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In-House Lawyers Must Diversify or Risk ‘Damage to Their Brand’

June 27, 2020, 1:00 PM

Top corporate lawyers should use their positions to translate calls for social justice into concrete action that can transform corporate America, four Black Fortune 500 general counsels and the head of diversity for a major legal recruiter told Bloomberg Law.

General counsels need to change how they think about their role while pushing for more diversity in hiring, talent and leadership development, and outside counsel.

None of these priorities are new, said the top lawyers for Aflac, Cummins, Discover Financial Services, and The Hershey Company. The difference now is that more people inside companies are listening—and appreciate the new imperative for change following the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.

“Companies are starting to feel like potential damage to their brand will only be exacerbated if they do not make changes,” said Merle Vaughn, law firm diversity practice leader at recruiter Major, Lindsey & Africa.

Being a change agent within a company starts with general counsels re-conceiving their role, beyond policing anti-discrimination and compliance issues, said Audrey Boone Tillman, general counsel of Aflac.

Vaughn said a top lawyer should think of herself as a “thought leader,” with a platform. General counsels should “use their voice and position of seniority to encourage colleagues to add diversity in their ranks,” Vaughn said.

Hiring, Retention

Diverse hiring doesn’t mean sacrificing quality, said Damien Atkins, general counsel of The Hershey Company and chair-elect of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association.

Instead, it means choosing to look at indicators of performance beyond an applicant’s law school GPA, like their functional intelligence.

A diverse corporation requires a deliberate choice not to look at billable hours when hiring, but rather the “quality of the person,” said Adrienne Pitts, general counsel at Loop Capital .

Pitts said the goal is not just to bring in diverse lawyers, but also promote them.

To get there, top lawyers must give them opportunities to lead, and feedback to help them move up, said Robert Grey, president of the Leadership Counsel on Legal Diversity.

Fostering an inclusive environment is especially important in times of “civil unrest,” so general counsels should hold listening sessions to support their underrepresented staff, Grey said.


Once a corporation has committed itself to diversity internally, it should look to work with firms that showcase the same commitments.

Cummins General Counsel Sharon Barner led by example when she joined the company. Barner reduced the corporation’s outside counsel representation from 150 firms to 23, emphasizing the importance of those that had female or Black managing partners at the time.

She then signed retention agreements that committed the firms to having women and people of color work 65% of the hours spent representing Cummins. She rewarded firms that exceeded that number.

General counsels should also encourage their in-house lawyers to use pro bono work and philanthropy programs “to encourage employees to support, volunteer, and donate to organizations that help advance social justice,” said Wanji Walcott, general counsel of Discover Financial Services.

Pitts said these acts of service “will provide a real morale boost” for in-house lawyers, as well as educating them “on the life and death matters they might not otherwise notice in their communities.”

The End Goal

Several general counsels told Bloomberg Law they are optimistic that the conversations happening now will lead to substantive change.

Grey sees the next generation of general counsels are more willing to adapt and find different ways to develop diverse talent.

For Atkins, the improvements he’s seen in gender diversity since he joined the legal industry give him hope that the same advancements are coming with racial diversity.

“I’d love to have a world where if I go into a room in corporate America, whether a board room or executive suite, I’m not the only one,” Atkins said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Allie Reed in Washington at

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