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The Black General Counsel Project: Norfolk Southern’s Vanessa Sutherland

Dec. 15, 2020, 11:01 AM

Recruiting firms have become a “critical resource” for increasing the number of diverse lawyer hires, according to Vanessa Sutherland, the chief legal officer of transportation company Norfolk Southern Corp.

“Boards and C-suite executives have demanded that recruiting firms deliver competitive, exceptional talent. Therefore, those firms needed to identify talent from previously untapped resources such as diverse bar associations, broader college rosters and recommendations from diverse attorneys,” Sutherland 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.

Sutherland joined Norfolk Southern, based in Norfolk, Va., in 2018. She was promoted to executive vice president and chief legal officer in April. Prior to that, she worked for the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board and the U.S. Department of Transportation.

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?

Vanessa Allen Sutherland: Like most companies, especially those deemed essential during the pandemic, Norfolk Southern is handling novel issues related to Covid-19, involving employment, contractual, regulatory, records management, insurance, and legislative issues. For example, our team summarized and revised state orders that were in conflict with our essential work status. We continue to manage ongoing litigation, corporate governance, claims, real estate, labor and employment, vendor management, and legal operations issues that help NS achieve its strategic plan objectives.

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

VS: Empower people. Let them learn by doing and occasionally by failing or learning from mistakes. Hold people accountable but meet them where they are. Everyone is not identically ambitious but can still play a critical role on a championship team. Find their contributions and amplify their strengths. If you communicate goals clearly and often, an empowered team can run the plays. One of my favorite guideposts is a quote from Nelson Mandela: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

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

VS: Know why you want to go in-house. In-house work is as complex as law firm work, with relief from tracking the billable hour. Talk to people in-house; read a company’s public disclosures to understand its challenges; be comfortable with eventually becoming a generalist; appreciate that there’s no “they” or “them” in-house as your finances are tied directly to the success of your company. Build a resume that shows business accomplishments rather than completed tasks.

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

VS: I’ve taken risks, albeit calculated, in my career. I’ve had the benefit of sage counsel from a network of accomplished lawyers who invited me to join their group. They stressed that law and life is a relationship business. I believed then, and know now, that you are in a race with yourself for growth, never perfection. Treat people well, as though you will see them again in 20 years — because you will.

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?

VS: The expectations of board directors, investors, CEOs, applicants, customers, and society have heightened the need for companies to reflect the country’s changing demographics.

High-profile discrimination litigation and social media have accelerated awareness of an employee’s or consumer’s concerns about diversity, forcing companies to re-evaluate hiring. Younger talent pools are making employment decisions based on the diversity of a corporation’s executives and board. Whether companies believe a diverse workforce is a moral imperative or a financial and business one, they have set goals for hiring diverse candidates and retaining talent in a culture focused on inclusion.

I’ve observed the role of headhunting firms evolve to be a critical resource for expanding executive searches from narrow, regional slates to diverse, national searches. Boards and C-suite executives have demanded that recruiting firms deliver competitive, exceptional talent. Therefore, those firms have needed to identify talent from previously untapped resources such as diverse bar associations, broader college rosters, and recommendations from diverse attorneys.

Transparent conversations have been occurring for years regarding why the legal profession remains one of the country’s least diverse. Organizations like Leadership Council on Legal Diversity, in which I was a Fellow, or Charting Your Own Course, have given junior to mid-career lawyers invaluable resources and encouragement to remain in the profession long enough to compete for general counsel roles.

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

VS: Norfolk Southern is deeply committed to diversity and inclusion, both internally and with our vendors. Our outside counsel guidelines state that we believe a culturally sensitive, inclusive, and diverse workplace is better suited to serve our needs and produce superior results.

Outside counsel who handle NS’ legal work must embrace and integrate these values as key components of their business models. NS looks favorably on law firms and lawyers who provide pro bono legal services and demonstrate strong, visible commitment to the community. I and the newly created legal operations team review firms’ diversity and inclusion efforts, including profile and trend reports, matter staffing, recruitment and retention, promotion, and succession.

Norfolk Southern engages in periodic discussions with many of its firms to facilitate an ongoing dialogue about diversity and succession planning. These conversations provide candid insights about our expectations and the firms’ progress in these areas. With the issuance of our recently revised outside counsel guidelines, we conducted a survey and asked firms to describe their progress with diversity and inclusion in the past five years and their succession planning strategies. The varied results offered insight into diversity and succession planning with a level of detail we did not have until now.

We also have enacted a robust RFP process seeking bids on several bodies of work over the last year. This process allowed us to be more intentional and proactive in retaining firms that demonstrate a commitment to diversity through their staffing of our matters.

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

VS: Our team has been working remotely since March 2020. We had an amazing transition to laptops, iPads, various meeting platforms, and new substantive work. There has been virtual collaboration to assure the correct staff are looped into decisions. We’ve highlighted that we are capable of working differently well and of continuing to support the company with little disruption. Opportunities include finding creative, consistent ways to stay engaged and deepen work relationships without daily, organic interactions.

Questions by Ruiqi Chen and Lisa Helem.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ruiqi Chen in Washington, D.C. at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rebekah Mintzer at;
Lisa Helem at

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