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Doing it differently: uncovering

Should you hide your true self in order to progress? GC looks at some under-the-radar areas of diversity through the lens of NYU law professor Kenji Yoshino’s work on covering, and showcases GCs promoting LGBT diversity and social mobility through ground-breaking initiatives.

LGBT and social mobility initiatives

Being part of the story

Insurance and financial services multinational Prudential Financial Inc, has a multifaceted diversity programme, reaching all levels of the company. Executive vice president and general counsel Susan Blount discusses how the legal team is involved.

‘We have a Diversity Council that has employees at every level of the law department represented on it. Assistants, paralegals, compliance officers and lawyers are all part of it, which means that the initiatives it supports are ideas that are coming from every corner of the organisation.

The Diversity Council runs our mentoring programme. It also conducts a town hall meeting every summer where we feature a different diverse group and really spend some time exploring that. Last year, the group we looked at was veterans, the year before we explored the LGBT community, and in prior years we’ve explored the contributions of Hispanics, African Americans and Japanese Americans.

We also do some of the same things that a lot of other companies do: for instance, we measure diversity in our outside counsel; we have an active 1L internship programme; and we are attentive to diversity within our own ranks.

We have designated relationship managers who are liaisons between Prudential and the various minority Bar associations. We have lawyers who participate in the National Bar Association, the National Association of Women Lawyers, the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, and the Hispanic National Bar Association. That makes us visible among many diverse populations. We also go to these organisations as a source of recruiting.

Within the company, we have ‘business resource groups’ that coalesce around different diverse populations. In many cases, individuals from the law department are involved in leadership roles with these groups – one of our lawyers is currently co-chair of the Black Leadership Forum. I think that lawyers have a tendency to gravitate towards leadership positions.

There’s a very exciting organisation here in Newark called NJ LEEP (New Jersey Law and Education Empowerment Project). It’s a programme for high school kids, typically from diverse and low-income backgrounds, who sign up to spend their afternoons after school and Saturdays getting educational enrichment over a four-year period. I serve on the board, one of our lawyers is a member of the advisory board, and others serve as mentors and debate coaches. We host students in the summer to give them the opportunity to experience a business environment. The kids who participate in NJ LEEP are, in effect, opening the door to go to college. Through the programme they gain an experience where people are being supportive of them as they pursue that goal. NJ LEEP also acts as a support network while they’re in college.

We’re proud of the leadership role that Prudential has played in the ‘Inclusion Initiative’ – a collaboration with about 15 other law departments at companies around the US. Each year we set a collective goal for the use of women- and minority-owned law firms. We don’t share our data with each other – the data is maintained by an independent organisation – but we report our results. Over the last five years these firms collectively have spent over half a billion dollars with women- and minority-owned law firms. Some of that money would have been spent anyway, but having a little bit of peer pressure has caused us to focus harder on finding terrific outside counsel in women- and minority-owned law firms.

One of the things that you have to be sensitive to when you’re trying to create a diverse work environment is the danger of alienating people who may feel threatened by diversity initiatives. My advice to other general counsel is to engage everyone and try to find something for everyone on your team to do. That way, your diversity and inclusion programmes become part of the culture of the organisation. In my team, you can join the Diversity Council, be involved in the NJ LEEP programme or our outside counsel committee, and be an engaged hiring manager. Almost everyone in our department can point to something that’s made them part of whatever success we’ve had. You need a tone from the top but then you need to provide opportunities for people at every level to become part of the story.’

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