Since the start of her career, Stephanie Tillman, the chief legal counsel of packaged bakery foods company
“Merely knowing the law is just scratching the surface. Today, the goal is to be a valued business partner, fully integrated into the business’s operations so you may apply what you know to help your colleagues manage business risk daily,” said Tillman 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.
Tillman joined Flowers Foods, based in Thomasville, Ga., in 1995 and was promoted to chief legal counsel this year.
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?
Stephanie Tillman: Our legal team strives to be a valued service provider to Flowers Foods and its subsidiaries. This means helping the company navigate not only an ever-changing business environment but also the rapidly changing legal and regulatory environment that governs food manufacturers. Right now, matters related to Covid-19, which impact virtually every aspect of our business, are a key focus for our legal team as we provide counsel across the organization.
BL: What’s the best leadership advice you’ve gotten, from mentors or others?
ST: I have been very fortunate to have amazing mentors, advisors, and encouraging colleagues over the years. One piece of advice that has always stuck with me is “the best dollar we spend is the one we invest in people.” In the continuous race to take advantage of emerging, transformative technologies, it is a great reminder that people remain critical to our operations and are often the competitive advantage that can set us apart.
BL: What advice would you give to lawyers who want to go in-house?
ST: I would encourage those interested in in-house practice to be open to learning new areas of the law and willing to partner daily with colleagues in other areas of the business to add value to the work they do. Being a bit of a generalist is an advantage, particularly in a small legal department, and can be incredibly helpful to you as you advise clients day to day.
BL: What do you wish you knew at the beginning of your career that you know now?
ST: I wish I fully appreciated how much in-house practice would change over the past 25 years. It’s not enough anymore to be just a good lawyer. Merely knowing the law is just scratching the surface. Today, the goal is to be a valued business partner, fully integrated into the business’s operations so you may apply what you know to help your colleagues manage business risk daily.
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?
ST: In my view, a few things have happened. There are a number of organizations that have worked to help increase opportunities for diverse general counsel over the years and those efforts are beginning to pay off. I also think corporate America is slowly becoming more willing to consider candidates of color and, in some instances are developing talent from the inside to take advantage of general counsel roles.
Additionally, the traditional pipeline to in-house practice has been through prior law firm experience, and it appears that large law firms’ efforts to recruit and develop a more diverse pool of attorneys have yielded some opportunity for those individuals to transition into in-house positions.
BL: When you’re looking to hire outside counsel, how does diversity come into play in your evaluation of law firms?
ST: Many of the law firms we use are firms with which our company has long-standing relationships, and we have diversity within our outside counsel teams. In evaluating new counsel, our key criteria will always be competency and experience. However, as a new chief legal counsel who is building on our company’s efforts to nurture a culture of diversity and inclusion, I hope to promote greater use of the diversity lens when we select counsel.
BL: What opportunities and changes has the pandemic brought to your job and your team?
ST: The pandemic forced us to give remote working a chance and we’ve found out we can be just as effective working outside the office. As much as we value in-person interaction, this experience has strengthened our communications muscle and we are more deliberate and frequent in our outreach to our colleagues. In many ways, the pandemic has made us better advisers.
Questions by Ruiqi Chen and Lisa Helem.