The First Annual MCCA/Littler Mendelson Survey of Minority General Counsel
Serving as general counsel of a major corporation is perhaps the apex of achievement for any lawyer in America. Although the United States has thousands of qualified lawyers, only a select 500 can hold this position for the largest companies in the country-the Fortune 500. Today, there are 11 minorities who have attained this achievement. (Please Note: Kenneth Frazier of Merck & Co. will officially be appointed general counsel in December -See table below).
|Minority General Counsel by Department Size|
|Carter, Pamela||Cummings Engine Co.||12||Farm Equipment|
|Cole, James||Auto Nation||25||Auto Retail|
|de Lasa, Jose||Abbott Laboratories||57||Pharmaceuticals|
|Diggs, James||PPG Industries||33||Chemicals|
|Frazier, Kenneth||Merck & Co.||117||Pharmaceuticals|
|Jenkins, James||Dow Corning||41||Farm Equipment|
|Liu, Don||IKON Office Solutions||4||Wholesalers|
|Madison, George||Comerica Inc.||30||Commercial Banks|
|Pamore, Roderick||Sara Lee Corporation||52||Food|
|Patrick, Deval||Texaco||143||Patroleum Refining|
|Watson IV, Solomon||The New York Times||11||Publishing/Printing|
These 11 men and women are indeed an elite group. Not only have they proven themselves to be top-flight managers who are astute legal experts, but they have demonstrated that their character can withstand the subtle racism that can impact the upward mobility of attorneys in corporate America. That's no easy task, considering that although this group currently accounts for less than 2.5 percent of the total general counsel in the Fortune 500, ten years ago, a survey of general counsel would have yielded even smaller numbers for minorities. The results of this year's MCCA/Littler Mendelson survey go a lorig way toward providing some practical insights about the career development and professional demeanor minority lawyers must follow in order to elevate their careers to the highest levels in corporate America.
The Minority Corporate Counsel Association/ Littler Mendelson Survey of Minority General Counsel in the Fortune 500 found nine African Americans, one Asian and one Hispanic among the general counsel of Fortune 500 companies. Pamela Carter, an African American, is the only minority women general counsel among the nation's top companies. Among the current group of 11, two were appointed during the 1980s. One was appointed between 1990 and 1995, and the remaining eight were appointed since 1997, including four appointments this year.The fact that the majority of the group has been appointed within the last three years suggests that corporations' willingness to appoint minorities to the highest ranking corporate legal position is improving. If the trend of appointing minorities to this role continues at the current rate, the number of minority general counsel could double within the next ten years.
Minorities hold general counsel positions in several industries including pharmaceuticals, farm equipment, petroleum refining, chemicals, auto retail, commercial banks, publishing, food and wholesalers. The total number of minority general counsel is too small to draw any conclusions about the willingness of certain industries over others to appoint minorities to this position. It is also difficult to draw any real conclusions about whether minorities are given the opportunity to head the largest law departments in the country There are about 60 Fortune 500 companies that have more than 100 attorneys and another 90 that have between 51 and 100 attorneys. Two of the eleven minority general counsel head departments with more than 100 lawyers; two run departments that have 51 to 100 lawyers; three run departments of 26 to 50 attorneys and the remaining four head departments with 25 attorneys or less.
The survey findings show that minorities have taken a similar path to reach the general counsel post. Many of the survey respondents had some experience in government, whether it was as a trial attorney or as a senior level manager in the public sector. Most of them have worked at some of the largest and most successful law firms in the country, advancing through the ranks to make partner while gaining valuable experience working with corporate clients. In almost every case, it was the experience of working with corporate clients that exposed their talents to key officials at progressive corporations which then aggressively recruited the talented attorneys for senior-level in-house counsel positions. Generally, the attorneys then demonstrated leadership and expertise in the corporate setting until they were promoted to the general counsel position from within or were recruited by headhunters to fill the role at another corporation. This basic pattern of movement is encouraging for the future because there are many minority lawyers with similar experience who can step into the role of general counsel if the right circumstances present themselves.
Keys To Success
What were the key skills and attributes that these minorities used to maneuver their way to the top of their profession?
