Leading General Counsel Pledge Support For Minority-Owned Law Firms - Part I

Wednesday, March 1, 2006 - 00:00

The Editor interviews E. Christopher Johnson, Jr., Vice-President and General Counsel, GM North America, Stacey Mobley, Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Chief Administrative Officer, DuPont, Roderick A. Palmore, Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary, Sara Lee Corporation.

DuPont, General Motors, Sara Lee, Shell Oil and Wal-Mart recently announced that they have undertaken a multifaceted initiative to increase inclusion of minority-owned law firms among those serving corporate America. The five companies involved in the effort are making a public pledge to place an aggregate of at least $16 million dollars of business with minority-owned law firms during calendar year 2006. In Part I of these interviews, we interview three of the general counsel of corporations supporting this initiative. In Part II, we interview the remaining general counsel, namely Catherine Lamboley, Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary, Shell Oil, and Thomas Mars, Senior Vice President and General Counsel, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

The catalyst for the initiative was a report commissioned by DuPont Legal entitled Study on the Status of Minority-Owned Law Firms in Today's Legal Environment, which revealed that the number of successful minority-owned law firms representing U.S. corporations has dwindled over the past 15 years.

The chief legal officers of DuPont, General Motors, Sara Lee, Shell and Wal-Mart are also lending their support to other anticipated actions aimed at addressing some of the problems identified in the Study. These initiatives include: (1) Development of best practices to guide general counsel in driving the use of minority-owned law firms by both their in-house staffs and majority firms. (2) Creation and dissemination of a national directory of minority-owned firms with the resources and expertise required by corporate America. (3) Development of marketing and training materials and of vehicles to facilitate focused networking between minority-owned firms and corporate in-house counsel. (4) Collaboration between minority-owned law firms and majority firms on corporate matters.

Editor: Why did you decide to participate in this effort and how will you ensure that your company meets its commitment?

Johnson: First, both questions properly recognize that diversity is increasingly important as our nation becomes more diverse. By 2050, it is estimated that the majority of citizens will be ethnic minorities. General Motors and the Legal Staff have been active in promoting diversity in business generally and in the legal profession specifically for several decades. The Legal Staff has taken a leadership role in encouraging other corporate law departments to increase the diversity of the outside counsel they utilize, in developing metrics to determine the effectiveness of its initiatives to increase the diversity of its outside counsel, in hosting and participating in events which provide minority counsel greater access and exposure to in-house counsel, and in taking public stances supporting diversity. One example is the leadership role GM took in organizing a number of companies to file an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the diversity admissions programs at the University of Michigan Law School.

The Legal Staff is measuring whether it is meeting its commitmentthrough the use of metrics. For a number of years, the Legal Staff has set goals for the utilization of minority and female outside counsel. The progress towards these goals is tracked using information within Legal Staff systems, and is reviewed on a constant basis with the Legal Staff managing attorneys. Diversity is one of the main criteria used in the selection and retention of outside counsel. The progress that firms are making towards meeting the diversity objectives is part of the Legal Staff's evaluation process and is reviewed with firms periodically.

I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the attorneys and other professionals on my staff for the significant progress we have made in this area over the last few years. I have set the objectives, but they have undertaken to meet those objectives by actively seeking out minority and women lawyers to handle GM's legal matters. They have done so in ways that I would not have comprehended, so I want to give the credit for what we have done, and will do in this area, to my staff. I also want to thank GM's Executive Vice President and General Counsel, Tom Gottschalk, for his unwavering and unconditional support of this effort with respect to minority law firms as well as our other diversity initiatives.

Mobley: DuPont decided to participate in this effort because diversity is both a core value of the company and one of its greatest assets. The entire leadership team is very focused on promoting diversity, and folks like Tom Sager (Vice President and Assistant General Counsel) and Hinton Lucas (Associate General Counsel), among others, are recognized leaders in this arena. I participated in a General Counsel Roundtable discussion, which explored the status of minority owned firms. At the conclusion of these discussions it was evident that minority owned firms were struggling. This prompted us to commission the "Study on the Status of Minority-owned Law Firms in Today's Legal Environment," which confirmed that the number of minority-owned law firms serving corporate America has declined significantly over the last 15 years. The study suggested that minority-owned firms face obstacles such as limited access to corporate counsel decision-makers, perceived inexperience and racial bias, among others.

