The recent increase in Black general counsel can be attributed to both a growing awareness at corporations of the importance of diversity, and a concerted effort across the legal industry to improve the pipeline of qualified Black attorneys, according to Natalie Lamarque, the general counsel and senior vice president of New York Life Insurance Co.
“Creating a pipeline for Black attorneys to get to these roles is so crucial. GC opportunities are limited and often require one to be in the right place at the right time,” Lamarque 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.
Lamarque joined New York Life in 2014 and was promoted to general counsel in March of this year. She is a former assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, and she began her career as an associate with Debevoise & Plimpton.
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?
Natalie Lamarque: We, along with many other teams across New York Life, are very much focused on Covid-19 both from employee protection and strategic business perspectives. This includes supporting our businesses as they pivot to support our policy owners, financial professionals, and employees during this time. Another strong focus is our company’s efforts related to social justice initiatives.
BL: What’s the best leadership advice you’ve gotten, from mentors or others?
NL: The cornerstones of any successful leader are vulnerability, truth, authenticity, and active listening. While these traits are easy to list, they are not always easy to live. I have been fortunate to learn from a variety of mentors and sponsors, including New York Life Chief Legal Officer Sheila Davidson, who seamlessly exhibit and uphold these characteristics.
BL: What advice would you give to lawyers who want to go in-house?
NL: Learn the business. Your job as an in-house attorney is not to prove you’re smart or able to recite laws by heart. Identify business needs and solve problems. Don’t just answer the questions asked of you by the businesses you serve. Dig into the businesses’ goals and help them get there.
BL: What do you wish you knew at the beginning of your career that you know now?
NL: Chill out. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Realize that your career is a very long arc. If you focus on really enjoying what you’re doing, and the people you’re doing it with, you will have the benefit of contentment instead of just being too focused on the future. Your current situation can be pretty good when you give it the ability to be.
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?
NL: My perspective is that there are two main reasons for the increase.
First, over the last five to 10 years, executives across companies have been learning and better appreciating the importance of diversity, especially in C-suites. There is a growing realization that having more people of color in the room leads to more diverse viewpoints, innovation, and effective problem solving. The work that has been in progress for a while is gradually increasing the pool of potential Black GCs and I anticipate that we will see the numbers increase even more going forward.
Second, there has also been a specific commitment across the legal industry, and in particular among Black and ally GCs and CLOs, to increase the number of Black GCs by identifying candidates for these roles, connecting those candidates to new GC opportunities, and making sure those candidates are adequately prepared to step into these roles. Creating a pipeline for Black attorneys to get to these roles is so crucial. GC opportunities are limited and often require one to be in the right place at the right time. This pipeline has helped facilitate those connections.
BL: When you’re looking to hire outside counsel, how does diversity come into play in your evaluation of law firms?
NL: For the same reasons that C-suites are embracing diversity—the need for diverse viewpoints, creative problem solving, and overall equity—it is just as important that our outside counsel be focused on diversity. We are committed to hiring firms with a sustained and demonstrated commitment to diversity and inclusion and make it clear in our retainers that we give significant weight to a firm’s continued progress in this area. We advise that we may request copies of a firm’s Diversity Policies and information on their diversity statistics. We specifically support minority and women-owned firms. For example, we have a longstanding relationship with a National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms- certified firm. As we strongly believe that increased diversity leads to better results, we use information about law firms’ diversity hiring and engagement as a distinguishing factor in our hiring.
BL: What opportunities or changes has the pandemic brought to your job and your team?
NL: New York Life was able to pivot from having just over 95% of our employees working in the office to having approximately 94% working from home. That comes with both amazing challenges and opportunities. Maintaining our strong corporate culture in this virtual world is crucial. Beyond overcoming the sometimes challenging virtual work environment, individuals are hurting, whether due to the pandemic, today’s social justice issues, or other matters. As both individuals and teams, we must continue to support one another.
Questions by Ruiqi Chen and Lisa Helem.