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The Black General Counsel Project: Ameren Corp.'s Chonda Nwamu

Dec. 15, 2020, 11:01 AM

Chonda Nwamu, general counsel of power company Ameren Corp, said her legal department is using several methods to encourage diversity in outside counsel, from tracking who receives legal spend via technology, to training diverse lawyers in energy regulation work.

“Law firms that share our commitment to DE&I definitely have a competitive advantage in terms of securing our legal business,” Nwamu said in a recent Bloomberg Law survey.

Black general counsel now make up over 5% of all general counsel in the Fortune 1000 , a significant milestone tracked by the Black General Counsel 2025 Initiative and first reported by Bloomberg Law. We reached out to over 50 Black legal chiefs whose companies were in the Fortune 1000 in 2019 or 2020 to learn more about their careers and diversity at the top of the legal industry and heard from 39 of them.

Nwamu joined St. Louis-based Ameren in 2016 as vice president and deputy general counsel and became senior vice president, general counsel, and secretary in 2019. Prior to that, she worked for the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. for 15 years, according to her LinkedIn.

These responses have been edited for clarity and length.

Bloomberg Law: What are some key matters you and your team are working on right now?

Chonda Nwamu: My team and I are partnering with our business segments on a wide variety of corporate strategic priorities that will deliver significant value to our customers and the communities we serve. Within the general counsel function, we are focused on optimizing operations by driving efficiency through the increased use of technology, reducing outside counsel costs through [our] Law Firm Rationalization project, enhancing our enterprise ethics and compliance program, and increasing our internal and external focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

BL: What’s the best leadership advice you’ve gotten, from mentors or others?

CN: The best leadership advice I have received is that leadership is about service and figuring out how you can empower, inspire, and advocate on behalf of others. At the end of the day, people are always the greatest asset in an organization. Your job as a leader is to remove barriers and to foster an inclusive environment to let your team’s talents shine.

BL: What advice would you give you lawyers who want to go in-house?

CN: I would advise them to think about their values and what excites them, and to focus on choosing an organization with a corporate culture that aligns with their values. Once they begin working in-house, I would advise them to learn as much as they can about the business. That will enable them to be a valuable strategic partner with the business team, in addition to being a legal advisor.

BL: What do you wish you knew at the beginning of your career that you know now?

CN: One learning that I had later in my career is the value of actually standing in the shoes of the business leaders and understanding the various factors that they are balancing to run the business. I had the opportunity to participate in a rotation as the Interim Director of Billing Operations and it gave me new perspective as a lawyer. Once I returned to the legal function, the experience helped me provide more valuable and practical legal advice to my business partners.

BL: Why do you think the number of Black general counsel has been on the rise? Have you observed any changes in the past few years that have contributed to recent increases in representation?

CN: From my perspective, access and opportunity are leading factors. Historically, the top legal spots have not been accessible to Black lawyers to the same extent as those spots have been available to their non-diverse counterparts. Black lawyers have been impacted by implicit bias, and a lack of mentors and sponsors with influence in organizations.

Today, as the world becomes more global and there is an increased awareness of systemic barriers that have impacted women and minorities, we are seeing a positive shift and more intentionality around diversity, equity, and inclusion. There is an acknowledgment, supported by clear data, that diverse teams and leaders lead to improved business performance, increased sales, innovative business solutions and increased employee engagement.

Corporate CEOs and boards of directors are being more intentional about casting a wider net and insisting on diverse slates when looking for general counsel and other executive team members. The result is more opportunity and access for women and minority candidates to compete fairly for general counsel and other leadership positions. The experiences, perspectives, and grit that many Black GCs bring to the table can be extremely valuable as corporations navigate novel business and legal challenges and compete for market share in their respective industries.

In addition, as more Black lawyers become GCs, they often serve as role models and mentors to women and diverse attorneys in their organizations, leading to improved retention of diverse talent and a more robust succession pipeline for leadership. Even with the recent increase in Black general counsel, they still make up only a small percentage of GCs in the Fortune 1000, so it is important to continue to be intentional about leveling the playing field in the legal profession.

BL: When you’re looking to hire outside counsel, how does diversity come into play in your evaluation of law firms?

CN: Diversity, equity, and inclusion is a core value at Ameren and a personal passion of mine. Within the legal department, we have a dual focus on increasing the percentage of outside counsel budget spend with women and diverse-owned law firms, and increasing the percentage of spend with majority law firms, or law firms that are not minority owned, that hire diverse talent and assign diverse professionals to work on Ameren matters.

Because as the old adage goes, “What doesn’t get measured, doesn’t get done,” we are using technology to track legal department spend with diverse-owned law firms and diverse legal professionals at majority law firms. We have recently implemented a law firm scorecard process that evaluates a law firm’s overall performance. In addition to the standard performance measures such as quality of service, responsiveness, and budget adherence, we also evaluate the law firm’s performance in the area of diversity and inclusion.

If we determine, for example, that a majority law firm is not assigning women or minority attorneys to work on Ameren matters, we will have a very candid conversation about the importance of diverse teams supporting Ameren work. In my experience, our law firms have been responsive and have been more intentional about ensuring diverse representation on our matters. Law firms that share our commitment to DE&I definitely have a competitive advantage in terms of securing our legal business.

With respect to increasing the use of diverse-owned law firms, we have implemented a unique training program to introduce diverse attorneys in other practice areas to the specialty area of energy regulation.

BL: What opportunities or changes has the pandemic brought to your job and your team?

CN: The most significant changes for my team have been the fast pivot to a remote work environment and managing the influx of novel legal questions related to the pandemic. I think we have learned that as a general counsel function we can use technology differently and work effectively in a remote posture. We continue to evaluate how the pandemic may have revealed additional opportunities to work more efficiently long term, and we will incorporate such learnings as we look to the future.

Questions by Ruiqi Chen and Lisa Helem.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ruiqi Chen in Washington, D.C. at rchen@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rebekah Mintzer at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com;
Lisa Helem at lhelem@bloombergindustry.com

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