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The Black General Counsel Project: Coca-Cola’s Bradley Gayton

Dec. 15, 2020, 11:01 AM

Coca-Cola senior vice president and general counsel Bradley Gayton sees bringing more Black lawyers into the profession as a moral obligation and said there’s a business imperative to fix the diversity problem quickly.

“In my view, the curve is still flat. Now is not the time to get the confetti cannons out. It’s time to double our efforts with a resolute focus on addressing this issue from early education, college pipeline, law school admissions, recruiting, on-boarding, and career development at every stage,” Gayton 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.

Gayton joined Atlanta-based Coca-Cola in September this year, replacing the company’s retired general counsel Bernhard Goepelt. Previously, he spent nearly three decades at Ford Motor Company, most recently as general counsel and chief administrative officer.

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?

Bradley Gayton: In the current environment, it’s critical that we are efficient and nimble as a legal department. We are giving great consideration to how we should be structured to leverage global talent and best contribute to our winning aspirations. Areas of particular interest include truly moving the needle on diversity, inclusion and belonging, strengthening our pro bono culture, and the adoption and creation of tools that leverage big data analytics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning.

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

BG: As a leader in the moment of crisis, you need to know your values and have a thorough understanding of what you stand for—long before you are required to take a stand. My father encouraged authenticity and living every day as your authentic self, and while I don’t think either of us understood that as leadership advice at the time, it turned out to be an invaluable foundation for my career.

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

BG: It’s critically important that you start with an honest conversation about why you are considering the move. All too often, the answer is a better work-life balance, which is not always achievable. Most importantly, there is nuance to this decision that deserves consideration. You need to understand the risk appetite of a company and the size and scope of the work done in-house by the legal department. These factors can significantly impact your career trajectory and skillset development.

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

BG: To be successful, you need to be able to trust your intuition above all else. Ensuring you have a high moral integrity and know exactly what you stand for are also important. Finally, lawyers of all age and tenure should take a broader view of their work. It’s too narrow to rely only on our law degree. There are many more important considerations that must be factored into balancing business risks and providing business input.

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?

BG: While there has been a slight increase, in my view, the curve is still flat. Now is not the time to get the confetti cannons out. It’s time to double our efforts with a resolute focus on addressing this issue from early education, college pipeline, law school admissions, recruiting, on-boarding, and career development at every stage. Beyond the role of general counsel, there has been a precipitous decline in Black lawyers which is alarming. Young Black people cannot see themselves in this profession. Not only do we have a moral obligation as an industry to fix this, I strongly believe it is a business imperative that we do so quickly.

It starts at the very beginning. We need to ensure a greater population of students believe that the legal profession is a viable option for them. We need to think about law school admissions, how we recruit, and alternative success metrics that allow us to find qualified candidates outside the top law schools. When we have an open role, we must jealously guard it and insist interviewing cannot start until we have a diverse pool of candidates.

Everyone talks about diversity and inclusion but to me, the critical third piece is belonging. We need to make sure that Black lawyers are valued, their opinions are sought after, and they feel they belong. Belonging includes thoughtful consideration to how work is assigned, who is getting origination and relationship credits, and the care and resources that go into bespoke actionable development plans.

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

BG: This has been a significant factor to selecting outside counsel. Historically, I have tested for a commitment to diversity. My team has partnered with firms on their diversity initiatives, developed goals and scorecards to encourage accountability, and generally worked hand in hand to help push these initiatives forward.

The truth is, we need move more urgently and enact more widespread change. In my view, companies that are serious about diverse outside counsel need to demand it. Quite simply, if a firm cannot put a diverse team on our business, we will find one that can. If that means we need to insist that firms work together in network with competitors to pool resources to meet our requirement, then we will take that on.

We need to move past plans, committees and mission statements. Diverse people need to be doing the work from top to bottom. They need to be given origination and relationship credit—as in-house counsel we must be painfully aware of internal firm metrics and succession plans so that we can actively advocate for the lawyers performing our important work. And if there is a supply issue, the only way to fix that is to create unequivocal demand.

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

BG: In many ways, we have become much more efficient in our communication. I see people using text, mobile, and the reduction in formal meetings. In a way, the world has gotten smaller, as global fluency has improved and we remain highly productive, no matter where we may sit. I also believe this new way of working may ultimately increase career opportunities for those who sit furthest away from an organization’s power or leadership base.

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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