Gail Sharps Myers, executive vice president, chief legal officer and chief people officer and secretary, Denny’s

Diversity is great for business: it makes the team richer and drives innovative thought. A team composed of so many different perspectives can view problems from all different angles.

There has been a movement among lawyers for years to improve diversity, equity and inclusion. I have been practicing law for over two decades and the fact that we still need to have this conversation proves that the needle has not moved far enough.

Caught on tape

Right before the pandemic hit, there were a lot of discussions around DE&I in all fields, including the legal profession. Over the last two years, there has also been great social unrest and social justice campaigns that have forced societal inequities to come into the light.

The experience of the African American person – irrespective of economic status – is pretty similar, so what happened with George Floyd was not news to anyone in the community – but it was news to people who live outside of the community. From a social injustice perspective, it highlighted to people outside the community what has been happening on a regular basis. The fact that the incident was caught on tape was what galvanized the movement.

People in corporate America also started to take notice and question: ‘Why is representation of people of color not reflecting the national population?’

This is leading to a lot of productive conversations that we did not have before, for example, conversations around children of color and what opportunities they are being exposed to from kindergarten all the way up to college. There is also a real discussion around why law firms and companies struggle to retain diverse staff.

Casting a wide net

One thing I have always been passionate about is retention. This seems to be a problem that many law firms face. In my experience, when minority associates hit their fourth or fifth year in law, many of them choose to leave their jobs. Some decide to move in-house, whilst others choose to leave the profession completely.

As a profession, we need to make changes and address why this is happening. I would love to see law firms invest more in their diverse associates. It is not enough to hire them; firms have to be intentional in investing in their progress.

I would love to see law firms invest more in their diverse associates. It is not enough to hire them; firms have to be intentional in investing in their progress.

This requires a lot of work, and it is not about ticking boxes. It requires real commitment and investment from every facet of an organization. When employees feel as if they belong to a team, they tend to not only be happier, but are more willing to be an advocate for the law firm or company.

Similarly, hiring also needs to be intentional when attracting diverse talent. Although I do believe that the best person for the job should always be hired, executives and boards need to make sure they are casting a wide enough net to attract people from different backgrounds and experiences.

The truth is, you do not have to have a specific target when you cast a net for a job. I like to bring in the best candidates and, if the net is cast wide enough, that should also include a diverse pool of lawyers. This is what I have done and, in my department, we have a mix of age groups, ethnicities and backgrounds.

The go-getter

In the legal profession, I believe all women face a certain level of gender discrimination when entering the workforce. Women are generally viewed as weaker and not aggressive enough. Their skills and abilities are constantly questioned. Even though this is unfair, it is the reality that women in the legal profession have to face.

However, when it comes to women of color in the legal profession, discrimination becomes twofold. Not only are women of color faced with gender bias, they are also faced with racial bias associated with the diverse backgrounds they represent.

We have all heard of the ‘angry black woman’ trope. The perception that women of color can be ‘too aggressive’ when choosing to be assertive is very unfortunate. When a majority male is in the same situation, their aggressive attitude is considered an asset, and that person is perceived as ‘a go-getter’.

What navigating this stereotype means for women of color is that unless you are working with a team of colleagues who are progressive and forward thinking, you have to be aware of this perception.

For example, when I was in private practice, I was setting my materials down in a conference room filled with white men. This was fine and not a problem, I was ready to do my job. But as I entered, one of the white gentlemen asked me to get some coffee.

I said: ‘Absolutely, I will call my assistant to get us some coffee. Would you like her to bring anything additional, such as creamers or tea? We can have her come in and do that for us, while we get down to business.’

My hope for the future is that people will think twice before making an assumption.

Moving up the ranks

The way I have managed to overcome the barriers faced by women of color in the legal profession has been by having purposeful conversations and building meaningful relationships. Having authentic conversations with colleagues is so important. Once things become personal and you share stories about your kids and family, it is very easy to build purposeful connections.

In fact, I believe building meaningful relationships is more important than having a mentor or networking. The terms ‘mentoring’ and ‘networking’ are a little too casual. What is better than a mentor is being able to build a relationship with someone who is willing to invest in your upward mobility.

