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The Black General Counsel Project: JetBlue’s Brandon Nelson

Dec. 15, 2020, 11:01 AM

JetBlue Airways Corp. general counsel and corporate secretary Brandon Nelson is steering the company’s legal department through the cloudy skies of the coronavirus pandemic, while also working to grow outside firms’ diversity.

“While we’ve achieved a fair amount of organic success over the years, we’re taking more formal steps this year,” Nelson said of JetBlue’s diversity work in a recent Bloomberg Law survey. “We now require all firms with whom we have a substantial relationship to provide demographic data for all lawyers engaged on our matters at every level of the law firm.”

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.

Nelson joined JetBlue in 2005 as one of the New York-based company’s first in-house lawyers, and he became general counsel and corporate secretary in 2018. Before that, he worked in private practice at firms in California and New York, including Shearman & Sterling.

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?

Brandon Nelson: We’re navigating the company through the most difficult period in our and the industry’s history. Specifically, we’re shoring up liquidity and restoring the public’s confidence in flying. We are also working on an alliance with American Airlines that will enable our growth in the Northeast Region and bring more JetBlue service to additional customers.

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

BN: It’s okay to say “I don’t know,” provided that (i) the question wasn’t one you could have reasonably expected; and (ii) you quickly follow up with a data supported response. The other is smile more.

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

BN: Ensure that you are passionate about the company and you are aligned with its mission. The most significant benefit of going in-house is having a vested stake in the work you are doing and the guidance you provide. If you are not passionate about a company or its mission, that benefit diminishes.

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

BN: The meeting before the meeting is generally when decisions are made.

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?

BN: We should be very proud of this trend. It has certainly occurred at a faster pace than most of us would’ve expected, which is tremendous. Companies and their boards recognize the value of diversity in the C-suite and the legal function in particular. As general counsel, we are charged with acting as the objective, neutral voice in matters that extend far beyond legal. Given that many of us have fine-tuned our fairness antennas, not simply through our education and training but as the result of our experiences professionally and personally, we are well positioned to play the role of impartial counselor.

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

BN: Diversity in our outside counsel is paramount. It’s a priority and focus for our team. While we’ve achieved a fair amount of organic success over the years, we’re taking more formal steps this year. We now require all firms with whom we have a substantial relationship to provide demographic data for all lawyers engaged on our matters at every level of the law firm—from partners to legal professionals. As part of that reporting, we want to know who’s working on our matters and how much time they are spending. In downturns such as the coronavirus pandemic, it’s even more critical to ensure that lawyers of color are getting work and continuing to develop their skills and experience. We also believe in developing talent through our summer associate pipeline program in which we offer paid positions to rising second year law students.

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

BN: I also oversee our environmental social governance work. ESG has provided a significant platform to discuss our long-term strategy and initiatives, including affirming our commitment to go carbon neutral on all domestic flights this year, notwithstanding the current crisis. The pandemic has also provided an opportunity to reassess many of our customer-facing policies and procedures such as change and cancellations fees. Finally, the new normal of remote working required our cybersecurity team to pivot and adjust its 2020 strategic initiatives to focus on endpoint security and crew member education and awareness of potential threats arising from remote working.

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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