DuPont will meet its commitment by continuing the efforts of its 30+year-old Supplier Diversity Program, which is presently being managed by Mark Edwards, senior counsel. The Program's primary objectives are to actively encourage in-house lawyers to retain diverse firms and to promote collaboration between minority-owned law firms and majority firms on DuPont's corporate matters.

Palmore: Minority-owned law firms serve a critical role in the legal profession. These firms have a long and storied history of providing opportunities to attorneys of color. Over the years, minority-owned firms have also developed and maintained strong relationships with corporations like Sara Lee. Our legal department believes that having diverse outside service providers enhances our ability to provide innovative and effective legal solutions to issues that arise in daily business operations. This perspective is a direct reflection of Sara Lee's overall commitment to diversity - an environment that covets solutions that reflect diverse points of view, experiences, and social perspectives. As a global corporation with operations in 55 countries, we are fortunate to have a 150,000 person global workforce that reflects the inherent strength and value of diversity. It is likewise a priority to ensure that the demographics of our outside service providers reflect the demographics of our company and the communities in which Sara Lee's products are sold. Minority-owned law firms are, therefore, important partners in our legal department's continuing efforts to provide the best service possible to the corporation.

Sara Lee will meet its commitment to utilize minority-owned law firms primarily by strengthening existing relationships with minority-owned law firms. For instance, one of our three Preferred Partner designees is a minority-owned law firm. In addition, we will pursue opportunities to utilize other minority-owned law firms when opportunities arise.

Editor: Given that this effort is focused on minority-owned law firms, how will it benefit society and the legal profession as a whole?

Johnson: Increasing the diversity of the legal profession is important for a number of reasons that benefit both society and the legal profession. First, it is advantageous for GM and other companies to have outside counsel that reflect the diversity of its customers and society generally. At GM, we believe that through the counsel of lawyers who reflect genuinely the communities where we conduct our business, GM will be better able to recognize cultural differences and appreciate their implications for our employees, customers, and shareholders. Additionally, as lawyers representing GM, we will be better able to serve our clients in the nation's courtrooms, governmental offices and business settings when represented by lawyers that reflect the diversity of our country's juries, lawmakers, and business partners. Second, from a business perspective, our outside counsel often serve as ambassadors for the Corporation and its vehicles and services. A diverse group of outside counsel assists GM in disseminating positive information about the Corporation and its products into the broad cross-section of communities in which our counsel work and live. Society as a whole also benefits from the increased participation from a broader cross-section of people with different perspectives and backgrounds. In addition, increasing the diversity of the legal profession helps identify and develop positive role models for minority students who may be considering law as a career.

Mobley: Diverse entrepreneurial providers of legal services play critical societal roles as alternative sources of representation for corporations and individuals and as alternative career options for minority lawyers. DuPont has learned that the insights and cultural sensitivities of a diverse workforce lead to new customer bases and market opportunities by offering greater understanding of customers who, themselves, represent many races, cultures, countries and experiences. As pointed out by our CEO and Chairman, Chad Holliday, Jr., "a diverse workforce increases innovations in product development and production processes. A diverse and global workforce helps us create higher value solutions for our customers in more productive and less capital intensive ways."

The demographics of this country are changing rapidly and it is apparent that juries, judges, and policymakers are of increasingly diverse backgrounds. DuPont recognizes that this trend impacts a company's ability to effectively connect on intellectual, emotional and personal levels with increasingly diverse segments of the legal and business world. Diversity in every area is essential if DuPont is to compete in the 21st Century and fulfill its mission of recognizing and meeting real needs throughout the world.

Palmore: Minority-owned law firms have been and continue to be a critical alternative career path for minority lawyers. The career path provided by minority-owned law firms exists both because large law firms were not always an option for lawyers of color and, as is primarily the case today, because many outstanding lawyers of color opt to practice law in this environment. It is imperative to maintain minority-owned law firms both as a viable career option for future lawyers of color and as a continuing source of exceptional legal services to corporations and the larger community in general. Any effort to address the overall lack of diversity in the legal profession should include a commitment on the part of corporations like Sara Lee to the continuing viability and success of minority-owned law firms. These firms have long been at the forefront of driving emerging legal trends and guiding the development of the rule of law that directly impacts the communities in which we work and live. At Sara Lee we believe our investment in minority-owned law firms represents a direct investment in society and the legal profession - we are also confident that everyone will enjoy a significant return on this investment.