It is beneficial to take the time to get to know people on a personal level. Individuals are more willing to invest in your career progression if they feel connected to you.

In law firms, when a partner really wants to invest in an associate, there will be invitations to dinner, invitations to play golf and invitations to parties. Once you break bread with someone and talk about your children, pets and life, people open up and become engaged.

The same thing is true in the corporate environment. It is beneficial to take the time to get to know people on a personal level. Individuals are more willing to invest in your career progression if they feel connected to you. I tell all my young associates to be their authentic selves at work. It is the only way to truly succeed and progress your career.

You can be replaced

Also, it is really imperative for young associates to understand that expectations need to be managed. This might be a bit controversial, but having a job is a privilege and there should be no expectation that ‘this job should be mine’. This job is only mine because I do it well and I am happy to have it. Just like anything else, this job can be lost.

While I think my talents are appreciated, none of what we do in any field is rocket science and I am easily replaceable.

I do believe that people of color, and people in majority firms and corporations, need to learn a bit of flexibility. Change is difficult, but holding the view that we should run operations a certain way because ‘that is how we have always done it’ is unproductive. It is also a very inflexible way of doing business. If attorneys and business professionals open themselves up, they may find a better way of doing business, which may also be more inclusive.

Lisa LeCointe-Cephas, senior vice president, chief ethics and compliance officer, Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp. (“MSD”)

Diversity, equity, and inclusion can mean different things to different people, but to me, as a woman of color, it means that all voices are heard, and all voices get the opportunity to contribute. It is also about seeing people like me in positions like mine.

An awakening

Over the last two years, the whole world has been reminded that life is short. One of the many things that the pandemic did was to shine a light on the realities that we have been experiencing as women and people of color.

Especially in the United States, but also around the globe, there has been an awakening.

Race and diversity have come to the forefront. but, I want to make it clear that we, as the underrepresented, have always known that it was there.  Unfortunately, it took  the filming of blatant racial injustice and persecution to force others to see it.

Finally, those in the majority and in seats of power have started to recognize the disparity and inequity facing underrepresented minority groups. So, the shift we are seeing is that others are listening, and that is manifesting itself in invigorated and new efforts by law firms and corporations to make DE&I a priority.  It is an new embracing of diversity initiatives and goals.

However, time will tell if that intent to change will become a reality.  Unfortunately, attention spans and societal memory is often short, and we need to make sure that initiatives to fight injustice and inequity do not become a forgotten fad. Therefore, corporations like mine, law firms, and industry organizations need to set goals that accelerate DE&I and invest in those programs for the long-term and at all levels.

When they bet against you

To be a Black female lawyer is to face, head on, every single day, micro and macroaggressions – and to constantly prove people wrong when they underestimate your worth and talent.

Growing up, my mother would often tell me that I would have to work two, three or even four times harder than others for half the recognition, because people would see my race and my gender, and they would bet against me.

I always knew that to get to where I wanted to be, there was going to be a lot of fighting and hard work. I could tell you a lot of stories about my hair getting touched, people thinking that I was in the room to serve the coffee, and so on.

To be a Black female lawyer is to face, head on, every single day, micro and macroaggressions – and to constantly prove people wrong when they underestimate your worth and talent.

But the most important thing is to keep going and to be resilient. Although progress can feel very slow, if you continue to be resilient, the contributions you make will help propel the DE&I movement forward. The hope is that one day, the representation we see at firms and companies will reflect that of society.

Change will happen if you continue to show up.

You are good enough

It is important for women of color to ignore that little voice in their head that says ‘You do not belong’ and ‘You are not good enough’. My main advice is do not invite it in – it has no place in your journey.

There is an unfortunate statistic showing that women and people of color will hesitate to reach for a goal or apply for a job unless they think they meet the criteria for that job perfectly. Unless they meet all of the job requirements, they simply will not apply. Whereas a cisgender, heterosexual white man will apply for a job even if he only meets a few.

