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Bringing diversity to the table

In a series of interviews with some of the top GCs across the US, fivehundred provides insights into the priorities and motivations of the influential in-house lawyers who are included in The Legal 500’s 2019 United States GC Powerlist. For this month’s interview, Helen Donegan, US editor content), spoke with A. Verona Dorch, executive vice president, chief legal officer, government affairs and corporate secretary at Peabody Energy, who shares her views on what she looks for in outside counsel and the importance of diversity in the legal profession.

Helen Donegan: To start off, can you tell me about your role?

Verona Dorch: If I think about what I truly do on a day-to-day basis, I see myself as a ‘crisis GC’. There are any number of critical matters that we are typically working our way through as an energy company, so my job really is to deal with issues in a way that is not harmful to the company, to deal with government and regulators, and to ensure that we do things from a governance and compliance standpoint in an ethical and compliant manner.

HD: In the 2019 US GC Powerlist you are described as a ‘strategic business partner’ to your executive and business teams. What does this mean to you?

VD: For me what it means, and what I believe it should mean for other GCs considering, at the end of the day, that we do work for corporations, is that I see myself as a business person who happens to wear a legal hat at times/have an extra tool in my toolbox. My ultimate job is to ensure we can execute on our strategic plan – whether short, medium, or long term – in the same way as any of those on the executive team reporting into the CEO.

There may be a different set of skills that I bring to the table in terms of being able to identify potential legal or regulatory issues, and my job is to work out how to mitigate those issues or ultimately achieve the same goal. It is also my job to translate that to my teams and to how we contribute to the achievement of those strategic goals. It is very much about day-to-day execution and the business side of it is paramount. The role is certainly different to other legal roles in the sense that our client is the company, and that is where the ethical piece and the compliance aspects come into it. At the end of the day it is a for-profit business and it is similar to any other C-suite role with different skills attached to it.

HD: Does that apply to the outside counsel you instruct, and do you expect them to take on the role of business partner to any degree?

VD: Yes, I would actually say to a very high degree. We went through a convergence process last year and narrowed down our firms from over 100 to just 13, and a very strong thing we discussed with them was that we expected them to be business partners to us, and just as much business partners to our internal clients. There are good lawyers out there at multiple firms, and if I just want to go out there for legal advice there are probably 20 different firms I can go to. But what I felt differentiated the firms we picked is that they take that same ‘business first’ approach and they want to get to know our business.

We have had some firms come in and we have held panels with our operators, and our CFO and CEO were there to explain the business and our strategy so our outside lawyers have a very clear understanding of what we are trying to achieve and so they understand that what we want from them is business solutions. We work with some lawyers to actually get them out to our mine sites. The advice really has to be tailored to what it is we are trying to achieve. We have a lot of regulatory pressures and the advice from them has to be practical.

We are not looking for a 20 page memo on the black letter law or 20 reasons why we can’t do something. If we are bringing an issue to them they have to get in there with us in trying to find solutions and have a good enough understanding of our company that those solutions fit our business and our needs at that particular time. I would much rather get an email or a couple of bullets with ‘here’s how you can do something’ versus a memo that is heavily law focused. If we have those lawyers come in here and spend time with us and with our clients they develop that acumen in terms of our business, and that translates down to the associates they put on our team.

We have also had law firms who send people to us on secondment as we know this is the best place for them to get to know our business. Having their attorneys working for six or nine months within our legal department is a win for us and a win for them. I feel in-house lawyers spend just as much time on strategy and focusing on achieving goals as we do on legal. If you just want to sit in an office and discuss legal advice then I think a company like Peabody is not for you.

HD: You mentioned your convergence process, and in the US GC Powerlist it says that you built a ‘true request for diversity and inclusion’ into your RFP as part of that. Why did you do that?

VD: I look at diversity in multiple ways, whether it is diversity of thought or diversity of gender, LGBTQ, army veterans, or ethnicity. Full diversity. If you don’t have that at the table and don’t have it in the resources you are leaning on for creativity – and if you just have one type of attorney working on your matters – you are not going to get that creativity that you need.

For me it is also about opportunity. I myself am a woman and I’m black and I’m an immigrant, and I know that people gave me opportunities when I might not have been their view of what a lawyer looks like, what a lawyer should sound like, or how they should act. There was a lot of opportunity afforded to me and from a mentoring and sponsorship standpoint that helped me get to where I am today. When I look at the associates working on our matters, and the lawyers that I and my team specifically request to work on them, it doesn’t mean that those associates know absolutely how to do things in the way we are asking them to do it as an in-house team, but I think it is an opportunity for them to develop and learn from us, and for us to learn from them in terms of how to work with different types of attorneys. If we are providing that opportunity it means it is opening the door for them in working with other companies, being able to attract them as their clients, and being able to understand what is important in-house.

I think the profession itself needs to understand – and I do think it is changing – and needs to be more aware of and more accepting of the benefits of diversity just like businesses. You do better when you have diverse individuals and diverse thoughts as part of the team. It’s proven.

HD: So when it came to the RFP with law firms, what were you looking for; was it diversity within their existing teams or were you interested in the ongoing diversity initiatives they take part in?

VD: It was all of the above. We have a relationship partner within each of our firms (and an internal relationship partner within my legal department) and step one with each firm is that I like to ensure those relationship partners are diverse. Some of the historic relationship partners we had were only relationship partners because they were big wigs at their firm and had a 20-year relationship with the company. Sometimes they were not even doing the work. So as step one I wanted to shake things up a bit and make sure we had diversity. Out of the 13 firms we started with about 40% were diverse in terms of women and minorities, and we continue to increase that.

