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Coca-Cola’s Top Lawyer Takes Spotlight Facing Diversity Decision

April 27, 2021, 5:30 PM

Monica Howard Douglas’ ascension to the top legal job at Coca-Cola Co., 17 years in the making and overshadowed by her predecessor’s departure, leaves her to decide the fate of the company’s outside counsel diversity initiative.

“When there is a leadership change, it takes time for the new leader to review the current status of the team, organization and initiatives,” company spokesman Scott Leith said in an email, which didn’t say whether the initiative would continue. “Monica is fully committed to the notions of equity and diversity in the legal profession, and we fully expect she will take the time necessary to thoughtfully review any plans going forward.”

Douglas’ predecessor, Bradley Gayton, introduced the strict and widely publicized outside counsel diversity guidelines in January, just months after Coca-Cola hired him in September 2020 to replace retiring legal chief Bernhard Goepelt. The guidelines, for instance, call for withholding 30% of fees from outside firms that fail to meet diverse staffing metrics.

Gayton’s short tenure ended last week, when the company announced that he resigned and would assume a year-long strategic consultancy that comes with a payout of up to $12 million, according to a company SEC filing.

The company announced Douglas’ promotion minutes after publicizing the resignation. Although she has also been hailed for her own diversity efforts, Douglas took a different path than Gayton to the company’s top lawyer role. Gayton was wooed away from Ford Motor Co. after three decades with the auto manufacturer, while Douglas climbed the corporate ladder at Coca-Cola over the course of around 17 years.

Douglas takes on the role as Coca-Cola tackles challenges ranging from public pressure over its stance on Georgia’s new voting laws to a $3.4 billion tax dispute with the Internal Revenue Service.

Her promotion makes her Coca-Cola’s first female general counsel and also adds to the number of women in top legal roles for companies in the Fortune 500, which had reached around 30% as of 2019, according to a LawGeex and Association of Corporate Counsel report. Douglas also joins the ranks of roughly 5% of Black general counsel in Fortune 1000 companies.

Her position at the top of a major company makes her unusual, said Carmel Samimi, a former Coca-Cola lawyer who reported to Douglas and now works as Kellogg Co.'s legal director for the U.K. and Ireland.

“When you watch television growing up, when you read magazines and books, a lot of the successful female lawyers were White,” Samimi told Bloomberg Law. “You can’t help but feel inspired when somebody you can identify with—somebody like Monica, who’s a Black female, as I am—really rises to the top because that narrative is infrequent, particularly with major companies.”

At Coca-Cola, Douglas has been responsible for the Atlanta-based company’s Southern and East Africa legal operations and was most recently general counsel for Coca-Cola North America. Last year she also inherited the role of chief compliance officer.

Before joining the company, Douglas was an attorney for credit reporting agency Equifax Inc. and began her career in private practice with Troutman Sanders.

“I met Monica years ago and watched her grow,” said Melba Hughes, a partner and national in-house diversity practice leader for legal recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa. “She cares deeply for the development of her direct reports and others within the department.”

Along with Douglas and Gayton’s new roles, Coca-Cola also announced the addition Jeffrey Gilbert as chief security officer on March 15. Gilbert previously worked for WarnerMedia, LLC, the U.S. Secret Service, and beverage rival PespiCo, Inc.

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: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com
John Hughes in Washington at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com

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