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The Black General Counsel Project: Danaher’s Brian Ellis

Dec. 15, 2020, 11:01 AM

Companies have recently made a “concerted effort” to increase diversity in the legal industry, in part by requiring more diverse slates of job candidates, said Brian Ellis, the general counsel of science and technology conglomerate Danaher Corp.

“Once Black lawyers are given an opportunity to be in the running, we can compete with anyone. Historically, we just never got a fair shot,” Ellis 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.

Ellis joined Washington-based Danaher in 2016 as senior vice president and general counsel. Before that, he worked as general counsel for Medtronic’s Restorative Therapies Group and GE Healthcare. Ellis began his career in private practice and also served as the Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois.

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?

Brian Ellis: Top of mind is working with our global HR partners to safely bring back our associates on a timeline that makes everyone comfortable. And given that several Danaher operating companies produce products that help clinicians fight Covid-19, we’re also working with the U.S. government and customers around the world to make sure we’re able to fulfill their supply needs. It’s rewarding to know we’re doing our part to help confront this crisis.

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

BE: I’ve heard that Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” So, while leadership requires tough decisions—and there’s no good time to make a hard choice—I’ve learned that it’s really important to be cognizant of how your actions make people feel. I’ve found an extraordinary level of empathy at Danaher, and I try to model that every day.

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

BE: Have a reasonable set of expectations. The in-house world and the external provider world are starkly different. When you’re in-house, you’re not just there to answer questions—you’re part of the solution. The transition from being hired to fix one problem to providing long-term strategic support can be challenging. And it can also be very fulfilling. In-house, the scale of one company lets you build a career doing rich, variable, and complex work.

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

BE: Never say never. The path I’ve taken in my career—from being an assistant U.S. attorney to going in-house—is not what I thought it’d be coming out of law school. I’d tell my younger self to be open to unexpected challenges from the start. Luckily, I had mentors along the way who helped change my thinking about what a successful career looks like, which is how I ended up where I am now.

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?

BE: I think for the first time in a long-time, corporations have made a concerted effort to expand their talent pools and to create diverse hiring slates. Once Black lawyers are given an opportunity to be in the running, we can compete with anyone. Historically, we just never got a fair shot. Companies didn’t require diverse slates; and they weren’t holding their talent acquisition partners to account. And I think that’s finally changing. Certainly, for all the functions I lead, I don’t permit any job to be filled unless we have a diverse applicant pool, and my talent team knows that.

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

BE: Lawyers don’t make binary decisions; our choices are influenced by not only our legal acumen, but by our human experience. So you need different experiences in the room. Without diverse voices, you’re not going to get the best and most informed points of view.

Diversity is one of the factors we consider in approving external counsel, and we’re in the process of making those requirements more robust. When I bring someone in, I’m not looking for them to work on something small or tangential; I’m looking for women and people of color to lead projects and to be billing partners. We’re also starting to look at each of our engagements to see where our outside firms are falling short on diversity. It’s a question of whether they deserve our business any longer if they don’t meet our expectations around diversity.

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

BE: I’m certain that my team is as high-performing today as it was before Covid-19, but we’ve been challenged. Some functional areas need to “go to Gemba”—which in Danaher terms means going to the place where the action is—and that’s hard to do virtually. So, we’ve scaled back some activities. But the pandemic has also brought us closer. It’s been an opportunity to pause more, to take the time to check in with one another.

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 editor responsible for this story: Rebekah Mintzer at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com

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