It is really important that you believe that you are good enough. If you are fighting for change and are doing the work to push your career forward, regardless of what anyone else is saying, you need to trust your own competence.

One of my favorite analogies comes from world champion racing driver, Mario Andretti. When a journalist asked him how he was able to win so many races, Andretti said: ‘Don’t look at the wall.’

If we, as lawyers of color, are always focused on challenges – the wall – we lose sight of our destination.  It is far more productive to focus on what you are doing, and where you are going.

Be the change

I am very passionate about breaking down the barriers that exist for women and underrepresented groups. As companies, and as a legal profession, it is crucial to understand the need for varied perspectives.

As the Chief Ethics and Compliance officer at MSD, diversity, equity, and inclusion are a big part of what I do. Broadly, we are ingraining DE&I into our company’s ethos. We are fostering a culture of inclusion and making it part of people’s performance evaluations. You cannot be a good leader unless you embrace DE&I.

The most important thing about making DE&I a priority is putting KPIs in place. Making sure that we have something tangible when we discuss diversity initiatives is paramount.

More specifically, we have very clear diversity initiatives and staffing policies with respect to our legal network. When working with law firms, we incentivize them to embed diversity into their teams. And, we have diversity awards that we present to counsel who reach our agreed diversity goals.

The goals we set are specific to each law firm and are based on what the firm is lacking. Are you lacking in female representation? Are you lacking in Black representation? Are you lacking in Asian representation? From this, we set diversity goals that the firm must reach. A financial incentive is also included for those firms that reach our goals.

Aside from that, within our company, we provide networking opportunities and mentorship programs to our underrepresented ethnic groups. We partner our internal talent with external talent at law firms to provide more opportunity to build skills, and broaden career resources inside the firm and company.

The most important thing about making DE&I a priority is putting KPIs in place. Making sure that we have something tangible when we discuss diversity initiatives is paramount. From a business perspective, it pays to have diversity and diverse perspectives in the room.

Work in progress

There is still a lot of work that needs to be done and a lot of opportunities to create in order to have a more equitable legal profession. I believe that law firms and corporations need to develop formal programs and not just passively hope change is going to occur organically.

Part of changing things is providing people with access to someone they may not otherwise come across within their own social circle, for example, providing access to members of a board of directors. It is important to meet individuals at the top who can advise you on how to develop your own career during your professional journey.

We also need to provide people with the skills that they need to be successful.  For example, at law firms, young lawyers should be taught how to win business and how to talk to clients, and they should be provided with opportunities that will prepare them to become a law firm partner one day.

Keeping track of who is provided with which opportunity is key to holding each other accountable. It is important that companies keep track of what roles women and people of color play in the workplace – and make sure there is a conscious effort that they are given the same opportunities as others in the team.

DE&I is a team effort—everyone must play their part.

Rick Sinkfield, chief legal officer, chief ethics & compliance officer, Laureate Education, Inc.

My personal experience, and certainly the experience of my family, really shows the positive impact education has made when it comes to gaining opportunity. I do not mind sharing that only one of my grandmothers was able to attend teaching school, and that was under very dire conditions during segregation in the United States.

My grandmother faced legal and de facto restrictions on her ability to travel within the U.S. and never could barely imagine traveling outside its borders, yet within a couple of generations, her grandson became the chief legal officer for a company that, at one stage, spanned 30 countries.

This really shows that in the span of just 50 to 60 years, education can change your family situation. Even more inspiring is, if you can replicate this thousands, or hundreds of thousands of times – you can change society.

Such massive change can seem like a daunting task. But you have to start with one family at a time, one institution at a time. That is how society can move forward.

Making it affordable

As a company, Laureate has always been on a mission to create opportunity for its students, faculty and community. We believe that access to affordable, quality education is essential to increasing opportunity.

Although the history of our company has been global, we now work in Mexico and Peru, where we educate a combined total of about 380,000 students. Many of the countries that Laureate has operated in have suffered from vast inequality. There is this nexus that the more people you bring into the economic livelihood of a community, you will, by definition, promote and expand diversity.