Perhaps the most important attribute these professionals relied upon was having unwavering confidence in their ability to get things done. They each explained that maintaining confidence was essential in convincing others to have confidence in their ability. Stereotypes and misperceptions about minorities often increase the incidences when they are challenged by colleagues. Staying confident and in control helps to disprove or neutralize any negative assumptions about their qualifications and leadership potential.
Being able to work with and get along with people is also a critical component of success. Working with people includes leadership – managing, motivating, disciplining and understanding how to reward others. Working with others also means understanding how to compete with them: no one advances without being able to effectively judge which battles to pick and when. Convincing others to believe in your ideas and follow your directions is also a key skill-no easy task for minorities in environments that are averse to diversity.
All of the survey respondents suggested that having a variety of experiences was essential because general counsel candidates must demonstrate that they know how to solve difficult problems. Showing that you have an expertise in one or more areas is important, especially if those areas are connected to corporate governance or business management.
Successful candidates must also show a willingness to adhere to corporate guidelines and procedures. Completing projects efficiently while following office protocols is the mark of a disciplined "team player" and solid manager. And the last, but equally important, attribute respondents stressed was patience. Having the patience to endure the long hours, difficult work and subtle racism until one of the coveted general counsel positions opens up may be the most difficult task a minority lawyer faces.
Challenges Facing Minorities
Although they all acknowledged that racism still exists, none of the survey respondents would dwell on it as a major factor in preventing them from reaching their goals. The overall view of the group was that minorities would always face challenges because of racial or cultural differences, but the key was to become familiar with the hurdles, learn how to recognize when they exist in an organization and then plan accordingly. As one respondent put it, "The hurdles will always be there. It's how you react to the hurdles that will make or break your career."
Another challenge that can make or break a career is the ability to find a mentor or sponsor. Because there are fewer minorities in high-level management positions, finding a mentor becomes a difficult task. Mentors and sponsors have the power to put minorities on projects that will keep them on the right track toward advancement, introduce them to key leaders within the company, to vouch for their ability to handle difficult assignments and act as role models of efficiency and leadership. The survey respondents say without such assistance, it would be difficult for anyone to rise through the ranks of a corporate law department, but almost impossible for members of minority groups.
Equally as important as finding a mentor is finding opportunities to demonstrate your abilities. Lawyers who do not work on key assignments have less of a chance to be seen as candidates for the general counsel position. Of course, the problem is that there aren't enough quality assignments to go around – that is why having a mentor to pull you onto those assignments is critical.
Advice for Corporations
The recent increase in corporations implementing diversity initiatives is a promising development that should lead to more minorities being appointed as general counsel in the near future. The survey respondents heartily endorsed such measures and suggested that corporations view minorities like any other talent pool they aggressively recruit from-if the company is convinced that there is talent in that group, it will devote significant resources to recruiting that talent. And once minority talent is recruited it should be evaluated for its potential and given help to develop like any other talent that is recruited. Minorities should not just be hired for the good feeling of having a diverse workforce.
Respondents also suggested that corporations should investigate whether company standards (such as graduating from specific law schools) may be screening out people who could be excellent candidates. They encourage companies to take a little extra time, if necessary, to seek out minority candidates with assistance from professionals in the minority community.
Although it will still be difficult for minorities to ascend to the highest-ranking position of the legal profession, this may be their best opportunity. With the help of an innovative new generation of special admissions programs, there are more minorities attending law school than ever before. The ranks of minorities working at large law firms and in corporate law departments are growing as well. As they continue to gain experience and exposure in the profession, they will be prepared to compete for general counsel positions that will open in the fiiture.
With professional organizations such as MCCA, the American Corporate Counsel Association and the American Bar Association implementing initiatives that advocate diversity in the legal profession, more corporations will likely adopt diversity initiatives in the future. This can only help minorities get a fair opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the 11 minority general counsel that exist today.
Jaffe D. Dickerson is the Managing Shareholder of the Los Angeles Office of Littler, Mendelson, PC., the nation's largest law firm representing employers exclusively in labor and employment law matters. Matthew S. Scott is Editor of Diversity & The Bar Magazine.
From the November 1999 issue of Diversity & The Bar®