"We don't do diversity because it's a good thing to do, or even because it's the moral thing to do, but because we want to be the best law department in the world."
– Marty Barrington
When Charles R. Wall, general counsel for Philip Morris Companies Inc., convened a meeting of 15 law firms to discuss the importance of assigning diverse teams to the company's legal matters, the response was "overwhelmingly positive."
At this meeting, held last April at the company's Park Avenue corporate headquarters, there wasn't so much as a whisper of concern about the difficulty of the task, not even given the homogeneous nature of most corporate law firms.
Marty Barrington, associate general counsel for Philip Morris Companies Inc., helped pull the meeting together. "We shared our plans, explained Philip Morris' goals, and talked in general about diversity issues," Barrington says. "Then we challenged these firms to work with us to do better. We didn't give anyone numbers to achieve–they have to run their own organizations. We gave them ideas about what we were doing and told them to feel free to shamelessly steal any that appealed to them."
The enthusiastic embrace of Philip Morris' diversity goals by the firms didn't surprise Barrington. Unlike affirmative action, which has been legally challenged in a number of states across the nation, diversity is not, Barrington emphasizes, about "benefiting" people based on color or gender or even concerned with redressing past wrongs. Rather, it's about creating the best legal team made up of the best people, for whom "not looking alike or thinking alike" is a strength, not a weakness. Having a diverse legal team, Barrington stresses, is a competitive advantage in an increasingly diverse marketplace.
With 180,000 employees working in almost 200 worldwide markets, and with 91 brands with over $100 million each in sales and 15 brands generating $1 billion each in sales last year, the Philip Morris family of companies operates on the assumption that fostering diversity is just a smart and pragmatic business move. "Our goal is to reflect our consumer diversity, business diversity and product diversity," Barrington notes.
Barrington informally led the committee from Philip Morris' Worldwide Law Department as it developed a diversity plan early this year. Although the huge consumer packaged-goods conglomerate has a relatively small group of in-house lawyers, it works extensively with outside counsel on its matters; thus the need to relay its own recently hammered- out vision on diversity with its legal partners.
Up until the law department devised its own plan, a process that began in January 2001 and ended in April this year, the diversity efforts were largely enfolded into the overall company strategy, which has long emphasized hiring women and minorities. That may explain why, in the largely white male world of corporate law, the law department's composition in the United States roughly reflects the country's demographics.
The worldwide law department is organized so that each of the major operating companies has a discrete in-house team. Philip Morris Companies Inc., the holding company, and other attorneys at Management Corp., who provides staff support, total 28; Philip Morris Inc. has 22 attorneys, Kraft Foods North America and Kraft International together have 66; Miller Brewing Company has 13, and Philip Morris Capital has 3. Excluding attorneys who work outside of the United States, there were, as of July 2001, about 124 attorneys overall. Of those, 41, or 33 percent, were women, and 17, or 14 percent, were minority, which means they could be Black, Hispanic, or Asian Pacific.
The law department's diversity plan was part of an ambitious effort on the part of General Counsel Wall to "develop all of our people," explains Barrington. Wall is described as being passionate not just about diversity, but about "getting the best, keeping the best, developing into the best legal team anywhere. The diversity effort was dead-on for that."
The first step was forming a committee to develop the Philip Morris Worldwide Law Dept. 2001 Diversity Action Plan. A mouthful, yes, but a surprisingly short document totaling four double-spaced pages. In preparing the plan, Philip Morris utilized much of the information provided by MCCA's Creating Pathways to Diversity™, a set of best practices for corporate law departments. The plan was developed in three steps:
- deciding, with the general counsel and his senior team of lawyers, what it would accomplish;
- convening a group to actually develop the plan; and
- soliciting input from focus groups across the company's practice areas.
Joe Murillo, senior assistant general counsel for Philip Morris Inc., was tapped for one of the groups. Murillo recalls "a very robust discussion," about ways to encourage the diversity of teams assigned to Philip Morris by outside counsel. Those discussions brought home the need to "apply that sort of rigor to ourselves," Murillo says.
"Diversity means different things to different people," he adds. "It's also a term that gets overused. Growing up as a Cuban American in a majority Cuban-American community in Miami, it's hard for me to say that I had an experience similar to someone of color growing up in a segregated community."
During the group meetings, he said, "We talked about the breadth of experiences and what we wanted to implement, focusing on items that were actionable, rather than things that would just look good on our shelf." These include giving all department members a copy of the plan; measuring programs against the 2001 plan each quarter; encouraging department members to participate in bar associations and other organizations that focus on diversity issues; and creating communications about diversity on the Intranet site.
Karen Ripley, associate general counsel for Miller Brewing Company in Milwaukee, was also pulled in for comments. She recalls a dinner meeting followed by a more formal meeting the next day, where about 10 people brainstormed about where they thought the company should be going. "I thought we had a very candid discussion and a great deal of receptivity to remarks we made, and changes were made based on our comments."
Despite Miller Brewing Company's already diverse legal staff, the new diversity plan will lead to "heightened awareness," Ripley explains. "It is something that senior members of the department will keep in mind, particularly as we work with outside counsel and focus on the makeup of the legal team that provides our work."
Philip Morris takes part in the City Bar of New York Minority Fellowship Program, which offers students at the end of their first year practical experience. Yet, like many large corporations, it does not hire directly out of law school. Because of the heavy demands it places on its lawyers, they must be ready to hit the ground running.
Therefore, the outside counsel are important, not only as partners in litigation, but because those firms often provide the raw talent from which the company recruits.
Ripley says that as diverse teams are assigned to the company's cases, "we get to know them." If those teams have nonwhite members, the recruitment pool is that much stronger. In addition, they can tap into those minority attorneys' networks as a further means of recruiting legal staff.
The Miller Brewing Company law department already has for its small size a reasonably diverse staff of 13 lawyers. Of those, four are women and two are African American.
Michelle Nettles, one of the African-American attorneys, co-chairs Miller's Diversity Council. And Ripley co-chairs a Women's Development Network, which "advocates for women in the company." The women take a leadership role on matters of diversity, not just in the law department, but in the company overall, notes Ripley, who adds that diversity is strongly supported by Miller Brewing Company's General Counsel William Schmus.
In early October, Murillo was preparing the agenda for a new meeting on diversity goals. "I think Philip Morris has done a good job and has success in hiring a diverse legal staff. However, I also think there's room for improvement by placing a higher focus on other action-oriented items."
Success in fostering diversity in a company breeds success, Barrington believes. "When candidates see people who look like them, they are more prone to be willing to come and work for the firm."
Once those lawyers are on board, it is equally important to keep them. "Developing your talent pays all kinds of dividends," Barrington says. "It keeps your best and brightest from leaving your organization. We make sure they are getting the experiences they need to grow. For example, people sometimes don't realize that lawyers need management experience, but a lot of what we do is management: we oversee big budgets, big projects, and big litigation."
Diversity will thrive in companies where the passion comes from the very top, these lawyers maintain. According to the company's website, Kraft Foods was cited by The Wall Street Journal as one of the country's pioneers in supplier diversity.
Overall, the Philip Morris family of companies purchased more than $1.3 billion from minority and women-owned firms last year. Geoffrey C. Bible, chairman and CEO of the company, says in a letter on the website that, "We have seen that working with a wide range of vendors provides a competitive edge…" That sentiment is echoed within the law department.
According to Barrington, "We don't do diversity because it's a good thing to do, or even because it's the moral thing to do, but because we want to be the best law department in the world."
Hope E. Ferguson is a freelance writer and reporter who works in public relations for the State University of New York.
From the December 2001 issue of Diversity & The Bar®