On Thursday, Big Law Business convened a summit in midtown Manhattan to generate discussion around a topic that continues to challenge the legal industry: Diversity and Inclusion.
For an entire morning, leaders from the nation’s top law firms and companies shared their experiences and ideas on what it will take to improve their business policies and attitudes around these issues.
In the keynote, Ellen Pollock, editor of Bloomberg Businessweek interviewed Kelly Tullier, executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary at Visa Inc., who offered lessons on just how different being a woman in a leadership position can be.
As part of her job, Tullier said she often has to operate in cultures where being a woman leader requires a different skill set. Earlier in her career, Tullier spent time in the Middle East where she wore an abaya — a robe-like dress worn by women in parts of the Muslim world. “In some cultures, I have to shut up and be behind the scenes,” she said.
Learning to listen and understand is what drives people’s performance, Tullier said, and she invited other leaders to try an exercise in their next meeting: If there’s a woman sitting there, ask for her opinion on the subject at hand. It will likely be different, Tullier said.
Mentorship was another issue that came up throughout the morning. Tullier said she preferred organic mentorship to sponsored mentors, whichcan feel awkward and forced.
“I have been assigned to mentor people and I feel like I’m not very good at it,” said Tullier. “If I’m not feeling the chemistry, it’s not going to work.”
She said that at the end of the day, being a successful lawyer at Visa or at any number of corporations comes down to one thing: performance. Tullier also called upon other leaders not to force women lawyers into senior positions that they may not be ready for — “That hurts all of us,” she said. “Let’s make sure we are thoughtful… (because) when it doesn’t work out, I think we’re taking two steps back.”
In a separate panel later in the day, titled ‘The Business Imperative for Diversity,’ Tony West, executive vice president, government affairs, general counsel and corporate secretary of Pepsi Co, spoke about the legal profession’s tradition of having an apprenticeship culture.
For people of color, it can be difficult to identify a mentor, but it needn’t be, West said. He said that in the one year that he has been the general counsel at Pepsi — he joined in October 2014 from the Justice Department after serving as Associate Attorney General — he has promoted only five people, and four of them were women of color.
“There’s not a lack of talent,” he said.
West also noted: “One of the things I often tell people is your mentors do not have to look like you … you just have to make sure you’re learning from someone who’s willing to give you a lot of opportunity.”
West, along with James McNasby, general counsel of Marsh LLC, also fielded questions about how their companies are willing to reward law firms that are more diverse, and conversely punish law firms that aren’t.
“Its sort of incumbent on general counsel to say I recognize your commitment,” said McNasby, who explained that he broke the normal pecking order and proactively called Richard Rosenbaum, CEO of Greenberg Traurig after learning about that firm’s commitment to LGBT issues.
West, meanwhile, said that his company looks at diversity when it assesses its outside counsel. He noted that when he joined Pepsi, these metrics helped him decide which outside counsel to use: “I didn’t want us to default [to] re-engaging with law firms simply because we had always used them.”
Rosenbaum, another panelist at the event, said some of the most traditionally elite firms have been slowest to respond to the growing calls for diversity, and predicted those firms will suffer as the legal market tightens.
“More and more major clients are not just talking about it,” said Rosenbaum. “They are making decisions… And I think some of the most traditionally elite firms … those firms are starting to lose clients and I know that because we’ve been a beneficiary.”
He added, “They can talk but the faces don’t lie.”
Ellen Moran Dwyer, managing partner of Crowell & Moring, said that despite the commitments by clients and by law firms, notwithstanding all that effort, there hasn’t been a lot of progress on bringing greater diversity to the legal profession.
“What’s missing are relationships,” said Dwyer, who added that there need to be more opportunities for women and people from diverse backgrounds to build relationships in law firms and with clients.
She refused, however, to accept what she called a “defeatist” attitude and getting hung up on the bleak data around gender and minority staffing at law firms. She also said there could be harm that comes from the fear of being politically incorrect.
“I think we live in this politically correct world where there is this training of ‘Don’t do this or that,’ and it’s inhibited people who would like to know people who aren’t like them,” said Dwyer.
That point was echoed later in the day by Jami McKeon, chair of Morgan Lewis & Bockius, who said that “people feel constrained about having a conversation with someone about race or gender” and that there has been “blowback” because of it.
“You have the person sitting there, feeling different, while everyone thinks they aren’t different,” said McKeon.
Raymond Williams, a DLA Piper partner who is also National Diversity and Inclusion Partner, said that law firm leaders need to be careful when using adjectives to describe their fellow lawyers and incoming hires.
“I have never heard that adjective — ‘qualified’ — in front of a white male,” he said. “But I hear qualified diverse lawyers.”
Ian Graham, senior vice president, general counsel and secretary of BAE Systems, said that maintaining a diverse legal team can come down to discipline. When it comes to recruiting, Graham said he tries to make sure that “every slate of candidates have to be diverse” as well as every slate of interviewers — “And if it’s not, you have to take a step back and ask, ‘why not?'”
When it came to discussing specific firm policies around diversity and inclusion, Kim Koopersmith, chair of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, said in the last panel of the day that she used to only meet with practice group leaders one-on-one to address D&I, but she has recently adopted a different approach.
“I started distributing to all our practice group leaders what their diversity and gender statistics look like,” said Koopersmith.
Ricardo Anzaldua, executive vice president and general counsel of Metlife, stressed the importance of requiring a mandatory company — “not optional; mandatory” — meeting to address unconscious bias in the workplace.
At one point, Anzaldua received a round of applause from the audience after delivering an impassioned speech about the lack of progress in diversity: “As lawyers, we would not accept this kind of failure in anything else we do.”
At another point, however, he put things into context, saying that when he graduated law school 25 years ago, “we were still having the argument about whether diversity was a good thing or not.”
Similarly, Michael Blair, presiding partner at Debevoise & Plimpton, said that this was the first year when the New York law firm has seen relatively the same rate of attrition between white and diverse attorneys in its most recent incoming class of lawyers.
“There can be a tendency to be discouraged because the needle moves so slowly,” said Blair. “You have to celebrate successes.”
Jacqueline Marcus, diversity committee chair at Weil Gotshal & Manges, said that the firm “doesn’t have a problem getting women in the door,” although the attrition level of women is higher than men.
“Part of our strategy is to enable women to be more successful at the firm,” said Marcus.
McKeon, the chair of Morgan Lewis, had made the point earlier in the day that women aren’t leaving the profession because they don’t want to work hard: “Women are leaving the profession because they don’t see a path.”