Wanji Walcott, chief legal officer and general counsel, Discover Financial Services

With over 20 years of experience in-house, Wanji Walcott reflects on the ingredients for a successful legal career, and her passion for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) has been a passion point for me for a number of years, starting well before I was a general counsel. What I liked to do, earlier in my career, was bring together women lawyers for information sharing, to boost each other up. When I did that informally, prior to becoming a general counsel, I realized there is a lot of power that in-house counsel hold. I realized we could do the same thing with respect to women who are outside counsel.

Taking responsibility

So, I created an informal program where we could have lunch with some of our top law firms and ask them to bring their high potential female counsel, senior associates, and female partners, so we could get to know them.  Also, if we were giving out work, we could make sure that the women we were getting to know across our law firms were afforded the same opportunities as their male counterparts. From there, we decided that we were going to send letters to managing partners at law firms in support of women who had done great work for us. That is something that I still do.

Fast forward to being a general counsel, I signed on to the Mansfield Rule certification program, which is all about promoting equity and inclusion, normally within corporate legal departments, but also at law firms.

In our department, we are measuring all that we do in terms of interviewing, hiring and the extension of offers. We are also making sure that, when we have any high-profile assignments, we have a diverse plate being considered to make sure that we are thinking broadly and not just going to the usual suspects but developing our talent across the board.

I always felt like it was my responsibility as in-house counsel to have an impact on law firms.

I feel like what I am seeing now, post-George Floyd, that it is still my responsibility because I do think I can have an impact on change. But I also feel like law firms and other corporate legal professions are taking a great deal of initiatives to drive change in their own organizations. So, I feel like there is much more accountability and purpose now than there was previously.

It is not to say that there weren’t people who were focused on DE&I previously, but I feel like last year we were at this inflection point where everybody was really focused on it. So, it really is a matter of sustaining that momentum now and making sure it wasn’t just a moment but more of a movement that will be sustained over time, with everybody focused on it.

Setting your sights

I knew from very early in my legal career that I wanted to be a general counsel. I knew I loved being in a corporate law department, and I loved in-house practice. A general counsel I worked for very early on said, ‘You could be a general counsel one day’, and I believed them. I had my sights set on that, but I did not know any general counsel who looked like me. Over time I would meet other general counsel by going to conferences, sitting in the audience and hearing their stories, tactics, and tips for getting themselves ready to be a general counsel. I would just be like a sponge, taking it all in.

Just getting feedback and finding people you can trust, and who are willing to help you is key.

It’s about setting your sights on a goal, and then figuring it out. I did not know every step of the way exactly how I was going to do it, but I stayed the course. People would say to me, ‘Maybe you should aspire to be a deputy-level lawyer and how do you know you are going to be a general counsel?’ Honestly, I didn’t know. I just knew that was what I wanted to do, so I never took my foot off the gas.

Obviously, you do not get into one of these roles without great sponsors and people who took a bet on you, believed in you and supported you. I am fortunate to have had a lot of people who believed in me and supported me along the way.

Leveraging relationships

Honestly, being a female lawyer of color, there are challenges along the whole way. Every stage or role and level has its own set of unique challenges, and you have to set your goal, really believe in yourself, think about building a network around you – hopefully of people who have already done what you want to do. For me, it’s really important to have a broad network and really think about who inspires me, who can help me get to where I am going, who can give me a bit of tough love when I need it and challenge me to do more of this or do less of that. Just getting feedback and finding people you can trust, and who are willing to help you is key.

I am fortunate, because I am not that much of a pioneer. There are other people who have done this before. Not many, but certainly some.

I do not think I have faced any unique challenges being a Black female in a general counsel role. But I think there have been micro-inequities or subtle things.  For example, some people may make assumptions about you or pass you over for opportunities that you know you are qualified for, in favor of someone else.

But you cannot let that deter you. You just have to keep at it and let people know of your goals and aspirations. Not every day, but people need to know what you desire to achieve.

One of three things will happen: 1) they are either going to be supportive and help you; 2) they are going to block you, or 3) they are going to be neutral. You will be lucky if they are somewhere between neutral and helpful. If they are blocking you, you may not be in the right place, and so you have to take that into account as well.

Beyond the four corners

No matter where you are, whether you are starting out or in a mid-level or senior role, first and foremost you have got to be excellent. You have to work hard, you have got to put in the time and the energy. Once you nail the four corners of your job and you are working hard and you are excellent, then you pick your head up a little and you figure out what is important in your organization.

Is leadership important? Are “extracurricular” activities important, like belonging to employee networks, or doing pro bono? Are they all important? You just have to figure out what is valued within your organization.

No matter where you are, whether you are starting out or in a mid-level or senior role, first and foremost you have got to be excellent. You have to work hard, you have got to put in the time and the energy.

I also think relationships are really important. When I was early in my career, I thought I could just work hard and put my head down and people would somehow magically notice that. Well, sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t. So, you have to think about your relationships and develop those, and think broadly about those relationships. Do not just anchor and invest in one relationship but think beyond your direct manager. If you are in-house counsel, foster the relationships with your business partners that you are supporting. If you are in a law firm, build relationships with colleagues, firm management and the external clients that you are supporting,

Think about developing those relationships and then, finally, find ways to add value. Not just being reactive and reacting to things that hit your desk. Think about how you can proactively support your business partners by looking around corners and understanding trends, understanding their goals and how you might be able to help them achieve their goals.

Even beyond the four corners of your role, think about all the ways you can add value. For example, I organized the lady lawyers, where we started out just having lunch.  We weren’t really talking about business, we were talking about how we manage our personal lives, children, husbands or partners, parents, etc. It was informal and we were just getting to know each other, but it added value because we were able to provide support to each other.

In two previous jobs, I started pro bono programs that are still going strong today. They are award-winning and I am very proud of them – they are like my children.  That was another passion point for me and that’s something I did to add value beyond the value I was adding as a lawyer working on M&A transactions, for example.

The opportunity to pursue your dreams

There is always an opportunity to add value and always an opportunity to lead, even if you are not a people leader. There are ways to be a leader and there are ways to conduct yourself like a leader. I think there is just an abundance of opportunities out there in every organization, but people sometimes don’t take advantage of them.

Whether you want to be a general counsel or managing partner, or you want to just do what you are doing, people make choices in life. But I think everyone should have the opportunity to pursue and succeed at what they are doing. Along the way, people may say you can’t do it, or that it’s going to be hard. I would just encourage people not to be deterred, because you actually can do it. If I can do it, anyone can do it. I do not just say that, I really believe that. So, I would just encourage people to pursue their dreams.