Laureate is a for-profit company, so unless we can deliver quality educational experiences to our students, the students won’t come. We know very well that our services have to be affordable. Moreover, our institutions have to be of a certain quality as well.

We know people get educated not just for the value of that education, but for what that education can really do for them in their lives. So, it is important to ensure that our students get a return on investment.

There is this nexus that the more people you bring into the economic livelihood of a community, you will, by definition, promote and expand diversity.

For example, when we were operating in Brazil, our universities had some of the highest enrollments for minorities and women. But, diversity in the Brazilian legal profession was lacking. A group of local lawyers started a program  to encourage Black, or Afro-Brazilians, to join the legal profession. As a company, we were very quick to partner with this program to get our graduates additional training and to give them the best chance to compete in this highly competitive profession.

There is the social aspect of education, but there is also the economic aspect. The two are interrelated and that is why we focus on quality and affordability. Different markets have different needs. The US market is the most expensive market in the world; this model does not work for other countries. So we adapt. Some countries offer very little financing for non-public education, so that is a huge driver for us to make things affordable.

Leveling the playing field

When it comes to building a more diverse and inclusive legal profession, the first barrier is the difficulty of getting positive exposure to who lawyers are, what they do, and what are the many avenues that a career in law can provide.

There are a lot of good people trying to make the profession more inclusive. But the profession, by its very definition, is designed to be exclusive. You have to take difficult entrance exams and professional exams. It’s all designed to make entering the legal profession even harder.

So, when people make it through law school the question is not who gets to become a lawyer, but who stays a lawyer? Retention is an area that often gets overlooked. People have to ask: are diverse lawyers getting the same exposure and making it to the higher ranks of management?

It is important that diverse lawyers do get the opportunity to move up the corporate ladder. If you do not have diversity in the people who make laws and the people who enforce laws, you will get unequal results. One group will be favored over the other – and we have seen that happen time and time again in countries around the world, not just in the United States.

Institutions are made up of people, and if you want institutions to grow and enterprises to be effective, then people have to be happy.

My legal team has always been diverse. At one point, my group was about 75% women and that was across lawyers and non-legal staff. I am very proud of that, because it has been in countries where the barrier for women to achieve senior leadership roles is even higher than in the United States.

In the past, we have also intentionally focused on diversity among our interns so that we are training the next generation of diverse lawyers. That includes diversity in gender, race and economic disenfranchisement. Interestingly, when you focus on economic disenfranchisement, you can end up impacting other cleavages of inequality.

You are welcome too

Institutions are made up of people, and if you want institutions to grow and enterprises to be effective, then people have to be happy. People are speaking up now. They are saying that their beliefs, goals and wellbeing should not be separate and subservient to some corporate or institutional goal that they did not help to define.

An interesting example, which I think is going to become more common generally, is gender identifiers in your email signature block. This is a strong social shift that I can see taking place at universities. Universities tend to be ahead of everybody because they have young kids who are cementing change.

A few years ago, I attended a planning meeting at a large U.S. university. As we went around the room all of the students, faculty and administrators introduced themselves, while also sharing their pronouns: he/his/him, her/she/hers, they/them, etc. Now, I have seen this shift happening within corporate circles and in business meetings.

I never had to grapple with feeling shut out due to my gender identity, but over time I have realized that what is important is the community. If people are telling you they do not feel welcome, you need to listen. If I introduce myself using gender pronouns, I am signaling to others in the community that they are welcome.

This is a critical pivot in worker management and corporate behavior. The key is to listen and try to make the workplace an environment where everybody can excel on their merits and performance. You cannot sustain a world in which people are forced to work in ways that they believe are antithetical to their very existence, to their very being.

If colleges and workplaces are willing to have the tough conversations, we are moving in a positive direction to building more diverse, equitable and inclusive workplaces.

Harvey Anderson, chief legal officer and corporate secretary, HP Inc.

I’m a proud alumnus of Marquette University and during my time there, I was enrolled in the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) that motivates and mentors first generation college students. Although I was studying Engineering at the time, EOP’s director, Dr. Arnold Mitchem, changed my life by inspiring me to pursue a career in policy – and the rest is history.

