The journey to the top

Women of color continue to be underrepresented in the legal profession: those who have managed to successfully climb the corporate ladder have had to overcome significant barriers. GC shares the stories of women of color and their journey to general counsel.

On 25 May 2020, the murder of 46-year-old George Floyd made international news headlines. What followed were nationwide protests against police brutality that would ultimately make the Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations a global movement.

In response, corporate America was quick to condemn social injustice and racial inequity. Companies and law firms vowed to re-examine their own diversity and inclusion initiatives and make tangible commitments to hiring, developing and promoting a more diverse workforce.

Time for change

One of the most under-represented groups in the legal industry is women of color. Those who have made it to the upper echelons of the legal profession have defied the odds, and their climb to the top has not been easy.

‘According to the US Census Bureau, the legal profession is the least diverse profession in the United States. When you look at racial/ethnic representation at the partnership level, the numbers are dismal – only 6.6% (Source: NALP). These numbers do not reflect the diversity of this nation,’ says Laurie Haden, president and chief executive officer of Corporate Counsel Women of Color (CCWC), a not-for-profit organization focused on advancing female attorneys of color and fostering diversity within the legal profession.

‘Over the years, law firms have sought to combat this problem with unconscious/implicit bias training and other programs and initiatives. Unfortunately, not much progress has been witnessed over the last 20 years.’

‘We have all had these conversations in private, but now we are bringing them into the workplace.’

However, the global pandemic, together with the BLM movement and a fraught political backdrop, has made this a defining moment in history. Ashley Page, former general counsel at Learfield IMG College and current chief compliance officer at Endeavor, believes that people are now ready to acknowledge the need for change.

‘I really think that we are at a watershed moment in this country with respect to issues of race and gender. People are tired, frustrated and angry. There has just been a lot to deal with during the last presidency,’ she says.

‘Everything is just at a boiling point. So I think, for the legal profession, it has pushed many of us to take sides and discuss difficult topics within our professional circles. We have all had these conversations in private, but now we are bringing them into the workplace. It is pushing us to lead, it is igniting a fire under many of us to use our talents to help tilt our country in the right direction at this pivotal moment. It is pushing us to really question what we can do and whether we should be doing more as members of the legal profession.’

I didn’t know you were black

Traditionally, the legal profession has been a white-male-dominated industry. Despite more women entering law school than ever before, it is important to recognize that women of color continue to face a unique set of barriers.

‘I have lost count of the amount of times I have walked into a conference room to meet with a group of people who I have only emailed with or have spoken to on the phone. I have lost count of the amount of people who have said to me, “Oh, I didn’t know you were black? I talked to you on the phone, I didn’t know you were black?”, says Page.

Among the biggest challenges for women of color when navigating the legal profession are implicit and explicit biases. Page explains how these biases can often begin at law school.

‘I have lost count of the amount of people who have said to me, “Oh, I didn’t know you were black?”‘

‘Getting into Harvard Law School straight from college was a huge deal for me. It was just not the type of opportunity that was usually extended to people who looked like me, and came from where I came from.’

‘When I got there, I was so proud of myself and everything I had accomplished. But I immediately felt that my credentials and the validity of my presence were being questioned by my peers. There was an assumption that the only reason I was there was because I got an affirmative action spot. I was a black woman who did not come from an Ivy League, I did not go to a Exeter, therefore they could not accept that I was still their peer intellectually.’

Despite initially getting angry about having to face such assumptions, Page explains she was able to rise above being stereotyped. But having her credentials continually questioned was something she faced again when entering private practice.

‘Being told to work harder to fit in at a firm in order to position myself to get better opportunities was just one of many barriers I had to face,’ she recalls.

‘I have evolved to a point in my career where I am able to hit those issues head on, having risen up the legal ranks. Now I have the ability to impact people who might be having those types of experiences – by leading by example, and fostering the diversity and inclusion initiatives to help ensure the types of experiences I had become non-existent for the next generation. It has not always been an easy road, but being open and honest about my experiences lets other people know they are not alone.’

Where did you come from?

Despite running a legal team of approximately 30 people, Phyllis Harris, general counsel, chief compliance, ethics and government relations officer at the American Red Cross, shares how she has managed workplace prejudices.

