James Chosy, Executive Vice President and General Counsel, U.S. Bank

A vocal proponent of diversity and inclusion, Chosy was recently presented with the ‘Lead by Example’ award by the National Association of Women Lawyers. He reflects on the current status quo of D&I in the US legal profession and, in response, his team’s approach to ensuring diversity, equity and inclusion.

Here in the US, the legal profession is among the least diverse of comparable white-collar professions. It should be the most. The law is supposed to be about justice, equality and opportunity and I think lawyers are particularly attuned to those concepts. It’s in the nature of their training and the work that they do.

However, historically, the law as a whole has been very slow to change – not just in the area of diversity and inclusion. Lawyers and legal employers are often cautious by nature. They can be more tentative to embrace change and feel more comfortable with the status quo, and I think that’s reflected in where the law sits with diversity and inclusion. There are a lot of legacy barriers and impediments that have not yet been fully addressed or eradicated, which the profession as a whole needs to continue to work against. We’d often prefer to rely on precedent, both in our case law analysis and in how we lead, manage and operate.

We’re at a place where women represent about half of all law school graduates, but they represent only about 23% of law firm partners, 19% of equity partners, 30% of Fortune 500 general counsel and 30% or so of federal district court judges. The numbers just aren’t up there yet. The category of things that still require change are those like unconscious bias, not enough mentorship or sponsorship opportunities, less recognition than should be provided, and fewer leadership opportunities. These are all things that we are very conscious of, are working against, and trying to resolve.

I believe very strongly in diversity and inclusion, not least because our Law Division is very much a human capital function. We don’t have a product, all we have is great people delivering advice and counseling our clients – and to do that well we really need diverse talent to bring diverse perspectives to the work.

As the leader, it’s very important that I am personally invested in this subject, that I speak to it regularly, and that I am very engaged and involved in the work we are doing. Various studies have shown that one of the single biggest differentiating factors as to whether diversity and inclusion programs succeed is the amount of time spent by the leader – whether that is the CEO at corporate level, or the general counsel at legal department level. So I invest a lot of myself and my time in this work.

We have a diversity and inclusion council that helps guide our efforts: a cross-functional group of professionals from across the legal department that looks at various issues and makes recommendations, and shares our work both inside our company and outside. We also have an individual diversity champion, who acts as a liaison between the legal department and bank-wide diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. We have a mentorship program that we are expanding and that is focused, initially, on professionals of color.

We’ve developed a ‘Spotlight on Talent’ program, which gives early-career women and diverse lawyers from outside law firms the opportunity to learn more about U.S. Bank, meet with us and present educational content to our entire legal department. We can then see first-hand how capable they are and begin to develop relationships to help sustain them for growth and development in their careers. We invite law firms to bid on this opportunity, and have conducted five sessions, with a sixth planned for this fall. The program has been very successful, to the extent that one law firm asked if they could recommend it to other clients. We, of course, readily agreed.

We look at demographic data that relates to our department to show how we are doing against our goals and objectives. Candidly, we have historically over-performed on gender diversity, but are not yet where we’d like to be with professionals of color, so that’s been a big emphasis and area of focus for us. Several elements of our diversity and inclusion initiatives have goals, so we look at those regularly and try to measure ourselves against what we set out to do. We also try to benchmark ourselves against what is going on in the broader profession and also, importantly, with other corporate legal departments. We’re involved in a number of groups and organizations that talk about this topic very regularly, and we compare notes and share ideas.

We approach diversity and inclusion work from the perspective that there is not necessarily an end goal; we are never going to be completely done with it as a constant work in progress. We’re always trying to do better to improve, achieve and accomplish our overall objectives, so we have to be eternally vigilant about the subject. It’s unlike the more traditional financial measurements or other data we might look at. There’s not some day out there in the future, whether it’s a month, a year or three years from now, where I’m going to say ‘We’re all done with this topic, and we can move on to something else.’

We are continually learning and trying to add new things, or get rid of elements we don’t think are working for us. One example would be related to recruiting. We have some specific recruitment guidelines that we use, so there is a lot of emphasis on diversity as we recruit. But previously, we were not always disciplined about a process for recruiting new lawyers, and relied significantly on word of mouth, referrals and people we knew. Not surprisingly, that approach didn’t produce sufficiently diverse candidate pools for us. We’ve since stopped that, and now have a more disciplined approach. For example, we created recruiting guidelines and require at least one diverse candidate for each open position, encourage searches outside of traditional geographies, and require panel interviews and consistent interview questions. We also work closely with affinity bar organizations for sourcing candidates.

There is both tension and collaboration between the in-house and law firm world, and people have different views on the degree to which in-house departments should be trying to drive diversity with our law firm partners and providers. I feel strongly that we have a unique opportunity to do so, and we use it to the benefit of the broader profession. We are very focused on the Mansfield Rule, which requires organizations to commit to considering diverse candidates in recruiting, developing and promoting people into leadership. The first version of Mansfield focused on law firms, which could voluntarily commit to the program and ultimately become certified. The in-house version just rolled out, and we were one of the first companies to agree and sign on – we’re very proud to be on the leading edge of that. We’ve since taken things a step further, and have actually asked about 40 of our leading law firms to formally commit to the Mansfield Rule. We’ve really challenged them to take this journey with us; in no small part because we view our law firms very much as an extension of our own in-house legal department.

At this moment in time, financial services is undergoing a dramatic transformation in terms of what types of products and services it provides, and how customers can access those. There is a lot happening with technology and innovation in banking and financial services – probably the best example is mobile banking. Our company, like a lot of companies and banks, is investing heavily in technology and innovation, while working hard to figure out what the future looks like and how to create that future.

To me, diversity is critically important to innovation. In many respects, I think it can help unlock innovation, and so although it’s important and critical to what we do, it’s that much more important in this broader environment of innovation that we’re operating in. We’re in something of a unique moment in time: while historically the law has been slow to change, globalization and technology are ascending, which is driving disruption and innovation in how legal services are provided. This change brings opportunity; the law has a tremendous chance now, in this moment, to rededicate itself and leverage the diverse talent we already have and focus anew on retention, development and promotion into leadership. The problem is not with diverse lawyers, it’s with the legacy structures, systems and behaviors that have made their path in the law uniquely difficult, and stood in the way of full equality.