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PepsiCo’s Investment in Underrepresented Law Students

July 6, 2021, 8:00 AM

Despite decades of well-intentioned diversity and inclusion initiatives, the legal profession remains one of the least diverse. For organizations looking to change this, PepsiCo’s legal department is a role model leading the way when it comes to effective diversity pipeline programs through its Larry D. Thompson 1L Diversity Fellowship.

The program aims to diversify the profession by providing underrepresented law students with opportunities to work on sophisticated legal and business matters, develop lifelong professional relationships, and build strong leadership skills.

Diversity Lab, an incubator for innovative ideas that boost diversity and inclusion in law, spoke with Michele Thatcher, senior vice president and chief counsel, Global Human Resources at PepsiCo, about the Thompson Fellowship.

How Did the Larry Thompson Fellowship Program Develop?

Larry D. Thompson was a visionary general counsel for PepsiCo., where he served from 2004-2011 and again from 2012-2014. One of his most important missions was to promote diversity in the law. Long before legal departments were requiring firms to fill out diversity surveys, Thompson was asking critically important questions about the diversity of our outside counsel.

In 2016, after he retired, the team at PepsiCo developed the Larry D. Thompson 1L Diversity Fellowship, a 10-week summer internship for underrepresented first-year law students, to continue Thompson’s work and honor his legacy.

Who Are the Fellows and How Are They Selected?

The fellows are 1L law students from law schools nationwide. We publicize the fellowship in as many law schools as possible to get the most diverse applicant pool.

In 2021, we received applications from over 90 law schools. Historically, we’ve selected two to four fellows, but we’ve recently increased the size of the program to seven students.

In selecting fellows, GPA and class rank are considerations, but not determining factors. We want to know each student’s story and how they will use this opportunity to advance diversity in the profession. To date, we’ve had 23 accomplished fellows who have demonstrated a true commitment to diversity.

What Kinds of Projects Do the Fellows Work on?

We want to give the fellows a taste of every area of our business so they can explore a variety of areas of law. In addition to exploring their own interests, fellows can spend the summer answering contract questions with our IP group, working on M&A deals, and answering questions for the marketing team.

Fellows also are assigned to intern teams to solve a business challenge and act as a GC offering business advice and navigating legal risks.

The program concludes with a “capstone” project, which overlays the business challenge with related legal issues. They then have to present recommendations to an “executive committee” with PepsiCo’s GC and other senior leaders. Although still students, they’re acting as strategic partners.

Who Do the Fellows Work With in the Legal Department?

Having interactions with different people exposes the students to a diversity of styles and helps them learn what works—and doesn’t work—for them. They’re assigned an “attorney in charge” who acts as their point person for the summer, as well as two mentors to provide more opportunities for connectivity.

They work with subject matter experts for their capstone project and get time with different lawyers through lunch and learns. The students also work closely with a team of attorneys for their capstone project and spend time with our GC and deputy GC, so it’s a high visibility program.

How Do You Measure the Fellows’ Achievements?

When we grade ourselves, we ask, are the fellows getting through law school, and are they practicing law?

Particularly for those who are not at the top of their classes, these are important success metrics. Our attorneys stay in touch with the fellows, and we’re proud to say that all of our fellows have gone on to graduate and practice law or are on track to do so.

Many have been hired by our partner law firms, helping to increase the pipeline of diverse attorneys in firms. One of our 2020 fellows, Matthew Chang, noted, “I started the summer as someone with virtually no business acumen. This fellowship gave me the exposure and experience I needed to better understand how I can help the clients I’ll be working with at my law firm next summer.”

Stories like that are a huge marker of success for the fellowship.

Chang, who is attending Northwestern Pritzker School of Law (Class of 2022), is working at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP this summer.

What’s Next for the Fellowship?

We’re evaluating how to scale the program internationally to ensure we’re addressing diversity gaps within the company anywhere they exist. We recently had classes of successful fellows at our PepsiCo legal offices in Australia. We’re discussing how to expand in both Canada and Thailand this year and broaden our global expansion even further. The Canada and Thailand programs went live earlier this summer and we are planning to have the first fellow in the U.K. in late June.

We’re also considering ways to partner with outside counsel to provide more opportunities for fellows to ensure they’re competitive with other on-campus interviewing candidates for their 2L summer.

Advice for Corporate Legal Departments Considering a Similar Fellowship?

First, I would encourage legal departments to do this because it not only helps to improve the broader legal community, but it will have tangible benefits for your legal department. The fellowship has generated more interest and focus by our internal legal department on the importance of diversity than any other initiative. It has also fostered our lawyers’ professional development and given them the chance to strengthen their own skill sets by conducting interviews, overseeing projects, reviewing work product, and mentoring future lawyers.

Second, I would advise legal departments not to overthink the process. If you have an engaged team who sees this as a business imperative, the rest will fall into place.

You don’t have to start with a perfectly designed program; you can make adjustments and course-correct as you go. It’s about progress, not perfection. The most important thing is that you just get started.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Natalia Marulanda is Diversity Lab’s Mansfield Rule & Knowledge Sharing manager, where she co-leads the Mansfield Rule certification program for more than 120 law firms in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. She has more than a decade of experience working with multiple stakeholders in the legal community to build a more diverse, equitable and inclusive legal profession.

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