Alex Dimitrief, general counsel, General Electric

Alex Dimitrief, general counsel of multinational conglomerate General Electric, talks about the importance of rethinking your talent pipeline, and how even the small steps as a manager can make a world of difference to building a more diverse team.

As a white man, I don’t scream diversity. But as the first-generation son of Russian immigrants who came to the US in the 1950s, I know all too well what it feels like to be a minority. When my parents came to America, they didn’t speak a word of English. Despite being highly educated (English was their fifth language), I saw them be treated as if they were stupid simply because they struggled to express themselves in a language other than one of their own. This experience shaped my character and how I think about diversity, both personally and professionally.

With a global company the size and scale of GE, it’s really interesting to think what diversity means internationally. I look at it in two ways: I believe there is a moral imperative to make sure we provide equal opportunities to people of every sex, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation; these aspects of your identity don’t matter, what matters is how good a lawyer or compliance/EHS professional you are. Equally as important is the business imperative, because when you bring diverse perspectives together, a diverse team is always the best team.

Across GE’s global law and policy team, we have 5,000 professionals who are dedicated to enabling GE to sell digital and high-technology products and services around the globe. Diversity and inclusion is a critical component to their success. I challenge all of my leaders, and each and every one of our team members, to take small steps to build a more diverse team. Here’s how we think about it:

A big challenge in a company the size of GE is making sure people don’t get lost in the system. It’s like a law firm, as we have numerous business units with their respective general counsels. We have mentoring relationships set up across the whole team – connected with our affinity networks – and I ask each member of our executive team to mentor at least one diverse lawyer on an ongoing basis.

We just launched the Denniston Fellowship initiative, named after our former general counsel, Brackett Denniston, which is focused on hiring diverse students right out of law school. The fellows work at GE for a year and then interview with our outside counsel for positions. The first fellowship went to Marina Merjan, who graduated from DePaul University and worked at GE Transportation. Merjan interviewed with four outside firms, received offers from all four, and accepted a position with Sidley Austin. Three more fellows joined GE this year and they’re off to a strong start. My dream is to have 30 to 40 Denniston fellows six-seven years from now who can be a force to influence diversity in the legal profession and drive it forward.

For the Denniston fellowship, we interviewed students from nearly 50 law schools. Marina came from DePaul University College of Law in Chicago, which is not one of the top-tier schools from which many law firms typically recruit. I am becoming more persuaded that pedigreed law schools and law school grades are overvalued as predictors of future success as a lawyer; if you limit yourself in your view on this then you limit yourself to a smaller pool, which is self-defeating in regards to diversity and inclusion.

Part of the pipeline challenge is that people evaluating candidates sometimes have the tendency to gravitate to people like themselves. They say, ‘They remind me of myself at that age,’ which can really limit the talent pool. We strive to always have at least one diverse candidate on the slate for each open job, which has an equally quantitative and qualitative impact on our talent pipeline.

Like most large companies, we require outside counsel to report on their diversity initiatives. A big complaint from some firms is that they don’t understand how we use this information. I meet every quarter with one of our law firms to review their diversity program generally and their performance partly in regards to the number of diverse hours on GE matters. We are finding ways to measure the metrics and to provide law firms with meaningful feedback and guidance. And I’m encouraged by the steps that our law firms are taking to try to address such an important issue of shared interest.

Companies that pay lip service can actually set back diversity by being the type of company or law firm where folks realize they are just a number or a metric. One pet peeve of mine is when a law firm shows up for a ‘beauty contest’, brings a diverse lawyer and then that person disappears and is never seen again once the work starts. I can’t imagine anything more offensive! All employees want equal opportunities to build and grow their careers, regardless of their backgrounds.

For me, the best measure of law firm success in regards to diversity is in who gets the assignments. For example, women may be excluded from opportunities, often with good intentions: ‘she just had a baby.’ But that doesn’t give the woman a choice, which by all rights is hers to make based on what she and her family believe is best for their family. Making such choices for someone else isn’t right and isn’t the way things should happen. I encourage law firms to experiment with blind assignment systems for matters.

These are but a few examples of how members of GE’s global law and policy team are actively and passionately driving efforts around the globe to create a more diverse and inclusive environment for our profession, workplace, and communities. I can’t thank our team enough for helping us do the right thing for GE, our colleagues, our profession, and the next generation of professionals.