Chris Young, General Counsel, Ironclad, Inc

Young shares his simple philosophy on diversity, and reflects on how small actions can have a significant long-term impact.

Diversity is particularly important in the legal profession, because the charge of the attorney is to zealously represent their clients, most of whom are from a diverse background. Part and parcel of representing any client is to understand their frame of mind, experience and thinking, so you can empathize with and better represent them.

On the corporate side, diversity is important because companies are essentially building and shipping products, and the buyers of those products are everyday people – people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations and genders. Building a game-changing product requires creativity and I believe that diversity is a necessary element of creativity. And from a pure business standpoint, any company would want to understand and effectively sell to the broadest swathe of people they could possibly reach, so it’s important to have a diverse group around you determining the go-to-market plan.

Diversity also makes sense from a social equity standpoint. There is no such thing as a level playing field – some people start off two steps ahead, some people start off three steps behind. We need to provide every qualified person an opportunity to practice in the upper echelons of law; if we pay forward our good fortune, they will too. That’s how institutional change happens. As legal professionals, we ought to be mindful of and intentional about ensuring that our respective organizations are diverse.

My approach isn’t very mysterious, nor is it complex. While I think issues of race, gender, sexual orientation and inequality are complex subject matters that often result in uncomfortable, but absolutely necessary conversations, my approach is straightforward. As a general counsel, I have the ability to hire in-house and retain outside counsel, and so I need to be intentional about diversity and leverage my influence to build a diverse organization, both internally and externally.

In my mind, advancing diversity isn’t completely about quotas or explicit affirmative action, it’s about setting aside internal biases and prejudices when interviewing a candidate. Look beyond their credentials and determine how they will uniquely enrich your organization’s business and culture. Check at the door your preconceived notions of what a ‘perfect candidate’ looks like – select the best and brightest diverse candidates.

Let’s say you are hiring for in-house legal counsel and you especially appreciate pedigree and work experience. When it comes to pedigree, there are going to be far more non-diverse candidates coming out of the top-tier law schools than there are diverse candidates coming out of those same schools. The same goes for experience; there are going to be many more non-diverse lawyers at a top law firm, a top-tier corporation or coming out of a prestigious judicial clerkship than there are diverse lawyers. So hiring is about much more than simply checking boxes and seeing which candidate looks like the safest bet. The more intentional path is to determine whether someone has the core competencies to do the work and whether they have demonstrated other attributes that signal they would be a constructive contributor to your organization. Those other attributes could be intellectual curiosity, integrity, drive, empathy, grit, passion or demonstrating they have overcome hardship. These are qualities that aren’t reflected on a LinkedIn profile, but are absolutely critical if you’re trying to build a legal department reflective of a company culture that cares very much about diversity. At Ironclad, we have teammates from Yale, Berkeley and Harvard law schools working side by side with non-college graduates, all of whom bring diverse talent with technical, design, legal backgrounds, and more.

Externally, there are times when I make an express request to outside counsel for a diverse attorney not only to be assigned to the matter, but also to take on substantive work and to be afforded the opportunity to assume significant responsibility, if not a leadership role. I also make sure that we maintain a roster of diverse outside counsel. I participate in minority bar associations and, having been part of a community of diverse lawyers for quite some time, I have been fortunate enough to build long-term relationships with tremendous lawyers who also happen to be lawyers of color. When there’s an opportunity to hire those lawyers, that’s who I go to first, not only because they’re diverse, but because I can trust them, and I know the work they do is of the highest quality.

What’s incredibly powerful about Ironclad is that we have built and are growing a community of general counsel throughout the United States who can come together at Ironclad-hosted dinners and leadership roundtable sessions. When that happens, a lot of issues are discussed, including diversity, so we are able to advance the cause not only by discussing the issue explicitly, but by bringing people together and allowing them to connect and foster and further relationships.

I do not think diversity is rocket science, I think it’s relatively straightforward. We all have the power to diversify our respective legal teams, and we all have the power to ensure that our outside counsel look like and have had similar experiences to a broader cross-section of America.

At Ironclad, we are incredibly proud of our people – we were recently recognized as one of the most diverse start-ups in Silicon Valley, and I think we received that recognition because we’re intentional about each individual who joins our rapidly growing team. About half of our company are women and the vast majority of our executive team are affiliated with a minority group or groups. Diversity is something that we think is mission critical. But it’s also something we don’t talk a lot about. While I think that shedding light on the topic of diversity is necessary, it’s not sufficient. You can’t just talk the talk, you need to walk the walk. As the old adage goes ‘actions speak louder than words’. Here, action means being intentional about and executing on a diversity plan. As we continue to scale our organization at Ironclad, people and culture are the most important, North-Star elements to us. Friends refer friends; folks want to work with diverse people and have conversations at work and outside with peers who have had a different experience than they’ve had.

I’m a black male who has mostly grown up in a predominantly white profession. I live and breathe diversity every day – I’m the subject of it – and when I came to Silicon Valley for the first time four years ago, I was unpleasantly surprised by the lack of diversity. It really became obvious when I started sitting in the boardroom and going to start-up- and tech-related events. I think one of the major issues is that there is a lack of incentive on the part of many Silicon Valley leaders to intentionally diversify their respective companies. Until the conversation shifts from ‘diversity is a great thing’ – which many of us believe and know to be true – to ‘it makes business sense and here’s why’, I’m not sure we’re going to see significant, near-term change.

While meaningful progress has been made by individuals and groups to address the dearth of diversity in Silicon Valley, we haven’t seen much in the way of progress vis-à-vis the diversity reports released by the larger tech companies in the Bay Area. When I see that, often as the only person of color or underrepresented minority in the room, it poses a personal challenge and sense of duty to leverage my influence to effect the change that I want to see in the world – but on the micro level. A lot of people think that if you can’t effect wide-reaching change, then your efforts are for naught. But I actually believe that we can all make little bits of change on our own – and the most logical place to start is at our own companies and in our own legal departments. If we collectively do that, I suspect we will finally start to see the needle move on diversity.

Looking to the future, I think it would behoove leaders in the legal profession to not only hire, nurture and grow diverse attorneys and ensure that outside counsel are diverse, but to invest in aspiring law students and young attorneys of color; help an aspiring law student prepare for the LSAT and apply for law school; take a chance on a young, law firm attorney and let them manage one of your legal matters; hire someone who might not check all the boxes, but who you know has the raw talent to have an outsized impact. I’m a firm believer in investing in individuals and that if all of us invest in an individual or two early on in their career, that’s the type of work that results in long-term change.

At the end of the day, it’s really about opportunity, plain and simple. I think that the best we can all do in order to advance diversity is to give diverse lawyers an opportunity, and then help them recognize and make the most of those opportunities.