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The Black General Counsel Project: Schneider National’s Thom Jackson

Dec. 15, 2020, 11:01 AM

Logistics company Schneider National, Inc.‘s general counsel Thom Jackson said the best advice he’s received in his legal career taught him to play for the team, not just for himself, and to never ever become complacent.

“Early in my career, I met a law partner who gave me two pieces of advice—stay humble and stay hungry,” Jackson recalled 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.

Jackson joined Schneider, based in Green Bay, Wis., last year as general counsel and executive vice president. Before that, he worked for technology companies Knowles Corp. for five years and Jabil Inc. for a year.

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?

Thom Jackson: General counsel and corporate legal departments have been faced with unique challenges as a result of Covid-19 and an ever-changing legal landscape and business environment. Generally speaking, employment and human resources, contracts and litigation, and issues related to privacy and data security continue to dominate both my and my team’s workload. I also continue to play a role in coordinating Schneider’s Covid-19 response including, building consensus on our policies which pertain to working remotely.

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

TJ: Early in my career, I met a law partner who gave me two pieces of advice—stay humble and stay hungry. By humble, he meant that with any success that you may achieve during your career, you should acknowledge that your success can rarely be attributable solely to any individual’s achievement. It’s about the team. A true leader always deflects or shares credit where credit is due. By hungry, he meant that you cannot be complacent. You have to bring your “A” game every day and to every matter, exude confidence not arrogance and be prepared to take calculated risks in your career because doing those things will bring recognition and distinguish you from others.

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

TJ: Whether it’s about timing, practice area and opportunity, compensation, control, or permanency, there are any number of factors to consider. Lawyers should ask themselves whether they enjoy working on a wide range of legal issues and don’t want to be pressured to specialize. How important is perfection to them? In my experience, in-house practice is more about risk management and doing the best you can with the time allotted than delivering a perfect deliverable.

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

TJ: To be effective as a counselor, as an adviser, or as an influencer, it is absolutely critical to invest the time to learn the business as well as—if not better than—those who run the business. That is the advice that I impart to everyone who works with me.

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?

TJ: It may well be that companies have focused more intently on C-suite diversity amid the recent national dialogue on race and equality. Certainly, the business case for diversity is now well-settled—diverse leadership teams drive better outcomes, and the GC position is an ideal place to start because there is a deep and broad talent pool of experienced minority lawyers in nearly every industry. Whatever the reasons for the increase, I support and applaud the progress. Any Black GC in that 5% will tell you that it’s lonely being one of a few and how you pine for peers who look like you to connect and network with. I certainly feel that way.

As for changes in the past few years that may be contributing to the recent uptick, I would suggest that there could be two driving factors. First, in response to calls from shareholders, legislators, and other stakeholders for increased diversity in their boardrooms, from gender, to age, race and ethnicity, and professional background, the percentage of minorities and women on the boards of the largest public companies in the United States has also edged up in the last few years. This turnover, small by any measure, nonetheless has shone a positive light on minority executives. Second, there’s the number of successful Black and other minority executives who have recently gained prominence across the spectrum of industries, not just limited to entertainment, but healthcare and finance. I think industry is slowly awakening to the notion that in order to attract and retain talented executives of color, it will need to visibly demonstrate a commitment and track record of doing so.

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

TJ: Historically, diversity has not been a consistent or enduring factor in my evaluation of law firms. I have always ascribed to the philosophy that I don’t hire law firms; I hire lawyers. I will hire the best lawyer that I can identify whom I am convinced can and will deliver the legal outcome that best serves my client. It’s that simple. I would never compromise the likelihood of achieving my objective to achieve diversity. That’s my philosophy.

However, I understand the moment—and the opportunity—before us. I have always been sensitive to issues around diversity, equity, and inclusion in business. In recent months, I have become even more attuned to them. My criteria for evaluating outside counsel has continued to evolve and, if the number of Black general counsel is indeed growing, the opportunities to select more diverse and inclusive talent will be able to thrive in new ways for businesses like ours.

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

TJ: Although Schneider is one of the largest surface transportation companies in the country, it has not been immune to the impacts of Covid-19. Companies like Schneider, who have invested in automating their quote to cash processes, have benefited from being able to rapidly shift their focus toward sectors where demand has increased as a result of the pandemic. Legal has followed the company’s lead and also been aggressive in leveraging technology to automate our process to deliver legal services.

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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