There is no excuse

The numbers tell the story here. 2020 American Bar Association research shows that 37% of US lawyers are female, 5% are Black, 5% are Hispanic and 2% are Asian. We have a lot of work to do to increase diverse representation in the law. There’s no excuse. We must break down barriers and lay an open pathway that attracts, welcomes and cultivates diverse talent.

The lack of intentionality compounded with ineffective processes are the biggest barriers that I see. Clients haven’t historically demanded diverse talent. Recruiting firms, driven by client requests, go to the same networks that don’t necessarily include diverse talent pools.

However, the tide is turning, due to the demand for diversity from many organizations, especially after the 2020 racial equity movement.

Being intentional

Diversity, equity and inclusion have to be part of a company’s core values. At HP, we believe in the power of diversity to drive innovation. This means diversity in thought, background and experience, as well as the traditional dimensions of diversity. This has led us to assemble one of the most diverse board of directors in tech. We even went as far as testifying in front of the California State Senate to support legislation that would require diversity in corporate boards. We also have a very diverse executive leadership team, with 53% total minorities and 30% women. Together, they make up the backbone of our DE&I infrastructure that propels us to make meaningful progress over time.

At HP, we believe in the power of diversity to drive innovation. This means diversity in thought, background and experience, as well as the traditional dimensions of diversity.

A tangible example is how our leaders have rallied behind our ambition to become the world’s most sustainable and just technology company. As part of that, we set some of the most ambitious DE&I goals in the tech industry – such as to achieve 50/50 gender equality in leadership by 2030 and meet or exceed labor market representation for racial ethnic minorities in the US– and launched an inaugural Racial Equality and Social Justice Task Force.

Working towards a better future

Diverse leadership matters. It creates a domino effect, where everyone becomes more intentional at hiring and retaining talent. It also fosters a mindset of change to eliminate processes and policies that have historically held underrepresented groups back. In other words, we must affirmatively adopt processes that reduce unconscious bias and create a more inclusive and welcoming environment. It’s a journey, not a destination.

Last year in my legal organization, we started requiring 50% of our candidates to be diverse. One of the ways we make that happen is by partnering with organizations like the Black General Counsel 2025 Initiative (BGC) and the National Bar Association. Ultimately, we want to be certified by Diversity Lab under the Mansfield Rule. When candidates are interviewing, we intentionally put together a diverse panel to get a well-rounded perspective.

Internally, we remain committed to creating a sense of belonging for all of our employees. This requires paying attention to a host of small and large practices to retain the talent we want and need.

Externally, the legal department has a ‘holdback’ program, which has been in place since 2017, and it requires our US-based law firm partners to maintain minimally diverse staffing on HP matters. The compliance rate doubled from 46% at launch to nearly 100% today.

While we’re proud of our progress, we are constantly evaluating opportunities to push the envelope.

Where we all belong

My vision is to build a workplace that has a strong sense of belonging and inclusion so we can help our business reach its full potential. This means DE&I must be a business imperative, not a ‘nice-to-do’. It will require all of us to step up, become change agents and question the language we use, the assumptions we carry and the seemingly benign processes we use that may actually work against our goals.

Finally, in our efforts to find the best talent, we must refrain from only looking at a portion of the total talent pool. We believe, as shown by many studies, that diversity improves business outcomes. It’s not a zero-sum game. When we champion diversity, we all succeed in the long run.

Ernest Tuckett, co-founder of the Black General Counsel 2025 Initiative, and vice president, associate general counsel, Verisign

I have had mentors that saw valuable qualities in me that I did not see in myself.

I have been very fortunate in my career. I spent many years at a law firm before making the leap to in-house counsel and, during my journey, I ended up meeting mentors who saw leadership potential in me.

