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INTERVIEW: KAREN ROBERTS
GENERAL COUNSEL, WALMART

Walmart general counsel Karen Roberts has been a long-standing champion for diversity, both within the businesses she serves and amongst the wider legal community. She shares the initiatives Walmart have been implementing internally, as well as her thoughts on how major corporates can leverage their size and standing to effect change.

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image of Karen Roberts

Business wins when we welcome and embrace diverse backgrounds and perspectives.

Walmart’s commitment to diversity and inclusion is an outgrowth of our corporate culture and basic beliefs of respect for the individual, service to the customer, excellence and integrity. As a global retailer, we look towards diverse perspectives to understand the needs of millions of customers and members who shop in our stores and clubs and online every day in locations around the world. Not only is diversity the right thing to do, it is also great for business.

Just imagine if we failed to consider diversity when determining what products to sell. Without diverse perspectives, we cannot remain relevant in a rapidly changing world. An inclusive workplace that supports the success of all its associates and reflects the diversity of our customers produces better results and is the foundation for business excellence.

When it comes to promoting diversity, our in-house legal team has a responsibility to lead by example both internally and externally. As of October 31 2016, Walmart Legal employed 155 in-house attorneys, 43% of whom are women and 30% of whom are attorneys of color, including 18.5% who are women of color. Furthermore, four of our department’s top seven leadership positions are currently held by women, two of whom are women of color. While these statistics place us above national averages for diversity in corporate law departments, reaching diversity milestones alone is not enough because inclusion can be harder to achieve and more difficult to measure.

Our mission is to be the highest performing, most trusted, and most respected global in-house legal department by consistently delivering excellent legal services through a diverse, inclusive, collaborative, problem-solving team. We want to ensure that Walmart Legal is not only diverse but also a great, inclusive place to work for all its attorneys and professional staff. To this end, in 2015, we established a leadership council on diversity and inclusion within Walmart Legal. The 14-member council is charged with helping oversee our strategy for creating a more diverse and inclusive legal department and implementing diversity and inclusion programs.

Internally, we are focusing on training, development and career progression for our attorneys and professional staff and succession planning. Our efforts aimed at increasing inclusion and associate engagement at all levels throughout the department have included educating and training our attorneys and professional staff to have greater awareness of potential obstacles to inclusion such as unconscious bias and micro-inequities.

Walmart has a history of supporting programs that expand the pipeline of future lawyers. We have increased our focus on law camps and other programs that introduce diverse student populations, from junior high school students to undergraduates, to a law career and the doors it can open.

Because of Walmart’s scale, our in-house team has the ability to do more than just bring about change internally. We also have the opportunity and responsibility to impact the profession as a whole through support of external initiatives. In the words of our CEO, ‘We’re at our best when we promote diversity across our supply chain.’ We apply a similar philosophy to our selection of outside counsel.

In 2005, Walmart Legal began to use its size and scale to bridge the diversity gap in our outside counsel firms. Early initiatives included increasing diversity among the attorneys serving as our relationship partners. Today, we have approximately 200 women and diverse attorneys serving as relationship partners at our outside counsel firms and controlling a significant portion of our annual legal spend within their firms.

In 2015, we launched Walmart Ready – an outside counsel onboarding program. It was designed to educate women and diverse outside counsel about our business, legal operations and unique corporate culture, while affording them an opportunity to connect directly with our in-house attorneys. The goal of the program is to ensure that we are fully utilizing our diverse pool of available outside counsel and enabling them to be successful in handling Walmart matters. Thus far, the results have been promising. Within a few months after the initial onboarding session in 2015, over 25% of the firms that participated had received a legal assignment. We held the second Walmart Ready event in September of 2016 and look forward to hosting future events.

image of Walmart store

We also participate in NAMWOLF’s Inclusion Initiative. Along with more than 30 corporate law departments, we pledged a portion of our annual legal spend to minority-owned and women-owned law firms. Over the past six years since the Inclusion Initiative began, member companies have spent an aggregate total of more than $1 billion with minority-owned and women-owned firms.

In addition, we require our outside counsel to promote and support balanced work arrangements. We recognize that lack of work-life balance can disproportionately impact retention and advancement of women in their legal careers.

To measure the effectiveness of our programs, we use data and analytics to capture indicators that are useful in charting progress such as our legal spend with women and diverse attorneys. We expect our law firms to demonstrate their commitment to diversity and inclusion and actively develop women and diverse attorneys for advancement within their firms. To ensure this is being done, we review overall law firm demographics, demographics of the firm’s Walmart team, and hours billed by diverse attorneys, among other data.

While we rely on data, diversity metrics are only part of the picture. We have forged strategic diversity alliances with many diverse bar organizations. Our support of these associations and their initiatives and involvement in their programs and events benefit the profession and enrich our associates in ways that are not easily measured.

We are proud that Walmart Legal is one of the most diverse legal departments in corporate America. Like many other successful movements, achieving greater diversity at Walmart Legal required commitment and did not come about overnight. Our size and scale set us apart from other companies and provide a unique platform from which to address the lack of diversity in the profession and make a difference.

Our support and promotion of diversity and inclusion have had a positive impact, but overall progress within the industry has been limited, and there continues to be too little diversity in the legal profession. Companies must be candid in assessing where they have fallen short. While the United States becomes more diverse every year, the profession has not kept pace, and many of the challenges remain the same.

Over the course of a one year period beginning in 2015 and concluding in 2016, I served on the American Bar Association’s Diversity and Inclusion 360 Commission created by ABA President Paulette Brown. The Commission analyzed diversity and inclusion in the legal profession and the judicial system. Subsequently the ABA developed action plans, and produced and promoted the use of practical tools including a Model Diversity Survey. Collaborative efforts such as these that are designed to have long-term impact on advancing diversity and inclusion keep me optimistic that, collectively, we will transform the legal profession into one of greater opportunity.

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