There aren’t enough Black general counsel yet, but Michael-Bryant Hicks, the executive vice president and general counsel of veterinary pharmaceutical company Elanco Animal Health Inc., is hopeful that change is on the horizon.
“I can imagine a generation of retirements, on the one hand, converging with this moment of more honest dialogue on race, on the other, to provide opportunities that Black attorneys have never seen before,” Hicks 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.
Hicks joined Elanco, an animal health products and services company based in Greenfield, Ind., in 2018 as general counsel. Prior to that, he was the general counsel of Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals and medical transportation manager The Providence Service Corp. He began his career with the law firms, Vinson & Elkins and Mayer Brown.
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?
Michael-Bryant Hicks: Having just closed the acquisition of Bayer’s animal health business, we’re busy with integrating our new teammates and assets, as well as helping the company pursue shareholder value.
BL: What’s the best leadership advice you’ve gotten, from mentors or others?
MH: Be clear on what the most important goals are in your work. At Elanco, we call these the “essential wins.” Within any organization, there are usually just a handful of initiatives that, if executed successfully, drive enormous success. Given all the issues a large public company has to manage—high stakes litigation, market events, and even a pandemic—it takes discipline and focus to identify those and remain committed to running them to ground. And, it takes careful leadership to keep thousands of employees working together to achieve what matters.
BL: What advice would you give to lawyers who want to go in-house?
MH: Instead of being a lawyer who wants to go work for a business, grow into a businessperson who practices law. In order to deliver value to a company, you have to begin with an intense focus on how the business makes money: its products and services, suppliers, customers, and competitors. Out of that understanding comes an appreciation of what drives success for the enterprise. Is it keeping expenses low? Is it finding accretive deals? Only once you understand the business narrative can you be a great counselor to the company.
BL: What do you wish you knew at the beginning of your career that you know now?
MH: I wish I knew more about relationship management in the corporate context. For example, early on, I didn’t know I could disagree strongly while preserving social capital with peers. Instead, I felt tentative about my place on teams and was mostly trying to make people around me comfortable so that they wouldn’t undermine my progress. But, that posture doesn’t serve companies well.
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?
MH: To me, a trend would mean seeing significant increase over time, and I don’t think we’re there yet. But I think the increases you are seeing—though small—reflect the number of very capable Black attorneys who are “on deck” and ready to lead legal departments. I can imagine a generation of retirements, on the one hand, converging with this moment of more honest dialogue on race, on the other, to provide opportunities that Black attorneys have never seen before.
BL: When you’re looking to hire outside counsel, how does diversity come into play in your evaluation of law firms?
MH: Elanco’s legal department holds law firm diversity as a high priority, and I’ve held law firm diversity as a high priority throughout my career as a general counsel. We ask law firms to present diverse teams when they pitch for Elanco work, and we pay close attention to the kinds of work experiences the minority attorneys on the teams are actually getting. We are now in the process of standing up an annual review of law firm performance, and diversity metrics will be a key performance indicator. Those metrics will separate the mission-critical work (e.g. negotiating stock purchase agreements) from the lower-level attorney work (e.g. diligence reviews). Participation by minority attorneys in mission-critical work is a key component to a firm’s success while working with Elanco. This approach has served us well, as we’ve seen measurable success by those firms who value growing diverse talent.
BL: What opportunities or changes has the pandemic brought to your job and your team?
MH: We are having interactions by Zoom that previously would have required time-consuming travel, with days away from family. Back in July, I played Martha Stewart, inviting the entire department into my kitchen to see how I mix up my craft cocktail known as the “Quarantini.” Since we’re not in the office, we’ve also taken the pandemic as an opportunity to encourage people to integrate their personal hobbies and health goals into their work lives. I try to model this behavior by doing conference calls while I’m out on hikes.
Questions by Ruiqi Chen and Lisa Helem.