They foresaw that I had the ability to take on stretch assignments outside of my focused disciplines, and roles as an executive leading teams. Over my career, I have led  a number of legal teams in leadership roles including as General Counsel for the Americas region of a chemical company and in my current role reporting to the General Counsel of a global public company.  I believe I have made good on all those opportunities that my mentors and managers have entrusted to me. I am so grateful to all the folks who have seen something in me and supported me for opportunities and promotions and hired me into leadership roles. This is one of the reasons that I am passionate about giving back and helping others on their career paths. It was a driving impetus for me co-founding the Black General Counsel 2025 Initiative (

Labor of love

It all started in the summer of 2017, at the annual convention of the National Bar Association. During an event of the Commercial Law Section, I was asked to give a presentation about the ‘State of Diversity in the In-house Bar.’ In the talk, I challenged the Black general counsel in the audience to set an aggressive goal and work together to increase the number of Black GCs in Fortune 1000 and other large companies.

In the audience at the time was April Miller Boise, then general counsel of Meritor and now general counsel of Eaton Corp., both Fortune 1000 companies. Together, we founded the Black General Counsel 2025 Initiative. The Initiative is a labor of love to help other talented lawyers receive the benefit of mentoring and networking. Our primary aim is to draw attention to the talented Black leaders in the legal profession who are ready now for top level general counsel roles.

Our initiative creates a strong network by connecting current and former Fortune 1000 general counsel with aspiring Black legal leaders. The Advisory Council has developed a list of the key skills required to secure a top-level general counsel role. Through the Initiative, we share general counsel job opportunities with various corporations, and we create connections with executive recruiters who lead those searches. This gives the members of the cohort of the initiative a chance to put their names in the hat and be considered when opportunities arise. We currently have a cohort of 41 legal leaders in the initiative.

The community created by the Initiative is also a good resource for recruiters or anyone who wants to find diverse talent. One of the hardest parts of moving up the corporate ladder is knowing about opportunities. High-level jobs are rarely advertised, and we rely on our network to help make these job openings known to the lawyers in the cohort and in the Black legal community generally.

Meaningful mentors and the power of networks

Mentoring is so important to grooming future leaders in the corporate world, and this is especially true for underrepresented groups, such as women and racial minorities. Not every lawyer will get the chance to become a general counsel, but when selecting the pool of people who will get exposure to opportunities to expand their leadership skills and qualify for general counsel roles, we need to strive to make sure there is diverse talent in that pool.

Having a mentor and a champion in my hiring manager and first boss at DuPont was a game changer for me, and that is why I tell everyone that mentors are so important. Various mentors in my career have helped me see my own leadership potential and they have guided me through some low moments when my confidence was shaky and I could not envision myself doing bigger things.

Mentoring is so important to grooming future leaders in the corporate world, and this is especially true for underrepresented groups, such as women and racial minorities.

I have given back by mentoring many others. I am proud to say that a number of my mentees and former direct reports are now general counsel and/or hold leadership positions in national and international corporations.

Networks are powerful resources. Networks include a wide variety of people at all different levels from a cross-section of areas who have some common connection to us and provide a bridge to opportunities and to other people who can do the same. Strong networks include people who will put our name forward for opportunities. It is critically important that rising attorneys have networks that include people who will help them move along their career paths.

One of the simplest ways to create more diversity is to make sure that people not traditionally thought of when discussing future leaders are intentionally included. Building a network of Black rising leaders, as we strive to do in the Initiative, creates a pipeline of diverse talent for leadership positions. Providing diverse talent with a realistic road map on how to become general counsel will inspire more lawyers from different backgrounds to prepare themselves and aim for leadership positions.

In the right direction

When thinking of ways to help increase diversity, we all have to start somewhere, so do not despise small beginnings. If your efforts enable you to hire even one or two diverse employees, that will make a difference. People tend to gravitate to the places where they can find allies and people who look like them. In my own career, I have seen that employing diverse talent leads to more diverse talent in the workplace. When an organization has diverse lawyers, especially at the leadership level, they attract other diverse employees to the organization. Most people in underrepresented groups do not want to be the ‘only one’ at their company on in the department.

There is a past history of women and minorities being excluded from professional opportunities. The current statistics demonstrate that the number of women and minority executives in Fortune 1000 companies remains low. Ultimately, we need professional diversity initiatives aimed at trying to address any lasting effects of the past exclusion of underrepresented groups. Our goal should be trying to level the playing field for everyone in the future.

