Welcome

The Black General Counsel Project: TEGNA’s Akin Harrison

Dec. 15, 2020, 11:01 AM

Trusting his team and building strong relationships with both colleagues and clients have been crucial to TEGNA’s general counsel Akin Harrison.

“Providing high-quality legal advice is the sine qua non for a successful legal career, but networking and developing relationships is also very important to your long term success as an attorney,” Harrison 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.

Harrison joined Virginia-based media company TEGNA Inc., formerly Gannett Company, in 2003 and became general counsel, senior vice president, and secretary in January 2019. He began his career in private practice, according to his LinkedIn profile.

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?

Akin Harrison: We work on a wide variety of matters in support of TEGNA’s strategy and business operations. Recently, we worked with TEGNA’s corporate finance team to complete a $550 million debt offering. We are also assisting our television stations in responding to subpoenas requesting footage of the recent protests for racial justice, working on strategic collaborations with our local broadcasting peers, and reviewing scripts for stories being broadcast on our television stations.

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

AH: Trust your team. It’s not possible to be an expert in every area of law, and there are not enough hours in the day for me to do my job and micromanage all of the matters for which my team is responsible. Fortunately, we have an excellent team of experienced lawyers, which makes it very easy for me to trust them.

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

AH: Learn the business of your clients. As an in-house lawyer, the outside lawyers that are most valuable to us are the ones who understand our business and can provide legal advice while taking our business concerns into account. Learning your client’s business will also put you in good stead to go in-house, where knowing your client’s business isn’t just helpful, but necessary.

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

AH: One thing that I wish I had a better appreciation for at the beginning of my career is the importance of networking. Whether you are at a law firm or in-house, it’s in every lawyer’s best interest to network with potential clients and colleagues. Providing high-quality legal advice is the sine qua non for a successful legal career, but networking and developing relationships is also very important to your long term success as an attorney.

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?

AH: It is difficult to pinpoint why the number of Black general counsel has been on the rise, but I believe that the recent intentional focus on increasing their numbers has played a significant role. The Minority Corporate Counsel Association has been advocating for the hiring, retention and promotion of diverse attorneys in corporate law departments and law firms since 1997 and the Black General Counsel 2025 Initiative was launched in 2017 with the very specific focus of increasing the number of Black general counsel in Fortune 1000 companies. Each of these organizations has contributed to the recent increases, not only through the work they are doing, but by also keeping the issue top of mind for all of us.

Although the number of Black general counsel has been on the rise, and we should definitely celebrate and acknowledge the progress that’s been made, there is still work that needs to be done. I look forward to doing what I can to continue to advance the cause.

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

AH: Diversity has always been important to us at TEGNA, and we take diversity into account in a number of ways when evaluating firms to retain. We typically communicate our desire to have a diverse team work on our matters to our outside law firms. We also periodically request that the firms who do the most work for us provide us their racial and gender diversity statistics so that we can track their progress in these areas. Furthermore, when evaluating firms in order to hire new outside counsel, one of the most important questions we ask ourselves is whether there is a woman or minority attorney who can assist us with the matter.

However, we have recently decided to be even more intentional about how we use diversity in evaluating our outside law firms and allocating our legal spend. We’ve taken a baseline of the percentage of our legal spend that went to women or minority-owned firms and/or to diverse law firm partners. Now that we’ve established a baseline, going forward we intend to set annual targets for the percentage of outside legal spend that goes to these groups.

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

AH: Working from home as a result of the pandemic has required me to be much more intentional about staying in touch with my team. Gone are the days when I could stop by people’s offices or catch them in the hallway. As a result, we’ve instituted a standing weekly meeting to discuss key matters and exchange ideas with colleagues, allowing for continued collaboration even though we’re all in different locations.

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: Lisa Helem in Washington, D.C. at lhelem@bloombergindustry.com Rebekah Mintzer at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com;

To read more articles log in.

Learn more about a Bloomberg Law subscription.