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The Black General Counsel Project: Corning’s Lewis Steverson

Dec. 15, 2020, 11:01 AM

Lewis Steverson, the chief legal and administrative officer of Corning Inc., believes legal departments have a big role to play in showing how a “variety of vantage points” can be paramount to making smart decisions and achieving success in the legal profession.

“Corporate in-house counsel can be catalysts for change by helping outside law firms understand the business case for diversity and encouraging outside counsel to become more diverse,” Steverson 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.

Steverson joined the material science company, based in Corning, N.Y., in 2013 as senior vice president and general counsel before taking on his current role as executive vice president and chief legal and administrative officer. Prior to this, Steverson worked for Chicago-based telecommunications company Motorola Solutions, Inc., for nearly two decades, mostly recently as senior vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary.

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?

Lewis Steverson: Corning is involved in some thorny intellectual property enforcement issues in China for our Gorilla Glass business. In addition, for the first time in its history, Corning has brought a matter to the International Trade Commission to enforce IP in our Optical Communications business. Also, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority selected Corning’s Valor Glass as a packaging provider for Covid-19 vaccines and treatments, and we are working through the associated commercial legal issues.

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

LS: Never be too busy to be successful. By this, the person who gave me this advice meant to always think about the next thing you are going to do—whether that’s within your current job, your current company, or elsewhere. The advice I give people whom I mentor is to think about the job you’re doing today 95% of the time, and to think about your next job for the other 5% of the time.

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

LS: The company is a legal department’s client, so in-house lawyers must help the company (the client) achieve their business objectives while minimizing its legal risk.

Therefore, in-house lawyers need to learn as much about their company’s business as possible. They must immerse themselves in the business at a strategic level, where lawyers advocate as business partners, help drive competitive advantage, support the corporate strategy, and enhance future goals and business directions.

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

LS: I wish I’d had a better understanding of finance at the beginning of my career. Since it’s not a topic that’s taught at most law schools, I thought finance was simply about counting money. I had no idea that finance involves strategy, capital allocation, and is an absolutely crucial component of a corporation’s success. This knowledge would have helped me immensely when I was a young lawyer.

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?

LS: We are seeing that truly competitive organizations are successful at recruiting and retaining diverse talent. For Corning, a company with global operations, employees, and customers, diversity is imperative. After all, numerous studies and experience have shown that diversity not only makes good business sense, but it also corresponds to superior performance. Having diverse viewpoints and styles strengthens your team’s capacity to solve problems. And no matter what team you are on, the ability to solve problems is crucial for a successful team performance.

Law firms are trying harder to recruit and retain diverse talent, and companies generally look to law firms for their in-house hires. Once you begin to successfully attract and retain diverse talent, you are increasing the talent pool, which includes potential future general counsel. In line with the increases in diversity in law firms, we are now seeing increases in Black, female, and other minority general counsels. Of course, there is more work to be done, and the goal is to see these numbers increase as more law firms and companies see these successes.

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

LS: In the legal profession, a variety of vantage points is paramount. Ensuring that all viewpoints have been considered, and that decisions are made with the utmost integrity is critical to providing the best legal advice. Therefore, diversity is a key factor when we evaluate law firms.

Corporate in-house counsel can be catalysts for change by helping outside law firms understand the business case for diversity and encouraging outside counsel to become more diverse. In fact, we ask outside counsel to submit firms’ demographic information through our e-billing system. We expect our law firms to employ and deploy diverse lawyers in our service.

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

LS: This year’s global challenges also brought opportunities to Corning. Covid-19 allowed us to explore flexible, remote working arrangements and to engage more frequently with our global colleagues through videoconferencing. The U.S. incidents of racist police brutality and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests impelled Corning to create the company’s Office of Racial Equality and Social Unity in order to enact and influence change within Corning, the communities in which we operate, and nationally.

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