‘In 2017, a former employer asked to meet an attorney who was visiting in-house counsel. I was to help him do the rounds and make sure he was across the assigned work. When I walked into the room this person – who is a good person – was talking to a colleague and the colleague stood up, because in terms of hierarchy I was higher in the ranks.

‘I stuck my hand out to introduce myself. He thought I was the assistant to someone in my organization. I was senior vice president, I had been practicing law at the time for more than 30 years, and I could not believe it. It was not just that he thought I was the assistant to the person who worked for me, he was confused and asked: “Where do you come from?”

Women of color are more likely to be subjected to bias.

‘As I tried to explain to him where I had come from, he remained confused. He asked me this question several times. What this showed me was that in 2017 he had very little interaction with women of color in the legal profession.’

In the end, Harris was able to develop a good rapport with the person and explain her position. Yet, she admits that this conversation illuminated a much larger issue. Although the legal profession has made some progress, women of color are more likely to be subjected to bias.

‘This is the change I am waiting for. We have brilliant people who come from extremely competitive law schools with incredible pedigrees. And it doesn’t matter where I came from – it matters that I am here now and this is who you are dealing with.’

Use your own imagination

Taking control of your career and being proactive is important for all legal professionals. Kimberly Banks MacKay, general counsel and corporate secretary at West Pharmaceutical Services, believes that means not letting others determine your opportunities.

‘Every successful woman, person of color, or anyone with a diverse background, has definitely experienced bias, either explicitly or implicitly. By way of example, early in my legal career, I was working at a company, and my own boss told me that I needed to accept the fact, that since I was now “a mother”, I was never going to be general counsel because anywhere.’

‘So given the clear bias, I believed him. I believed that I had no future at that company and got myself out of there. My point is I did not wait. Once I knew that my future would be limited by this person, I made the decision to leave. I have no problem assessing and accepting the realities around me and make my decisions based on that. Otherwise, I would be giving other people too much power over my career.’

MacKay is adamant that young lawyers should not internalize other people’s biases.

‘Early in my career, I saw a lot of talented lawyers become mired in self-doubt because of other people’s view of their capabilities. I was determined that was not going to be me.’

‘I recognize people have biases but, in the end, I am not going to let people’s perspectives limit the belief I have in myself. I like to say that you should  never let your career be limited to someone else’s imagination. Just because they can’t envision you as something or somewhere, it should not affect YOUR ability to  envision yourself in that way. So when somebody thinks I can’t do something, it just gives me fuel to make sure I get it done.’

For the love of law

Both law firms and companies have much to gain from employing diverse teams. Research indicates that diverse legal cohorts are more innovative and outperform teams that are not diverse.

‘Studies also show that companies that have diverse management teams are more profitable. This is a no-brainer. Why would any company or firm not readily diversify? With a diverse and inclusive workforce, you will have more voices of different cultural, racial and ethnic backgrounds that can have input on a case, a law and/or policy,’ says Haden.

Yet attrition rates of minority attorneys have remained high. So many women of color have managed to beat the statistics and navigate difficult workplace cultures by making their own opportunities.

‘Being a female lawyer of color, there are challenges along the whole way. I believe you have to set your goal, believe in yourself and think about building a network around you with people who have done what you want to do,’ explains Wanji Walcott, chief legal officer and general counsel at Discover Financial Services.

‘It is also very helpful to have a broad network. You need to surround yourself with people who can give you tough love when you need it. But, more importantly, find people who you can trust and are willing to help you.

‘I think diversity and inclusion is trendy right now. It is almost like a fashion trend you find in Vogue. But the reality of the situation is that real change is going to take a lot more time, effort, investment and resources.’

‘You have just got to keep at it and let people know of your goals and aspirations. One of three things will happen: they are either going to be supportive and help you; they are going to block you; or they are going to be neutral. You will be lucky if they are somewhere between neutral and helping you. If they are blocking you, you may not be in the right place.’

Minority GCs who have navigated their way to the top of the legal profession have been passionate about the law and about ensuring the next generation has fewer barriers to overcome.

A movement not a moment

For the women of color who have shared their journeys to the top, discussions around diversity, equality and inclusion are more than a passing fad, and it is an imperative for law firms and corporations to follow through with real action.

‘I think diversity and inclusion is trendy right now. It is almost like a fashion trend you find in Vogue. But the reality of the situation is that real change is going to take a lot more time, effort, investment and resources. All that work is going to take a lot longer than any trend will last,’ explains Page.

