MCCA reflects on the extraordinary career of James L. Lipscomb, MetLife’s trailblazing executive vice president and general counsel.
In describing his successful tenure as executive vice president and general counsel at MetLife, Inc., James L. Lipscomb credits much of his achievement to being “proactive, anticipating where things ought to be going and what people need to be doing to make it happen.” Throughout an impressive legal career spanning almost four decades—all spent at the same corporation—Lipscomb has maintained this same vigilant attitude toward diversity as well. It comes as little surprise, then, to learn that MetLife’s much-lauded legal affairs department will receive MCCA’s 2010 Employer of Choice award for the Northeast Region, honoring the group’s commitment to creating and maintaining an inclusive corporate legal department.
MetLife’s diversity committee. Seated: Patricia Curran Reinhardt, James L. Lipscomb, Taa Grays. Standing: Ashley Rowe, Mauricio Vivas, Lisa Stenson Desamours, Joseph Morledge, Alfred Ayensu–Ghartey, Sandra Garrick–Tinto, Matthew Ricciardi, Paula Barnes, James Huang, Mayleen Fitzcharles.
Photo by John Abbott Photography
Established 140 years ago, MetLife is a leading provider of insurance and other financial services to millions of individual and institutional customers throughout the United States. Outside the U.S., MetLife companies have direct insurance operations in Asia Pacific, Latin America, and Europe. This year marks the company’s second time winning MCCA’s Employer of Choice award. The first award was conferred in the fall of 2002.
Lipscomb remembers accepting that first award on behalf of the department for Gary Beller, then MetLife’s GC, who was unable to attend the ceremony. “As I stood before the 800-plus people in the room, my thoughts went to my very first day at MetLife,” he recalls. “At that time, I was only one of two African American attorneys on staff. We had come a long way, and it was a time for reflection—to look back at where we had been, and ahead to where we wanted to go.”
Lipscomb also remembers the tremendous sense of ownership and pride exhibited by his fellow MetLife associates who were present that night in 2002. “It was their award—a product of their efforts to create an inclusive work environment,” he shares. “I was there to assure them that they had the support of senior management, and that we were committed to building on the excellent progress that we’d already made.”
At the very beginning of his legal career—not long, in fact, after Lipscomb joined MetLife as an attorney in 1972—his boss approached him about coming up with ways to get more minority firms involved with MetLife work. In addition to finding the firms and introducing them to the company, Lipscomb went on recruiting drives to historically black and majority law schools in a quest to identify and encourage future minority attorneys.
In truth, his initial efforts were not overly successful. “Among the leadership, there was an outward desire to follow Martin Luther King’s clarion call to make a difference, but you couldn’t get it through the middle,” recalls Lipscomb. “The tone may be right at the top of a company, but if the middle level isn’t with the program, it’s not going to happen. I was able to find the minority firms, but they [others in the company] didn’t use them. It was a Catch-22 situation: They’d demand things from these firms that they couldn’t provide because those firms had never had the opportunity to do that kind of work before.”
Over time, MetLife came to embrace diversity more fully, particularly in its 800-person legal affairs group, where now more than half the employees are women and almost 30% are people of color. Over his career, Lipscomb has promoted diversity in a deliberate manner. He believes creating an environment where people want to work is paramount. “I’ve never tackled diversity issues with a lot of dictates,” explains Lipscomb. “Instead, my approach is to get people together and ask them to help create their work environment.
“Almost forty years after I came to MetLife, the tone is still set at the top by promoting opportunity and an atmosphere of openness,” he continues. “But today, diversity efforts are owned at all levels. As early as the interview process, many young attorneys already have an idea of what they want: They ask about MetLife’s commitment to women and people of color, and about giving back to the community and creating pro bono opportunities. Young attorneys bring new ideas and perspectives, and if there are things that need to be a part of MetLife’s work environment, they take it on themselves and make it happen.”
Lipscomb grew up in Albany, New York, in a family of fourteen children. Circumstances were challenging, and he began working while still a boy—first washing floors, and later painting houses. By high school, he was making money by cutting custom slip covers and upholstering furniture. “From an early age, my goal was to get in the best position to earn a living,” says Lipscomb. “The first challenge was graduating high school, and after that was finding the money to go to college. That was something I had to do for myself.”
After completing junior college, Lipscomb moved on to Howard University, where he majored in political science and graduated cum laude in 1969. He headed directly to Columbia University School of Law. The shift from the historically black Howard to the predominantly white Columbia didn’t particularly faze young Lipscomb. “There were about 30 black students—we called ourselves black in those days—in a class of 300,” he remembers. “We were very active in the newly formed BALSA [Black Allied Law Students Association], and we were definitely asserting ourselves. Columbia was a good place to be.”
