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

As a woman of color in the legal profession, diversity, equity and inclusion is a deeply per-sonal mission for Lisa LeCointe-Cephas. She explains why corporate America must invest in DE&I to achieve lasting change.

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.