We also look at it in terms of how our matters are being staffed. We request monthly diversity data from the firms to ensure our matters are being staffed in a diverse manner. We have monthly calls with the relationship partners and twice-yearly live meetings (one that is one-to-one with the firm and another that brings all firms together at our company) and as much as we discuss billables, the type of work they are working on, and sharing feedback, one of the very key components of the calls is the diversity data. We talk about how our matters have been staffed, where we see things lagging a little bit, and help them to understand how they can bring some additional attorneys onto these matters or identify opportunities for diverse attorneys to get exposure to us to do some of the types of work that we are doing. So we are pushing that on a monthly basis based on the data. When we first started this we had a lot of resistance from the firms to giving us that data. We are now up to nine out of the 13 firms who give it to us. We are able to go to the other four about the fact that we are still not receiving the data and say that when we redo the RFP in a year and a half it means there is a chance that they are not going to be up there for the RFP.

Also from a diversity standpoint, we share interns with several of our law firms and this summer we had seven interns. Four of the seven were diverse, and they split their time between us and the law firms, so that was an opportunity to give those interns exposure to us even before they potentially join those firms (assuming they get offers). Because they have already gotten that familiarity with us, once they come into the firms those people could be working on our matters.

One last thing that we do as noted above is we meet with the law firms once a year. We meet with them for about two or three hours and on the agenda is meeting with some of their resource groups – their diverse attorneys, their LGBTQ attorneys, their women’s groups. Meeting with those groups and getting that direct interaction means we learn about what we can do differently and hear about what might cause them to leave law firms or what keeps them there. Usually when I go to those meetings I offer the opportunity to talk directly with me and offer mentoring calls. There are about five people right now that I have quarterly mentoring calls with. My goal is for them to stay at their firm so we can build that pipeline and continue to give them work. The number one thing I hear from those attorneys is ‘we need work from you so that we can build our book and so that we can be of value’. At the end of the day that is what is going to keep them at the law firm.

HD: Is diversity and inclusion something you have also championed within Peabody?

VD: It is something that I have absolutely championed. I served for three years as co-chair of our diversity and inclusion group and we are trying to ensure we change the face of mining. We have a large number of people coming into our ranks now who are women. On our leadership team, I joined in 2015 and the new female CFO also coming in was a very conscious decision by the CEO to diversify his leadership team. We were the first women on the executive team. If you don’t have statistics and you don’t have data, and at the end of the day if you are not tying this to people’s goals, things probably aren’t going to change as much as they need to. Right now my push is that we on the executive team should have some type of goals connected to this and should be sending a very clear message to the organisation that this is a commitment. The CEO is also part of a diversity pledge that a number of companies have signed which is put together by PwC. There has to be a message from the top that says that this is important to how we do business. It was refreshing to me having joined the company four years ago that this was the first thing my boss asked me to have a commitment to. I could see his commitment to it and that of the rest of the executive team.

When I am hiring I am very clear that I want to see a diverse slate of candidates as, if I do not see a diverse slate, it is going to be very hard to ensure that my team is diverse. I am very proud of the diversity within my team. I live it, breathe it, speak it and this is probably the thing I am most passionate about and I see the difference it makes from a business standpoint. It goes the whole way up to the board of directors, and I was very proud of the fact that we did a search this year and added a second woman director to our board of ten – and I do not think it stops there. The statistics say that if it is not at least 30% it is very hard to make a difference, so I look forward to adding at least one, and hopefully two, more women to the board of directors over the next couple of years as we have retirements and changes to the board.

HD: Do you think in-house legal teams are more active on diversity and have come further on this than law firms? And is this changing?

VD: Absolutely. Large companies have made that public commitment to diversity and have tried to show – whether through recruiting, sponsorship, or mentoring – that their teams are diverse. I would say we are now finally tackling this in terms of our firms, and if you think about it, we are spending millions of dollars with the law firms so there is real leverage there to achieve that. The partnership between GCs and law firms is the thing that is finally going to get it to change.

I don’t think it is harder for law firms. I think some firms like to believe that there are things about their models that make it more complicated. I do believe there is a better job they can do to make sure their teams are diverse. They need to provide the opportunity to people and then give them a reason to stay at that firm. This GC/law firm partnership should start to push them. I have two law firms that I am going to see next month and I am going to speak with their associates about diversity and why it is important to continue to work their way up the ladder. I feel much more positive about this now. I am more positive about what has happened just this year compared to what has happened in the past five years in terms of the needle starting to move with law firms.

HD: To finish, can you tell me what you are most proud of in your career to date?

VD: It ties into the diversity conversation we have been having. I had gotten to 20 plus years in practice and took a step back a couple of years ago to start to think about what I want my legacy to be. I’ve had a career that I really enjoy and from my own outlook I have been successful, but I wondered what someone would say if they look back about 20 years from now, after I retire. What I am most proud of is really having had an impact on increasing diversity and on making the business case for why that is important with the law firms I am working with (who are top 100 firms for the most part). What I am proud of is that I am not just here to do a job for Peabody, but I am here to develop opportunities for others whom the majority of other lawyers may not look on as ready or polished enough. Through advocating for them and sponsoring I have been able to see those individuals advance their careers. That’s what makes me proud about what I’m doing today, and the fact that my kids and everyone else can look at what I’m doing and say that I’m making a difference.