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The Black General Counsel Project: Modine’s Sylvia Stein

Dec. 15, 2020, 11:01 AM

Sylvia Stein, the general counsel and vice president of Modine Manufacturing Co., said recent shifts in how society views diversity and institutional racism have helped more Black lawyers reach the pinnacle of legal department leadership.

“Once there is a commitment to including diverse talent, it is only natural that the ranks will increase because there are many talented Black candidates that are qualified to fill these roles,” Stein 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.

Stein joined Modine, based in Racine, Wis., in 2018. Prior to that, she worked for Kraft Foods Group, which later became part of The Kraft Heinz Co., for over a decade. She began her career with Latham & Watkins.

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?

Sylvia Stein: In addition to supporting the day-to-day needs of our global diversified thermal management business, the legal team routinely takes on other projects in the spirit of the company’s commitment to continuous improvement. We are currently in the process of training on our recently updated contract management process and record retention policy.

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

SS: The best leadership advice I have gotten was to remember the difference between managing and leading: you manage projects, but you lead people. You have to give people a reason to want to listen to you and follow your lead. To me, that means that I must be engaged with the people on my team and understand why they do the work they do, their aspirations, what they’re good at, and what motivates them—and factor those considerations into the way that we work in support of the business.

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

SS: Going in-house is a great career choice and I would generally encourage lawyers to consider it. However, I do think that there are trade-offs and the work is prone to the same stresses and work life balance issues that are endemic to the legal profession in general. I’d advise interested lawyers to learn as much they can about the type of company or in-house role that they are seeking via research and networking. I also think that outside counsel can learn a lot about the job by just listening to their in-house counterparts, who will tell them what legal advice is important—and what’s not important—to the business.

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

SS: I wish I knew in the beginning that there was more than one path to the same destination—and that you can learn a lot from risk-taking during the journey. I think I was a little too worried about taking a straight path from college to law school to clerkship to Big Law firm to big company. I am grateful for my path and the opportunities afforded me along the way, but there have been a few potentially interesting paths that I never let myself really consider.

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?

SS: In the last few years, there appears to have been renewed focus on the dearth of Black general counsel and law firm partners. Previously, that would have been chalked up to a lack of “qualified” candidates, but that old line just isn’t acceptable anymore.

The more recent increase in numbers is encouraging. I think there has been more intentionality around increasing the ranks of Black general counsel from a number of fronts. I think it is partly because society is changing, and we expect our institutions to reflect the diversity in our society. There has also been growing acknowledgment of the roles that institutional racism and unconscious bias play in stalling diversity and inclusion efforts. More recently, it bears noting that as companies have been quick to profess that Black Lives Matter in response to recent social unrest concerning institutional racism, those same companies have been expected to show their commitment to diversity in their senior ranks and boards of directors.

I also believe that efforts that highlight the issue, like the Black General Counsel 2025 Initiative, spearheaded by April Miller Boise and Ernest Tucker, have really helped to move the needle. The end result is that more and more companies are scrutinizing their leadership ranks and asking search firms to present diverse candidate pools for their general counsel searches. Once there is a commitment to including diverse talent, it is only natural that the ranks will increase because there are many talented Black candidates that are qualified to fill these roles.

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

SS: When choosing a firm, I consider the firm’s prior work for the company, proficiency and expertise in the area, plan and budget for the matter, and the proposed legal team. I ask about diversity and review the diversity of the proposed team. For most new matters, I will require that diverse attorneys are working on the team or matter. There have also been times when I have decided not to engage a firm due to its lack of interest or understanding of the importance of diversity in staffing matters.

More recently, I have been talking to diverse lawyer organizations to identify diverse attorneys across various practice groups so that I have this information readily available when considering firms. I am also benchmarking and brainstorming with members of several GC networks to identify additional steps I can take to drive diversity in our outside counsel ranks.

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

SS: The pandemic was a trial by fire. Although we had to do a fair share of on-the-spot crisis management, legal was an integral part of the process to mobilize and do what needed to be done. The pandemic also provided an opportunity for several members of the legal team to shine and be recognized for critical support to the business during a critical time. Additionally, like most companies have reported, our team enjoyed the increased family time and proved itself to be quite productive and efficient while working remotely.

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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