Having major corporations and law firms engage in intentional effort to find diverse talent when opportunities arise will go a long way towards making the profession more equitable.

Overall, many companies and law firms state that having a diverse team is critical to them performing at their optimal level, based on various studies supporting this conclusion. There is evidence that the legal profession is trying to create more opportunities for underrepresented groups. Over the years, we have seen improvements for some groups but, for others, including Black professionals, improvement has been lagging.

Having major corporations and law firms engage in intentional effort to find diverse talent when opportunities arise will go a long way towards making the profession more equitable. The Black General Counsel 2025 Initiative is striving to do our part to answer the common question of “where is the diverse talent?” In addition to the 41 members in our cohort, our website ( has two lists of current and former general counsel which include more than 200 names of Black lawyers who are or have been general counsel of a range of companies. One of those two lists is the Fortune 1000 and Global 1000 Black GCs.

I ask recruiters, CEOs, and hiring managers to visit our website and contact us when looking to find diverse talent for a GC or other legal leadership search, and for board director positions as well.

The Black General Counsel 2025 Initiative plans to help increase the number of Black GCs by focusing on:

  • Identifying all current and former Black GCs in the Fortune 1000 and other large companies
  • Setting forth ideal core criteria to be a successful GC
  • Using the criteria to identify ‘ready now’ Black GC candidates
  • Connecting Black GCs and ready now candidates to new GC opportunities and to executive search professionals who focus on GC recruitment
  • Connecting ready now candidates and new Black GCs to each other, and to mentors and advisers, to help with their searches and career paths

Wanji Walcott, chief legal officer and general counsel, Discover Financial Services

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) has been a passion point for me for a number of years, starting well before I was a general counsel. What I liked to do, earlier in my career, was bring together women lawyers for information sharing, to boost each other up. When I did that informally, prior to becoming a general counsel, I realized there is a lot of power that in-house counsel hold. I realized we could do the same thing with respect to women who are outside counsel.

Taking responsibility

So, I created an informal program where we could have lunch with some of our top law firms and ask them to bring their high potential female counsel, senior associates, and female partners, so we could get to know them.  Also, if we were giving out work, we could make sure that the women we were getting to know across our law firms were afforded the same opportunities as their male counterparts. From there, we decided that we were going to send letters to managing partners at law firms in support of women who had done great work for us. That is something that I still do.

Fast forward to being a general counsel, I signed on to the Mansfield Rule certification program, which is all about promoting equity and inclusion, normally within corporate legal departments, but also at law firms.

In our department, we are measuring all that we do in terms of interviewing, hiring and the extension of offers. We are also making sure that, when we have any high-profile assignments, we have a diverse plate being considered to make sure that we are thinking broadly and not just going to the usual suspects but developing our talent across the board.

I always felt like it was my responsibility as in-house counsel to have an impact on law firms.

I feel like what I am seeing now, post-George Floyd, that it is still my responsibility because I do think I can have an impact on change. But I also feel like law firms and other corporate legal professions are taking a great deal of initiatives to drive change in their own organizations. So, I feel like there is much more accountability and purpose now than there was previously.

It is not to say that there weren’t people who were focused on DE&I previously, but I feel like last year we were at this inflection point where everybody was really focused on it. So, it really is a matter of sustaining that momentum now and making sure it wasn’t just a moment but more of a movement that will be sustained over time, with everybody focused on it.

Setting your sights

I knew from very early in my legal career that I wanted to be a general counsel. I knew I loved being in a corporate law department, and I loved in-house practice. A general counsel I worked for very early on said, ‘You could be a general counsel one day’, and I believed them. I had my sights set on that, but I did not know any general counsel who looked like me. Over time I would meet other general counsel by going to conferences, sitting in the audience and hearing their stories, tactics, and tips for getting themselves ready to be a general counsel. I would just be like a sponge, taking it all in.

Just getting feedback and finding people you can trust, and who are willing to help you is key.