Walcott agrees that more work is needed to achieve sustainable and lasting change within the legal profession.

‘It really is a matter of sustaining that momentum now and making sure it wasn’t just a moment, but a movement that will be supported over time,’ she says.

Ultimately, while conversations around boosting representation have been important, many leading general counsel, such as Harris, are still waiting for the profession to make more lasting advancements.

‘What is happening now in the world has been a wake-up call for many in the legal profession. We have heard a lot of great statements, but I am still waiting on more definitive action,’ says Harris.

‘With Covid we have seen women leave the workforce because they are responsible for looking after children and homeschooling. It is important to recognize that this has been an important time to not only see the race piece come into play, but also the gender piece. When you put the gender and race piece together, it has been an even bigger wake-up call for black women.’

Real, sustainable change has been hard to implement, even when firms and corporations make great pronouncements about their commitment to D&I initiatives, says Haden.

‘Diversity and inclusion must be more than lip service and quoting what the company’s handbook and policy state. To recognize sustainable change and impact, corporations and law firms must be committed to walk the talk. We need more people to take the lead and more companies and firms need to work to ensure D&I is ingrained in the culture, and not just left on the shoulders of one person.’

Through real action, leaders in the legal profession have a responsibility to take individual ownership of their DE&I efforts. These efforts are key to engraining this movement into the culture of organisations to create change not only in the legal profession, but within the wider community and beyond.

Breaking Barriers and Building Community: Corporate Counsel Women of Color (CCWC)

When Laurie Haden moved to New York City in 1998, she was the only African American woman at her firm. As a young attorney she felt isolated and alone. Haden quickly sought out other lawyer friends who, although working at different law firms, shared her struggle.

‘There was a huge void and, as a result, women of color in our profession galvanized around the idea of having a safe place and space where they could talk about their chal-lenges at work without judgement and formulate strategies for advancing their careers,’ she recalls.

Having grown up in a predominantly African American community, being in the minority was a new experience for the young lawyer – her community always had an abundance of positive role models.

‘Our neighbors were doctors, lawyers, educators, business owners, and we even had a Black general who lived up the street. It was not until I moved to New York City that I first experienced being a minority or “the only one.”’

‘Based on my upbringing, I knew something was greatly wrong with this picture. I also noted that women of color lawyers were leaving the practice of law altogether. I just be-lieved there had to be a solution and that something had to be done about the problem.’

What started off as a group of 10 women having dinner to discuss their careers and share advice very quickly evolved into a much larger network.

‘This was all before Facebook and LinkedIn. We had no way of connecting except old-school style – face to face and via telephone. My directory (named the “In-House Counsel Women of Color Networking Directory”) would serve as the link to connect us and fix the problems of feelings of remoteness. When I sent my email to the 10 people, they in turn ended up sending it to five people they knew. Well, by the end of the week, we had found 50 women of color attorneys in New York City.’

‘I printed the Directory and made copies of it at Office Depot and added a side VeloBind. I then mailed the 50 women a copy of the Directory. By the end of the month, we had found

100 women – and so on and so on. We connected with women in Los Angeles, San Fran-cisco, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Washington, DC and Atlanta. By the end of the year, we tapped into 1,000 in-house women of color.’

In 2005, when Haden was working as assistant general counsel at CBS Broadcasting, Corporate Counsel Women of Color (CCWC) officially became a not-for-profit professional trade association.

‘The organization has grown from 10 to over 4,500 members who work in multiple indus-tries and sectors of Fortune 1000 and Forbes 2000 companies around the globe. I created CCWC to fill a void and advocate for the advancement of women of color attorneys in the legal profession. Through CCWC, many law firm women of color partners have been able to create a viable book of business, which has resulted in sustainability. And several of our members have advanced to the general counsel ranks of Fortune 1000 companies (such as Vanguard, Allstate, Albertsons, Denny’s, Mary Kay, Motion Picture Association, Google, just to name a few).’

Currently, Haden serves as the organization’s president and chief executive officer. She also undertakes all chief legal officer duties, including advising on all legal issues, and works closely with the board of directors. Diversity and inclusion starts at the top, and with plans to expand, Haden believes CCWC’s next frontier is to have members serve on the boards of directors of Fortune 100 companies.