Evaluating outside firms on their diversity is, and has long been, an integral business practice for Kodwo Ghartey-Tagoe’s legal department at electric company
“At bottom, our initiative is meant to make sure that opportunity at our business is spread more evenly within our relationship firms so that we benefit from all available talent,” Ghartey-Tagoe, the chief legal officer of Duke Energy, 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.
Ghartey-Tagoe joined Duke Energy, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2002 as chief regulatory counsel and was promoted to chief legal officer in 2019. Prior to that, he was a partner at McGuireWoods, and he currently sits on the board of Duke University School of Law.
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?
Kodwo Ghartey-Tagoe: We’re working on Covid-related legal issues in support of the corporation’s conversion to remote work as well as return to work plans; regulatory proceedings for setting our retail rates for service in North Carolina; and regulatory and transactional support of the company’s transition to cleaner energy solutions for customers.
BL: What’s the best leadership advice you’ve gotten, from mentors or others?
KG: I have been very fortunate to have had many mentors in my career and received lots of sage counsel. One of the most impactful pieces of advice was to always remember that, as a leader, I am dealing with people. The essence of that point is clear in the following quote from Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said; people will forget what you did; but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Empathy in leadership absolutely matters. It builds a sense of trust, strengthens relationships, and leads to increased collaboration and improved productivity.
BL: What advice would you give you lawyers who want to go in-house?
KG: Be prepared to be challenged and to work hard. Many believe going in-house means “regular hours” and an opportunity to send all the hard work to outside counsel. The hours may be more reasonable at times, but as the pressure mounts to be more and more innovative and cost-effective in the provision of legal services, more is demanded of in-house counsel. Being in-house is also a great opportunity to work right next to the business. Our work environment is more business-centric and our clients are looking for actionable legal advice—not 45-page memos.
BL: What do you wish you knew at the beginning of your career that you know now?
KG: I wish I had known that being outside my comfort zone was something to be embraced. Several of the positions I have served in have led me further and further out of my comfort zone. Over time, as I learned to embrace it, I found that I grew and became an effective contributor, and even enjoyed the opportunity.
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?
KG: Perhaps the pipeline is better, and companies are recognizing the value of diverse leadership. There’s clearly an increasing focus on the diversity of corporate boards and executive teams—particularly of publicly traded companies. I believe companies are being more intentional about seeking out diverse slates when they have openings, and they are finding that there are many black lawyers who are more than capable and ready to serve—if only they would be given an opportunity.
BL: When you’re looking to hire outside counsel, how does diversity come into play in your evaluation of law firms?
KG: A firm’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, including a robust internal firm policy and demonstrated success implementing such policy resulting in retention and advancement of diverse employees, is a critical factor in our firm retention process.
Duke Energy has challenged its law firms to improve their diversity for many years. Years ago, we brought all our relationship firms together and made it clear that our business was too complex, and our communities too diverse, for us to not ensure appropriate diversity on all the teams that did our work. We asked for diversity and inclusion and started to evaluate our firms on how well they were doing to meet our goals. We graded our firms and where appropriate, we warned that if we didn’t see meaningful progress over time, we would reduce the work assigned or drop firms entirely. This continues to be an integral business strategy and we continue to track diversity metrics like the demographics of our relationship partners and the lawyers who do the work, and the number of hours billed by diverse attorneys.
We meet regularly with our firms and provide feedback on this and other important issues. We also have a focus on retaining minority- and women-owned law firms and vendors to serve our need. At bottom, our initiative is meant to make sure that opportunity at our business is spread more evenly within our relationship firms so that we benefit from all available talent.
BL: What opportunities or changes has the pandemic brought to your job and your team?
KG: Our team has been working remotely since March and I am very pleased to say we have been very effective working that way. It has required more intentionality to stay connected with each other, and Microsoft Teams has helped tremendously in that regard. “You are on mute” has also become a popular saying.
Questions by Ruiqi Chen and Lisa Helem.