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The Black General Counsel Project: Discover Financial Services’ Wanji Walcott

Dec. 15, 2020, 11:01 AM

Law firms that have done a poor job of retaining and promoting lawyers of color may risk their relationships with Discover Financial Services, according to its chief legal officer Wanji Walcott.

“I have opted not to use certain law firms that have a track record of not hiring, retaining, and promoting diverse lawyers, specifically including Black lawyers. I struggle with the fact that in 2020 there are Am Law 100 law firms with no Black partners,” Walcott 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.

Walcott joined Discover, based in Riverwoods, Ill., in 2019. Before that, she was the general counsel of payments company PayPal Holdings, Inc., and she also spent over a decade with The American Express Co. Walcott is also a member of the Black GC 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?

Wanji Walcott: In addition to our business as usual legal work, we are actively assisting our business partners with assessing the impacts of regulatory developments brought about by Covid-19 in areas including consumer credit risk; capital stress testing; debt collection; employment and immigration; SEC reporting; and Environmental, Social and Governance.

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

WW: No matter where you are in an organization, look, talk, think, and act like a leader. Focus on being present, caring, inspiring, and rigorous.

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

WW: Learn the language of business so you can be a valued member of a business team. Think of yourself as not just a lawyer but as a trusted business advisor. Being in-house is fast-paced and exciting. Take advantage of the opportunity by getting really close to the business and enjoy seeing how your work impacts results.

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

WW: Being professional doesn’t mean not being vulnerable. Relationships matter in business, so invest time in fostering authentic relationships.

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?

WW: Even prior to this year’s anti-racism protests, many corporations have been focusing on diversity & inclusion within the corporate environment. These efforts have helped to increase diverse representation, specifically including in the C-suite, resulting in an increase in Black Fortune 1000 general counsel. In addition, we’ve seen results from initiatives like the Black General Counsel Initiative 2025, which was launched in 2017 with the goal of increasing the number of Black general counsel. As a member of the initiative’s Advisory Council, I am proud that our ambitious goal for 2020 has been exceeded.

I certainly attribute my advancement to a GC role to many who have come before me, serving as mentors and sponsors and challenging me and believing in me even at times when I questioned my own abilities. I am more than happy to serve in that same capacity for others who aspire to the general counsel role. Although we’ve made some strides, we can’t take our foot off the gas. There is still a lot of opportunity to increase the representation of Black lawyers in the general counsel ranks. I am optimistic that this positive trend will continue provided we remain focused. To ensure continued progress, we need to continue to work on building a pipeline of Black in-house lawyer talent, ready to assume the general counsel role.

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

WW: Here at Discover, we are very committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion. I firmly believe that in-house counsel are in a unique position to impact diversity in our profession and specifically with our outside counsel. There is so much we can do in terms of giving positive feedback on diverse lawyers who have done a great job on our matters. It doesn’t take a lot of time to provide this feedback but it can have a really positive impact on a lawyer’s performance appraisal and trajectory.

Diversity is absolutely a factor in our outside counsel selection. I want to work with skilled and expert outside counsel that share our values and commitment to an inclusive and diverse workforce. We want to see diverse lawyers at pitch meetings and on our matters. We focus our selection of outside counsel in a manner that considers both minority and women owned law firms as well as diverse lawyers—partners, of counsel and associates— at majority owned firms. I am personally interested in a firm’s diversity initiatives and results. I am also interested in how origination credit is awarded. I have opted not to use certain law firms that have a track record of not hiring, retaining, and promoting diverse lawyers, specifically including Black lawyers. I struggle with the fact that in 2020 there are Am Law 100 law firms with no Black partners.

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

WW: Like most other organizations, the biggest change for us has been the shift to working from home. In two weeks, we pivoted almost all our 18,500 employees—including 8,000 customer service representatives—to remote working. We’ve proven, as an organization, that we are capable of moving quickly as circumstances demand. The key will be to harness this ability so we can continue to be speedy and nimble when it comes to decision-making and execution.

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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