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The Black General Counsel Project: Guardian Life’s Kermitt Brooks

Dec. 15, 2020, 11:01 AM

Kermitt Brooks, general counsel of the Guardian Life Insurance Co. of America, has been navigating a coronavirus pandemic that’s presenting new challenges to the insurance industry, while also maintaining a focus on cultivating diversity in the legal profession.

New York-based Guardian’s efforts towards inclusion appear to be paying off.

“I am proud to say that 41% of litigated matters opened since 2019 were handled by diverse attorneys or diverse-owned firms,” Brooks said of the company’s legal work 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.

Brooks joined Guardian in May as executive vice president and general counsel. Prior to that, he spent a decade at Equitable, a financial services subsidiary of Equitable Holdings, Inc., most recently as general counsel.

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?

Kermitt Brooks: The insurance industry is undergoing tremendous change and as a result, we are facing exciting new challenges that translate over to the legal department. Currently, we are dealing with issues related to disruption caused by the pandemic as well as the emerging legal and regulatory landscape related to innovation in technology. We are also working on legislative and regulatory issues to help ensure that more people who need insurance and financial protection can get it.

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

KB: I have been fortunate to have had the support and advice of great mentors over the course of my career. But the best advice I got was from my Dad: Keep your skills up-to-date because if you do, you will always be empowered to control your destiny and have better career options.

Another important piece of advice I received was to never take anything personally in business.

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

KB: The best in-house counsel are those who serve as true partners to the business leaders they support. They have a deep understanding of the business and use their legal skills to help the company meet its business objectives while maintaining regulatory and legal standards. My advice to any attorney looking to transition in-house is to go into an industry that you are passionate about and invest the time to learn the business of that industry.

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

KB: I think it is really important to recognize that there is more than one road to success. So, I would encourage everyone to feel empowered to chart their own path by focusing on pursuing both their passion and their purpose. For me, the big moment was when I realized that being a partner at a major law firm is not the only measure of success.

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?

KB: I believe the rise is due to an increasing appreciation for having diverse perspectives at the table. The most valuable asset a general counsel offers is good judgment. Good judgment comes from different life experiences. Companies are seeing that people with diverse backgrounds contribute to better decision making. As a result, companies are making tangible commitments to hiring, developing, and promoting a more diverse workforce.

They are also investing more resources in developing alternative recruiting pipelines to access a more diverse pool of candidates, training to address unconscious bias, and providing diverse employees with access to mentors and executive sponsors. While there has been progress, we still have a long way to go. For instance, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, diversity in the legal profession (at approximately 15 to 16%) still lags behind other fields, such as architects and engineers, accountants, and physicians and surgeons (which generally range from 25 to 35%).

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

KB: At Guardian, we believe maintaining a diverse and inclusive workplace is not only the right thing to do, but that it leads to a competitive business advantage. A key priority for the organization, and this includes the legal department, is to elevate our commitment to inclusion and diversity and build upon a culture where our colleagues not only feel valued and respected, but also challenged and satisfied with their work. We have the same expectation of our partners.

While we want firms we work with to take diversity seriously, we understand it is a joint effort. For example, last January we invited dozens of diverse associates from across the country to come to Guardian for a day. This allowed us to assist in their development by providing client interaction and exposure, something often lacking in associate ranks. This was the product of an I&D Roundtable last summer where members of my staff met with over a dozen law firms to collectively identify opportunities for increasing support for inclusion and diversity. These efforts have paid off as I am proud to say that 41% of litigated matters opened since 2019 were handled by diverse attorneys or diverse-owned firms. But this is just the beginning. Guardian will continue our work to ensure equity and diversity among our law staff and law firms and I am excited to continue that as a recent member of the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity.

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

KB: I joined Guardian during the pandemic. And, after almost five months, I have yet to meet my team in person. We have all had to adapt to remain productive, connected and collaborative during this time. It is teaching us to be flexible and resilient. This new way of working is making us innovate, be nimbler; the department’s metabolism has sped up considerably and we rely on each other even more because we are apart.

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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