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The Black General Counsel Project: Cummins’ Sharon Barner

Dec. 15, 2020, 11:01 AM

More Black lawyers are leaving law firms to join legal departments, helping to drive an increase in Black representation at the general counsel level, according to Cummins Inc. chief legal officer Sharon Barner.

“Smart and business savvy Black lawyers have opted out of private law firms because of many of the environmental issues that make surviving and thriving in a law firm more difficult for Black lawyers,” Barner 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.

Barner joined Cummins, an engine and filtration manufacturer based in Columbus, Ind., in 2012 as vice president and chief legal officer, and she added on the role of corporate secretary this year. Previously, Barner worked for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and earlier in his career worked for Foley & Lardner. She is also a member of the Black General Counsel 2025 Initiative’s advisory council.

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?

Sharon Barner: We are working on M&A opportunities that might arise as a result of economic uncertainty; heightened cybersecurity risk management; energy supply transitions from fossil fuels to alternatives such as battery, electric and/or fuel cells; supply chain flexibility; employee health & wellness.

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

SB: My law firm’s CEO offered me a position as a Department Chair. I had worked hard as the global practice group leader and we were poised to reap the benefits, so I wanted to stay in that role for a bit longer. His advice was, “If you want to grow and develop to meet the reach of your full capabilities, you need to get out of your comfort zone.”

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

SB: Having exceptional legal skills is the key that opens the door. Developing executive presence, having exceptional people skills, understanding business issues and internal stakeholders, and having visibility to company leaders is what sets you apart.

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

SB: I wish I’d known that there were so many different areas of law. I didn’t really know any lawyers so I thought the practice areas were limited to litigation, corporate, criminal, family, etc. There are so many exciting and intellectually stimulating areas of law. I am thankful to have found intellectual property law which provided me a challenging and fascinating legal practice.

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?

SB: Exceptionally smart and hard-working Black GCs have been tapped from some of the premier law firms and companies across the country. While the Black GCs are more visible, progress has been slow but is finally gaining momentum. Smart and business savvy Black lawyers have opted out of private law firms because of many of the environmental issues that make surviving and thriving in a law firm more difficult for Black lawyers.

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

SB: At Cummins, we believe diverse teams deliver superior results. Accordingly, we do not hire outside counsel teams that lack gender and racial diversity. Once hired, we monitor and measure whether appropriate hours are being billed by diverse lawyers, whether they are working across other matters, and whether the diverse lawyers are getting visibility to the client and business. If we are hiring a particular lawyer who is not diverse, because of specific expertise, the lawyer needs to put together a diverse team to service our work.

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

SB: The entire global legal team is working remotely, and we are equally efficient and effective in our remote locations. This is in part because many of our stakeholders are also remote. The team is closer, because we slow down to discuss work and personal challenges of managing through the pandemic.

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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