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Doing it differently

GC explores what corporate counsel can do to further
diversity – in their in-house legal department, the wider
organisation, or throughout the business world. We pick the
brains of general counsel across the globe about programmes
they’ve pioneered or adopted to create a diverse workplace.
In the first in a series of case studies, this issue we look at
gender diversity.


Lady Lawyers Who Lunch

New York-based American Express managing counsel Wanji Walcott likes her lunch – so much so that she formed an informal lunch group of female in-house lawyers and their private practice counterparts.

Seven years ago, I decided that it would be great if the female in-house lawyers at American Express could get together on a periodic basis. I started inviting them to lunch, and we referred to it affectionately as “Lady Lawyers Who Lunch”. It was totally informal. Most of the time it was really a closed-door, off-the-record discussion about the office, about development, about whatever.

The lunches could be a focused discussion based on an article someone saw and distributed. At the time of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, that was always a hot topic. Our next meeting is coming up and I’ve invited one of my internal clients, who is a senior woman working in a technology organisation, to come talk about her career path in technology and challenges the industry has with diversity. We try to keep the agenda as unstructured as possible. Sometimes it’s just: bring your lunch into the conference room and chat.

Many of us realised that it was pretty much the same two or three men we were dealing with in our external law firms. I came up with the idea that we could expand our Lady Lawyers Who Lunch internal programme to include law firm lady lawyers. We decided that we would invite a mix of firms that we worked with and some we were just getting to know, and have them bring along a few female partners and high-potential female of counsel and senior counsel-level women. I’m not a marketing genius, so we affectionately referred to it as “Lady Lawyers Who Lunch With Law Firm Lady Lawyers”, as a way to distinguish it from Lady Lawyers Who Lunch, which was branded as an internal event.

We tried to be strategic and pull in women in practice areas that we were all working in. It was an opportunity for them to expand their network with in-house counsel who could keep those women on their radar screen. The theory was that when the next matter comes up and you’ve been working with “John” and “Bob” for five or ten years, you can say: “gee, I recently met Suzy, do you think she could maybe work on a future matter?”

I was pleasantly surprised to see that there were some easy things we could be doing to impact the careers of lady lawyers at law firms. These included giving feedback, whether it’s to the managing partner or the head of the practice group, saying that you really view them as a go-to person, someone who you will follow. A couple of years ago, a female partner at a major firm invited me to her partner retreat, where I made a keynote address. I mentioned onstage in front of 1,000 lawyers that I view her as my go-to person and that there’s no question too mundane or too complex for me to throw at her because she’ll always help me find an answer. She ended up leaving that firm and, of course, I followed her. We were a top ten client. I probably haven’t given her any work in two years, but I’ve brought her in and she has developed a book of business within my organisation.

We have heard anecdotally that it has been a really significant way to impact someone’s career. We had an example where a female lawyer was actually promoted to partnership, and a lot of that was attributed to getting strong feedback from us, as a client, in support of her work. As a black, female, senior in-house lawyer, I feel like there is so much more that I could do to impact diversity in the profession. I’m constantly thinking: what is the next thing we can do to move the needle? I think that it is really incumbent on in-house counsel to influence that.’


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