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The Black General Counsel Project: Sealed Air’s Angel Willis

Dec. 15, 2020, 11:01 AM

Angel Willis, the vice president and general counsel of packaging company Sealed Air Corp., said though the legal profession still has a long way to go in becoming more diverse, there has been forward momentum.

“It can be more diverse and inclusive, so long as more diverse individuals, such as me, apply to and graduate from law school, remain committed (even during tough and uncertain times), navigate career paths, and pay it forward,” Willis 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.

Willis joined Charlotte, N.C.-based Sealed Air in January 2019. Before that, she worked for industrial equipment company Ingersoll Rand for over a decade, according to her LinkedIn.

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?

Angel Willis: Sealed Air’s legal team works on a variety of global, legal and commercial matters that range in complexity, scope, and region and include typical in-house legal work such as litigation, intellectual property, commercial contracts, labor and employment, regulatory, and ethics and compliance.

More recently, our legal team has been involved in crisis management related to Covid-19. Sealed Air is a global company and an essential business with 16,500 employees who serve customers in 124 countries. Working with crisis management teams across the company, we’ve helped to ensure workplace and employee safety, and business and supply chain continuity during these unprecedented times.

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

AW: Lead from a place of courage, not fear. Be authentic and know (and be) who you are. Always look for opportunities to learn, teach, and build trusted relationships.

Get comfortable being uncomfortable—because when you’re uncomfortable, you’re learning, embracing change, and open to different perspectives and solutions.

Use your leadership position to build and inspire teams that will make meaningful contributions and be their best self.

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

AW: I recommend these steps: 1. Work hard to develop a strong legal expertise, sophisticated negotiation skills, sound business judgment, critical thinking and analytical skills, and strong communication and presentation skills; 2. Hone and develop your overall business acumen and become a high performer who creates and adds value to your clients’ business needs and objectives [and] 3. Be deliberate and intentional in developing your network, have an open mind, and be prepared to explore opportunities that present themselves.

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

AW: Embrace the best part of who you are and work to be your best self every day. My legal career is a marathon, not a sprint. And as a former collegiate sprinter, I can leverage my abilities as a “corporate athlete” to be a good teammate, competitor, contributor, and leader.

Treat every legal, business, and personal experience (good and bad) as an opportunity to learn, grow and evolve, and don’t forget to have fun.

The legal profession can continue to be a great career, as long as great people continue to choose it. It can be more diverse and inclusive, so long as more diverse individuals, such as me, apply to and graduate from law school, remain committed (even during tough and uncertain times), navigate career paths, and pay it forward.

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?

AW: While I am extremely pleased that the number of Black general counsel has increased, there is still a great deal of progress to be made.

Meaningful progress will always take time, but I am pleased that many companies, such as Sealed Air, have made a commitment and concerted effort to increase their C-suite and workplace diversity. Many studies have found that diverse teams solve problems faster, produce better outcomes and drive better overall performance, so diversity makes good business sense.

There has been an increase in the number of initiatives and programs (such as the Black GC Initiative and the Ascent Leadership Network), focused on identifying ready-now candidates and developing the next generation of Black general counsel. In addition, sitting Black general counsel and C-suite executives have provided mentoring and guidance, and leveraged their networks and collective experience to assist qualified Black attorneys in finding opportunities within the in-house legal world.

Black partners and leaders at executive search firms have also played a key role in these increases by maintaining a pipeline of experienced, diverse candidates 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?

AW: I am very committed to diversity and inclusion when hiring outside counsel and actively encourage our law firms to make meaningful progress in hiring and retaining more Black attorneys. I believe that our law firms employ incredibly talented individuals, whom when truly committed, are capable of driving more diversity within their respective firms and achieving successful outcomes.

While I am always working to strengthen and re-assess our initiatives and criteria, some of our initiatives are as follows: 1. Identifying and retaining Black law firm partners to serve as the primary relationship partner for Sealed Air legal matters. This provides them with a higher degree of influence, equity, and origination credit within their firms. 2.Working closely with law firms to ensure that Black partners and associates are working on complex legal matters and capitalizing on opportunities to add value and become true business partners to our company. 3. Increasing our spend and partnering with firms that have demonstrated success and commitment to diversity (while decreasing our spend with firms that do not).

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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