diverse workplace. Our companies recognize that diversity makes for a broader, richer environment which produces more creative thinking and solutions.

We expect the law firms which represent our companies to work actively to promote diversity within their workplace. In making our respective decisions concerning selection of outside counsel, we will give significant weight to a firm's commitment and progress in this area.