A personal commitment to diversity has helped AT&T general counsel D. Wayne Watts inspire an entire legal department to become leaders in diversity and inclusiveness.
D. Wayne Watts
From the moment D. Wayne Watts became general counsel for AT&T, it was clear that diversity was a top priority. One of his first opportunities to deliver this message was at the department’s annual conference, where his legal team presented a report on the diversity metrics of outside law firms. The numbers were low, and Watts let his disappointment show. Mincing no words, he stood up before his audience and declared, “This is unacceptable.”
Watts conveyed to his legal department that improvements were in order: The percentage of law firms reporting their diversity numbers needed to increase; furthermore, there should be an improvement in the diversity of lawyers billing AT&T on legal matters.
Growing up in a diverse community near Dallas, Tex., Watts developed strong support for diversity and inclusiveness from a young age. “I learned very quickly that people are people, and deserve to be treated that way,” he explains. When he was appointed senior executive vice president and general counsel of AT&T’s legal department in 2007 (where he previously served as senior vice president and associate general counsel), his legal team made it easy for him to carry out his goal of improving diversity. “I saw I had a lot of folks in this organization who said they wanted to be more active and involved. I had to encourage and support that.”
Watts sets the tone at the top not only by demanding greater diversity, but also by signaling a strong commitment through his actions, including playing an active role in diversity organizations, conferences, and events. His legal team is encouraged to do the same. This effort paid off, with AT&T becoming a leader in diversity and inclusiveness.
Metrics and Partner Firms
Following Watts’s speech at the annual legal conference, and consistent with AT&T’s predecessor’s (SBC Communications) participation in the Call to Action program, AT&T’s legal department implemented a system that would improve diversity within outside counsel firms. It created a billing system designed to track diversity numbers.
AT&T attorneys in the company’s Atlanta office. Seated: Suzy Ockleberry, Meredith Mays, Ruth Fife. Middle: David Forbes, Letty Alfonso, Christina Lee, Anu Seam, Kara Ong, Sheldon Snipe, Dorian Denberg. Back: Michael Turbes, Reginald Greene, Tia Arzu, John Tyler.
The billing system captures regular billing information, as well as data representing the diversity of lawyers working on AT&T matters. Outside firms fill out a company profile indicating the diversity of the attorneys billing for AT&T work, including who is the lead attorney and who is the overall relationship partner responsible for the entire AT&T account. With the cooperation of the law firm, the system can break down hours billed by different groups, including women, minorities, and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. The metrics are summarized into a data report that Watts reviews personally, and that report is scrutinized by the company’s diversity and inclusion committee as well.
Recent reports reflect that, with respect to large outside firms, approximately 32% of hours billed is by women attorneys and professionals, 18% by minorities, and 1% by members of the LGBT community. Of the 222 relationship partners identified, 39 are women and 33 are minorities.
Although this is a voluntary reporting system, AT&T has outside counsel guidelines to which firms must agree in order to perform services for the corporation; those guidelines include a diversity metrics reporting system. The firms understand that we have high expectations,” explains Jeffrey E. Lewis, general attorney and associate general counsel of AT&T Services. If a firm does not choose to report its diversity metrics, or if its diversity metrics are below those of its peers, AT&T makes an effort to help the firm improve its numbers. The goal is not to penalize partner firms that are not meeting standards, but instead to improve transparency and coordination, as well as improve the firms’ diversity metrics. “We’re not cutting off business, but we’re encouraging firms with low numbers to improve,” Lewis continues. “Our diversity committee reviews performance, including the percentage of women and minority partners that manage our cases, as well as those partners getting credit for the AT&T matter.”
Internally, AT&T strives for no less than it expects from its outside partners. Four of the ten legal department officers are women. The number of minority attorneys promoted to senior manager roles has more than doubled in the past two years. More than 36% of AT&T attorneys are women; greater than 16% are minorities. Legal department officers are encouraged to mentor, offer promotional opportunities, and make hiring decisions with diversity and inclusion in mind. Furthermore, diversity and teamwork are part of the key elements included in each attorney’s annual performance reviews.