It’s about setting your sights on a goal, and then figuring it out. I did not know every step of the way exactly how I was going to do it, but I stayed the course. People would say to me, ‘Maybe you should aspire to be a deputy-level lawyer and how do you know you are going to be a general counsel?’ Honestly, I didn’t know. I just knew that was what I wanted to do, so I never took my foot off the gas.

Obviously, you do not get into one of these roles without great sponsors and people who took a bet on you, believed in you and supported you. I am fortunate to have had a lot of people who believed in me and supported me along the way.

Leveraging relationships

Honestly, being a female lawyer of color, there are challenges along the whole way. Every stage or role and level has its own set of unique challenges, and you have to set your goal, really believe in yourself, think about building a network around you – hopefully of people who have already done what you want to do. For me, it’s really important to have a broad network and really think about who inspires me, who can help me get to where I am going, who can give me a bit of tough love when I need it and challenge me to do more of this or do less of that. Just getting feedback and finding people you can trust, and who are willing to help you is key.

I am fortunate, because I am not that much of a pioneer. There are other people who have done this before. Not many, but certainly some.

I do not think I have faced any unique challenges being a Black female in a general counsel role. But I think there have been micro-inequities or subtle things.  For example, some people may make assumptions about you or pass you over for opportunities that you know you are qualified for, in favor of someone else.

But you cannot let that deter you. You just have to keep at it and let people know of your goals and aspirations. Not every day, but people need to know what you desire to achieve.

One of three things will happen: 1) they are either going to be supportive and help you; 2) they are going to block you, or 3) they are going to be neutral. You will be lucky if they are somewhere between neutral and helpful. If they are blocking you, you may not be in the right place, and so you have to take that into account as well.

Beyond the four corners

No matter where you are, whether you are starting out or in a mid-level or senior role, first and foremost you have got to be excellent. You have to work hard, you have got to put in the time and the energy. Once you nail the four corners of your job and you are working hard and you are excellent, then you pick your head up a little and you figure out what is important in your organization.

Is leadership important? Are “extracurricular” activities important, like belonging to employee networks, or doing pro bono? Are they all important? You just have to figure out what is valued within your organization.

No matter where you are, whether you are starting out or in a mid-level or senior role, first and foremost you have got to be excellent. You have to work hard, you have got to put in the time and the energy.

I also think relationships are really important. When I was early in my career, I thought I could just work hard and put my head down and people would somehow magically notice that. Well, sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t. So, you have to think about your relationships and develop those, and think broadly about those relationships. Do not just anchor and invest in one relationship but think beyond your direct manager. If you are in-house counsel, foster the relationships with your business partners that you are supporting. If you are in a law firm, build relationships with colleagues, firm management and the external clients that you are supporting,

Think about developing those relationships and then, finally, find ways to add value. Not just being reactive and reacting to things that hit your desk. Think about how you can proactively support your business partners by looking around corners and understanding trends, understanding their goals and how you might be able to help them achieve their goals.

Even beyond the four corners of your role, think about all the ways you can add value. For example, I organized the lady lawyers, where we started out just having lunch.  We weren’t really talking about business, we were talking about how we manage our personal lives, children, husbands or partners, parents, etc. It was informal and we were just getting to know each other, but it added value because we were able to provide support to each other.

In two previous jobs, I started pro bono programs that are still going strong today. They are award-winning and I am very proud of them – they are like my children.  That was another passion point for me and that’s something I did to add value beyond the value I was adding as a lawyer working on M&A transactions, for example.

The opportunity to pursue your dreams

There is always an opportunity to add value and always an opportunity to lead, even if you are not a people leader. There are ways to be a leader and there are ways to conduct yourself like a leader. I think there is just an abundance of opportunities out there in every organization, but people sometimes don’t take advantage of them.

Whether you want to be a general counsel or managing partner, or you want to just do what you are doing, people make choices in life. But I think everyone should have the opportunity to pursue and succeed at what they are doing. Along the way, people may say you can’t do it, or that it’s going to be hard. I would just encourage people not to be deterred, because you actually can do it. If I can do it, anyone can do it. I do not just say that, I really believe that. So, I would just encourage people to pursue their dreams.