Recent increases in Black representation at the general counsel level can lead to a virtuous cycle that begets even more diversity down the road, according to Desiree Ralls-Morrison, general counsel of medical device manufacturer
“When we have more Black general counsel, we see an increased number of Black lawyers aspiring to those roles. They think, if this person could do it, I can do it.” Ralls-Morrison 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.
Ralls-Morrison joined Boston Scientific, based in Marlborough, Mass., in 2017 as senior vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary. Before that, she was the general counsel for pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim USA, Inc., and spent nearly a decade as the general counsel of Johnson & Johnson.
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?
Desiree Ralls-Morrison: We are continuing work in the M&A and venture capital space, product liability and IP litigation, and IP portfolio management. We are providing legal and compliance advice to our businesses on strategic issues, as well as marketing and advertising, and in our clinical trials and regulatory filings. Two years ago, our department introduced a diversity and inclusion council, and we’re working on issues such as recruitment and retention of diverse employees, racial equity, and social justice.
BL: What’s the best leadership advice you’ve gotten, from mentors or others?
DR: I’ve learned leadership by observing and emulating leaders that I respect. One of the most significant things I’ve learned is that leaders are here to serve. In serving, it is important be authentic and compassionate and to listen to others, while being clear and decisive. As a leader, I surround myself with a strong team that I can trust and rely on as we seek to articulate and achieve common goals.
BL: What advice would you give you lawyers who want to go in-house?
DR: They should research industries that they are passionate about and companies that need their skills. If they are at a firm, impressing their clients can provide an opportunity to move in-house. Once in-house, they should learn as much as possible about the company and the industry as they transition from outside counsel to being part of the internal team.
BL: What do you wish you knew at the beginning of your career that you know now?
DR: I wish I had known the importance of having a network of mentors, sponsors, coaches, and advocates—and that it was up to me to build it. Moving up the ladder can be lonely, even more so if you’re the only Black person in most rooms. I had to get what I needed from multiple sources, some of which were outside of my organization and most of which I had to actively seek out.
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?
DR: As a global workforce, we are starting to appreciate diversity more. This means at all levels, including in the highest positions, of the company. Shareholders, boards of directors, CEOs and other C-suite executives are starting to appreciate that revenues are higher, and innovation increases when our leadership reflects the diverse world we live in.
Our workforce becomes more engaged and our culture thrives in a diverse and inclusive environment where employees are encouraged to bring their authentic selves to work. I think we are starting to appreciate that what makes a great general counsel is more than the law school a person attended or the law firm where they worked. We are appreciating the diversity of experiences that help to contribute to a strong leader, with race potentially being one such factor.
Very simply, I also think diversity begets diversity. Those Black general counsel can help open doors and minds, but they also serve as role models for others. When we have more Black general counsels, we see an increased number of Black lawyers aspiring to those roles. They think, if this person could do it, I can do it.
BL: When you’re looking to hire outside counsel, how does diversity come into play in your evaluation of law firms?
DR: At Boston Scientific, we view our outside firms as partners, and reward excellent performance with additional work. To be “excellent,” firms must provide diverse teams for all Boston Scientific matters, and those teams must meet certain criteria. First, are the diverse lawyers on the team in leadership roles? It is not enough to staff company matters with a revolving door of diverse junior associates performing peripheral work. Instead, we expect lawyers standing up for Boston Scientific in court or business negotiations to reflect our corporate commitment to giving diverse individuals prominent leadership positions. For some firms, meeting this requirement may require robust lateral hiring or strategic mergers.
Second, do the firms demonstrate a commitment to mentoring, sponsoring, and developing their diverse junior lawyers in ways that allow them to take on increased responsibilities as the years pass? Evidence of this includes giving diverse lawyers meaningful speaking roles in strategy discussions, client presentations, hearings, and negotiations. For firms that may struggle to meet the first requirement, demonstrating a commitment to developing a pipeline of diverse talent is necessary.
Third, do the diverse lawyers at a firm include individuals from multiple historically under-represented groups, including Black, Latinx, Asian, and LGBTQAI+? For many years, law firms have “solved” for diversity by hiring and promoting straight White women attorneys, often from privileged backgrounds. We believe that we do better as a company by expanding our workforce and, in turn, our outside counsel network, to meaningfully include people from all walks of life.
BL: What opportunities or changes has the pandemic brought to your job and your team?
DR: A critical opportunity has been the need to creatively keep the team engaged and focused while working remotely. This is important for the well-being of the individual, the team, and the culture. The pandemic has also created new legal issues for us. For example, in the employment space, this includes issues related to testing, contact tracing, and vaccine-related questions.
Questions by Ruiqi Chen and Lisa Helem.