Jeffrey E. Lewis
The department’s diversity and inclusion committee has been successful at carrying out Watts’s vision. According to Lewis, a key element is individual interest and responsibility. In addition to functioning as part of the larger committee, individual members have specific responsibilities, which typically stem from their own interests and requests. “One may deal with budget issues,” Lewis shares, “while another heads the summer internship program, and another deals with law firm reporting.” The result of tying responsibility to an area of interest is often a greater investment and commitment, which in turn makes the program more effective.
Furthermore, AT&T’s legal department coordinates its pipeline efforts to identify and support future attorneys. The department boasts a strong summer internship program that offers a stream of diverse new attorneys who have the qualifications to work with AT&T, either directly as a future hire or as potential outside counsel. The program provides practical experience in drafting briefs, attending hearings, touring network facilities, and assisting in depositions and pro bono projects. Although the program is not limited to minorities, it offers opportunities to law students from diverse backgrounds. In 2009, five of AT&T’s nine interns were minorities, and three were women.
Leadership in Diverse Organizations
A major component of AT&T’s successful diversity program is a fierce commitment to participating in diversity organizations. Watts regularly attends diversity conferences, speaks at diversity events, and sponsors organizations that foster diversity in the legal community. Last year, he cohosted a regional dinner for MCCA. Recently, he participated in a dinner for the Dallas Hispanic Bar Association. Watts’s own commitment is matched by that of his staff. AT&T attorneys actively participate in and/or provide financial support to a wide variety of legal organizations with similar goals, including Corporate Counsel Women of Color, the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, and the Hispanic National Bar Association.
“Wayne and AT&T encourage attorneys to get involved in these organizations that support diversity in the legal profession,” Lewis asserts. Whenever possible, and as permitted according to their workloads, they accept leadership roles. For example, one staff attorney is president-elect of the National Association of Women Lawyers, another is president of the Dallas Hispanic Bar Association, and another is an officer for the National Employment Law Council. Recently, AT&T attorneys have served as panelists on diversity seminars sponsored by MCCA, the Corporate Counsel Women of Color, and the Texas Minority Counsel Program. Their first priority is their job, of course, but AT&T attorneys are encouraged to do what they can, whether it is committing to a leadership position, participating in similar active engagement on issues, or attending a conference.
AT&T also sets aside a substantial budget to support these and other diversity organizations. The company also has implemented several pro bono initiatives, including one in Dallas, through which AT&T attorneys work with Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law to provide community-based legal assistance.
On the corporate level, AT&T is equally committed to diversity and inclusion. The global company has a strong commitment to supplier diversity, and is a member of the Billion Dollar Roundtable, a supplier diversity think tank made up of corporations that each spend more than $1 billion annually with diverse companies. In 2008, AT&T spent more than $6 billion with diverse suppliers, representing more than 12% of its total procurement base.
Why such a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion?
“I fundamentally believe that it is absolutely the right thing to do,” emphasizes Watts, “from the standpoint of the lawyers in our legal department, for the company itself, and for its shareholders. The [outcome] of which I am most proud is that [along] with those [positive] changes, the quality of the legal advice we give has improved.”
2009 AT&T summer intern Tamara McClatchey (left) with AT&T attorneys George Ashford, Joanna Moscow, and Karl Anderson
Lewis adds that efforts to improve diversity and inclusion contribute to the quality of its business environment, as well as give AT&T a competitive edge. “We realize that it just makes good business sense. Our customer base and our employee base are diverse. It’s important to attract and retain a diverse staff.”
“Mission accomplished,” then? Not quite. Although Watts recognizes the strength of the corporation’s program, he is committed to making it even stronger. “We can talk a lot about numbers. Those are all important, and they’re good things,” he concludes. “But we can’t rest on our laurels. We can always do better.” DB
Kara Mayer Robinson is a freelance writer based near New York City.
From the March/April 2010 issue of Diversity & The Bar®