Tom LaFrance, general counsel, GE Transportation

General Electric’s Denniston Fellowship is an innovative, practical initiative seeking to change the face of the legal profession. GC spoke to Tom LaFrance, general counsel at GE Transportation, who masterminded the idea, and Marina Merjan, the first Denniston fellow.

The idea for the Denniston Fellowship originated from my own frustrations with other diversity and inclusion initiatives. We participated in a diversity summer internship program in 2013 where a law student spent a few weeks of the summer with a law firm and three weeks with our team.

I felt that it was too short to provide any meaningful impact for the intern or for my legal team. For us, the big question was, how do you bring diverse law students into the legal profession in a meaningful way? At the same time, we were tracking quarterly metrics of how diverse the law firm teams that we hired were and I wanted a way to more directly influence those metrics, beyond just asking our law firms to provide a diverse team. I wanted there to be a meaningful advantage for GE and for the law firm to have the diverse lawyer on our team. Ultimately I looked for a way to address these various frustrations with other diversity initiatives by providing a meaningful opportunity to a diverse law student, while also benefiting the GE Transportation legal team and our partner law firms and schools.

The initial step was to make a commitment that we would hire the fellow for 12 months, so that they would have a unique, early career opportunity to learn from and work alongside experienced in-house lawyers on substantive matters, while gaining an understanding about how GE thinks about legal issues. We hoped that the fellow would also benefit from accelerated development at the partner law firm they join because of the fellowship experience. In return, the GE legal team benefits from the fellow bringing diversity of thought and perspective onto our team. That really happened – Merjan brought a real boost of energy and a different perspective. From a practical standpoint, the GE Transportation legal team benefited from having someone directly on our team who knew our business and could take on assignments that might otherwise go to a first- or second-year law firm associate.

In the formative discussions with our partner law firms, my request was that they invite our fellow to their first-year associate training programs and they commit to interviewing the fellow in the spring for an associate position. In return, I told the law firms that they would gain access to a new pipeline of diverse lawyers who would have a year of substantive GE legal experience. In addition, I made it clear that in the future I would make a decision on which law firm to hire for a matter based on knowing that the fellow would be staffed on that matter (so that I get the benefit of an associate who knows our business). At the time, I felt confident that after the fellow gained some experience at the partner law firm, I would be able to directly influence my law firm’s diversity metrics by retaining a firm that hired a fellow, and requesting that person be on the team for our matter. But what I did not imagine was that we would make a decision on which law firm to hire for a matter before our first fellow even started at her chosen law firm, Sidley Austin. In June 2016, we were selecting outside counsel for an ICC arbitration in Geneva and my in-house litigator had narrowed five possible firms down to two candidates – Sidley Austin versus a local firm. What dawned on me was, even though it was an ICC arbitration in Switzerland, the witnesses and documents were in the US, so Merjan could start working on the matter during her last two months at GE, and then continue working on the matter when she went to Sidley in September. We selected Sidley to handle the matter. In my mind, the concept for the fellowship program was validated at that point – we had gone through a full cycle of hiring a terrific diverse lawyer as our first fellow, she had performed great work for GE, she had received offers from all four of our partner law firms, and now her decision to join Sidley had directly led to our hiring them for a matter.

Marina Merjan on the Denniston Fellowship

When I first heard about the Denniston Fellowship, I immediately realized that this program had been created for me. My family immigrated from Syria, and it was important to my parents that I had access to a broader range of opportunities than they did. So from a young age education has been very important to me. In college I was drawn to classes that focused on reading, writing, and critical thinking, which is why I began to think about law school as an option. When I eventually made it to law school, I did very well academically but I didn’t have a network or parents who had a network, so the bigger picture in terms of my career wasn’t immediately clear to me.

In the second year of law school, when most big firms recruit law students through on-campus interviews (better known as OCIs), I was the top of my class, but I still didn’t have a clear idea about what my next steps should be. Because of this, I did not participate in OCIs. It was only after I missed the opportunity to apply and interview with these firms that I truly realized what it was exactly that I had bypassed. So when I first heard about the GE opportunity it felt almost miraculous. I knew it would be a beneficial experience, but I saw it more as a vehicle to big law. Now I know what I didn’t know then about working in-house, and how that would be invaluable in gaining an appreciation for the bigger picture of the legal ecosystem. After the fellowship, as a DePaul Law School graduate, getting one offer from a top-tier law firm was special – let alone four!

There were also intangible benefits from the experience. A major one was that it built my personal confidence and helped me realize that I belong in this profession and doing this kind of work.

Our other partners in the program are the six law schools in Chicago. The law schools benefit from providing their students with a unique career opportunity. We received a commitment from the partner law firms that a candidate from any of the six schools would be considered for an associate position with the firms. In selecting the fellow, we certainly look at GPA, as well as work and law school experience, but we really believe that diversity of thought and experience is equally important. Before publicly launching the program, we called in representatives from the four law firms and the six law schools to ensure that all of the stakeholders were aligned. Having everyone on the same page was essential to the success of the program.

We now have our second fellow in place, who started in August 2016 and graduated from Chicago-Kent College of Law. We completed our recruiting for the third fellow and are currently making a tough decision between the three outstanding finalists for the position. I feel we have proven the concept and now the idea is to spread it. We are starting to expand the program within GE and we also welcome other companies adopting our approach.