Rick Sinkfield, the chief legal officer of Laureate Education, believes today’s Black general counsel are opening doors for other Black lawyers.
“As more of us gain the experience, then we’re already in the club, which means that we can go other places and the likelihood of a Black candidate filling our position is increased because we were there, particularly if we have a hand in choosing the successor,” Sinkfield 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.
Sinkfield joined Baltimore-based Laureate in 2004 and became chief legal officer and chief ethics and compliance officer this year. The company runs a network of higher education institutions and learning programs internationally that operate both in person and online.
Laureate in September announced it would sell Walden University to Adtalem Global Education in a deal that was lauded for the involvement of a diverse legal team. Adtalem and its outside firms used a group of Black female lead lawyers to handle the deal.
In an October Bloomberg Law story, Sinkfield remarked on the team leaders’ talent.
“They were all partners long before they got to this transaction because they were good at what they do, and it just so happens that they all came together on this transaction. If we had four white guys leading it, nobody would bat an eye,” he told Bloomberg Law at the time.
Prior to Laureate, Sinkfield worked at Sidley Austin and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. He has also taught at George Washington University Law School as an adjunct professor.
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?
Rick Sinkfield: Our company and team are responding to Covid-19 at the legal and operational levels and we are in the midst of a transformational strategic review and divestiture process for the entire company.
BL: What’s the best leadership advice you’ve gotten, from mentors or others?
RS: Lead by example; always read the room; decide in each situation whether you need to be right or successful; be indispensable to your boss and choose your indispensable team member wisely; be the first to listen and the last to speak; always put your people first; don’t sacrifice the team trying to save one person.
BL: What advice would you give you lawyers who want to go in-house?
RS: The company mission and culture matter much more than the work.
BL: What do you wish you knew at the beginning of your career that you know now?
RS: Discover the career paths of the people whose positions you want and emulate those paths if you want to end up there.
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?
RS: We’ve proven that we belong, so directors and other C-level members are more comfortable hiring us. Also, as more of us gain the experience, then we’re already in the club, which means that we can go other places and the likelihood of a Black candidate filling our position is increased because we were there, particularly if we have a hand in choosing the successor.
BL: When you’re looking to hire outside counsel, how does diversity come into play in your evaluation of law firms?
RS: It depends on the matter. When I have new matters, then it’s more of a factor. Any time you hire new counsel there is a risk, so you have to weight costs and benefits of trying out new counsel versus switching counsel on an existing matter.
BL: What opportunities or changes has the pandemic brought to your job and your team?
RS: Remote work presents a challenge to maintaining team cohesion, work quality, and timing and information sharing. We are constantly trying to adapt.
Questions by Ruiqi Chen and Lisa Helem.