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Diversity Takes Center Stage at Corporate Counsel Conference

Nov. 1, 2019, 7:59 PM

Embracing diversity and breaking down racial and gender barriers in the workplace were hot topics among the dozens of panels put on this week at the Association of Corporate Counsel’s annual conference in Phoenix.

The Washington-based trade group, formed in 1982 to represent the interests of corporate counsel, considers diversity and inclusion to be among its most important mandates, said Veta Richardson, who has served as the ACC’s president and CEO since 2011.

“We’ve done a lot of work and outreach to diverse communities,” said Richardson, a former senior in-house attorney at Sunoco LP who previously served as executive director of the unaffiliated Minority Corporate Counsel Association. She cited the organization’s Women in The House (WITH) initiative, which provides networking opportunities for women seeking to move up in the legal C-suite.

The ACC puts out a call to its 46,000 members in 85 countries each year to put together programs they want to see, said Richardson, who spoke with Bloomberg Law at the conference inside the Phoenix Convention Center.

Several ACC panels sought to address how women and minorities can advance their in-house legal careers.

While the #MeToo movement has changed attitudes toward sexual harassment, especially within law firms, many challenges remain if a younger generation of women entering the workforce are to feel safe and supported in speaking out about misconduct.

A panel on the expansion of sexual harassment protections, nondisclosure and confidential settlement reform, and legislative attempts to limit mandatory arbitration proceedings featured Latham & Watkins global employment law co-chair Linda Inscoe, HP Inc. deputy general counsel and chief compliance officer Michelle Vonderhaar, Guidepost Solutions senior managing director Stephanie Douglas, and Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center.

“#MeToo is not just about sexual harassment, it’s an umbrella for a lot of issues,” said Douglas, a former longtime senior executive at the FBI.

Douglas, Vonderhaar, and Inscoe emphasized the importance of fair, open, and independent internal investigations to ensure that victims are respected. Martin noted that women of color are disproportionately believed, while Inscoe said that in-house lawyers have a professional obligation to their employers to report incidents of sexual harassment and not keep quiet.

In-House Inclusion

A gender relations panel featuring Fisher & Phillips partners Kathleen Caminiti and Cheryl Pinarchick and lawyers from ADP LLC, Comcast Corp., and Konica Minolta Inc. addressed best practices for promoting gender and pay equality in the workplace.

Lauren Buechner, counsel at Comcast, and Margaret Ferrero, an assistant general counsel at ADP, suggested steps in-house hiring managers can take to eliminate unconscious bias, such as removing names and addresses from the resumes of job applicants.

In the legal business, “relationship-building is of paramount importance,” be it among colleagues or adversaries, said Caminiti, co-chair of Fisher & Phillips’ wage and hour and pay equity practices. Implementing training and mentorship programs that promote female lawyers and break down the networking barriers that often exclude them can create a more inclusive in-house atmosphere.

“One of the challenges organizations have is they use their same networks over and over again to get candidates for positions,” the ACC’s chief legal officer, Susanna McDonald, told Bloomberg Law. “There is empirical evidence that shows white and Asian women narrow the pay gap, but black and Hispanic women widen it. We’re not going to solve the problem of gender pay disparity without solving racial disparity.”

McDonald supports the Mansfield Rule, a program whose participants pledge to consider at least 30 percent of their internal leadership candidates for women and minorities. How the Mansfield Rule can make outside counsel more diverse—and not what one conference attendee called “male, pale, and stale”—was the focus of another panel led by Womble Bond Dickinson partner Kevin Hall, the firm’s deputy general counsel Alison Bost, Wells Fargo & Co. counsel Shantia Coley, and former Compass Minerals International Inc. general counsel Diana Toman.

The Columbia, S.C.-based Hall, who is white, male, Republican, and gay, said diversity can come in unexpected forms. He spoke about a “diversity disconnect” where the legal profession doesn’t mirror the changing demographics of a population it’s meant to represent, affecting social cohesion and the rule of law. Hall cited statistics showing that the number of women in the ranks of law firms and companies drops as one gets further down the career track.

Wells Fargo’s Coley, who began her career as a public defender, said the criteria for considering minority hires must change. “Take back to your management that the talent is there, but it doesn’t have to be at top-tier law schools,” said Coley, noting her LSAT scores had little impact on her ability to manage a caseload.

Toman agreed, asking that in-house and law firm hiring managers move beyond test scores and admire the “grit” it takes many minority lawyers to succeed despite not having all the tools afforded others. Toman said she’s insisted that origination credit be given to women and minority lawyers to promote their career advancement.

“You guys in-house, please insist that the people holding the purse strings hold us accountable,” Hall said. “Empower the champions of diversity by having a general counsel insist that a certain person participate.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Baxter in Phoenix at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Seth Stern at