Taa Grays, James Lipscomb, and Matthew Ricciardi
Photo by John Abbott Photography
A self-described “child of the 60s,” Lipscomb remembers the importance of the courts and lawyers in the Civil Rights Movement. Early in life, he learned the significance of the law, and considered a career in the profession. In law school he was a poll watcher for Charles Evers in the 1970 governor’s race in Mississippi; nevertheless, he did not pursue a career in civil rights law. Instead, he followed his childhood desire to become a business lawyer focusing on real estate.
At Columbia, a professor suggested Lipscomb not interview with firms. “Some of the biggest real estate is owned by insurance companies,” the professor advised. When Lipscomb was hired at MetLife, he eschewed the idea of rotating among different departments, asking instead that the company allow him to concentrate solely on real estate. His new employers agreed.
“At heart, I like to build things,” confides Lipscomb. “To this day, part of me would still like to be an architect. Throughout my law career, I’ve helped build buildings in America’s largest cities. Literally billions of dollars of real estate has been put in place across the nation through work I’ve been involved with.”
People come to work with many different objectives in mind. Throughout his career, Lipscomb showed up to excel, to lead, to make a difference. It was important for him, as he puts it, “to have some skin in the game.” Not surprisingly, after only six years at MetLife, Lipscomb was made a corporate officer, an accomplishment incredibly rare for anyone at MetLife at that point in time. During this period, Lipscomb attended the New York University School of Law at night to earn his Masters of Legal Letters degree in corporate law. Soon after, he transferred to MetLife’s California office, where he oversaw real estate investing in ten western states through 1989.
Later, back in New York, Lipscomb was asked by MetLife’s CEO to be part of an in-house strategic resource group charged with exploring issues affecting the company’s future. Soon he was called upon to join the business side of MetLife in real estate investments, where he managed a multi-billion-dollar mortgage portfolio, and eventually became a senior vice president. In addition, he led MetLife’s corporate planning and strategy department from 1998 to 2000. Next, he moved to Hartford, Conn., to serve as president and CEO of Conning Corporation (a former MetLife subsidiary), overseeing its asset management portfolio, private equity group, real estate loan origination and servicing platform, equity broker dealer, and insurance industry research group.
From 2001 to 2003, Lipscomb served as senior vice president and deputy general counsel at MetLife’s New York headquarters, with the commitment from management that he would be named general counsel after the then-general counsel was ready to pass the baton. In 2003, he was appointed to his current position.
As executive vice president and general counsel, Lipscomb oversees the company’s legal affairs group with responsibility for the global operation of the MetLife law, government and industry relations, and corporate compliance departments. He also provides advice to the board of directors and management on corporate governance and business operations.
A career like Lipscomb’s cannot be reproduced in the current environment. To stay with the same corporation for almost four decades seems to be an unlikely milestone for lawyers to reach in the future. Corporations, young people, the world—all have changed. Today’s average professional will be employed by five or more companies before retirement.
“A lot of young people coming out of law school these days feel they’re ready to take the reins of a company, as opposed to working their way up through the ranks. And in many cases, particularly in the tech area, they’re right,” notes Lipscomb. “Young people are showing up equipped with multiple skill sets from day one. Different businesses require different resources. I dare say that in ten years, I couldn’t be here unless I worked heroically to stay abreast of the company’s movement.”
At the end of April, Lipscomb will retire from MetLife. Understandably for a man who has worked since he was nine years old, he looks forward to his time being his own. He does, however, want to give more of his attention to the Center of Hope (Haiti), Inc. (www.centerofhope-haiti.org), a charity committed to fostering the future of the impoverished country’s orphans. The nonprofit corporation is currently building an orphanage and school in Hinche, a city in central Haiti that was not affected by the devastating earthquake in January. Lipscomb also plans to spend more time with his family and eventually to live permanently in Arizona, where he already owns a home.
When the Northeast Region’s Employer of Choice awards are presented in November in New York City, Lipscomb will no longer be general counsel—but, without question, his legacy will continue to resonate. Without James Lipscomb’s years of hard work, devotion, and remarkable foresight, MetLife’s legal affairs department would not be what it is today—an awardwinning place to work. MCCA salutes Lipscomb’s many accomplishments, and looks forward to checking back in with MetLife later this year to see how its commitment to diversity continues to flourish. DB
Patrick Folliard is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md.
From the March/April 2010 issue of Diversity & The Bar®