National Bar Association—Commercial Law Section
The Commercial Law Section (CLS) is one of 21 sections of the National Bar Association (NBA). For six of the past seven years, the CLS has been named “Section of the Year.” One of its greatest achievements is bringing together its members with in-house counsel who seek to diversify their outside counsel ranks.
The section’s commitment to fostering these relationships between in-house and outside counsel began more than 20 years ago. In 1987, several members of the CLS brainstormed about how they could bring together their members with in-house counsel to develop professional relationships and foster diversity. After months of planning, these pioneers organized the first Corporate Counsel Conference in Chicago.
At the inaugural conference, CLS Chair Cora T. Walker noted,
[T]he purpose of the Corporate Counsel Conference is to afford general counsel and chief executive officers of major corporations with an opportunity to meet NBA members from across the country and acquaint themselves with the wealth of virtually untapped resources available to them through use of NBA members as outside counsel.
The inaugural conference was a success in every sense of the word. CLS had created a venue where major corporations could meet and interact with minority attorneys they might never have met otherwise. Those who might have been asking where to meet qualified minority attorneys needed to look no further than this conference. This rare opportunity attracted in-house counsel from a multitude of law departments, including Allstate Insurance Company, Amtrak, Consolidated Rail Corporation, DuPont Chemical, Ford Motor Company, General Motors Corporation, IBM, McDonald’s Corporation, Mobil Oil Corporation, Shell Oil Company, Sterling Drug, The Travelers Insurance Company, and many others.
As the years have passed, the Corporate Counsel Conference has continued to grow. Over the years, more than 1,000 NBA CLS members have connected with more than 100 corporations. Many of these connections have blossomed into lasting and meaningful attorney/client relationships.
The current CLS chair, Kimberly Phillips, in-house counsel for Shell Oil Company, remembers the first conference she attended seven years ago: “The experience was very fruitful. I met many in-house and outside counsel, and developed relationships that remain strong and vibrant seven years later. Quite simply, I have that conference to thank for a number of friends I have today.”
The conference also has served as a model for similar programs put on by other organizations. “The section leaders had extraordinary vision to create such a program, which has now been imitated by many other bar associations,” Phillips notes. The program includes seminars, a luncheon, and networking breakfasts and receptions each night, among other activities. “It truly is a testament to the CLS members and its leadership.”
The most innovative aspect of the conference is the one-on-one corporate interviews. Prior to the conference, in-house counsel review questionnaires completed by NBA CLS members and preselect outside counsel to interview for possible business opportunities. Interviews are conducted in 15-minute intervals on designated conference dates. The interviews offer a unique opportunity for outside counsel to meet and network with in-house attorneys. “Through these interviews, many companies have demonstrated their dedication to diversity and their commitment to the goals of our [NBA] section. We see many of the same companies returning year after year to the conference and participating in these interviews,” reflects Phillips.
“Ten years from now,” Phillips predicts, “the conference will be the foremost avenue for in-house attorneys to meet lawyers of color.”
In 2007, the conference celebrated its 20th anniversary at the Doral Resort and Spa in Miami, where members looked back and honored the founders of the event. They also looked ahead. “Ten years from now,” Phillips predicts, “the conference will be the foremost avenue for in-house attorneys to meet lawyers of color, and I hope that the number of lawyers of color providing legal services would have grown so much that the conference, though it will still exist, will not need to exist in its current form.”
At its 2007 event, CLS presented a Diversity Town Hall Meeting, which featured a moderator-led panel of corporate counsel and national bar leaders. The panel examined why diversity in the workplace is necessary. The panel members started with the obvious: the purpose of corporate America is to make money. Where does this money come from? Increasingly, it comes from minority consumers, and diversity in the workplace has been shown to attract dollars from minority consumers. More and more, corporate America understands that diversity not only is the right thing to do from a moral imperative, but that it also makes financial sense.
Wilson J. Campbell, a CLS member who attended the 20th conference, called it a “networking mecca for African American and other corporate and outside counsel. It was also about making sure that we did not lose the stride set by the lawyers who preceded us.” Another attendee helped him attend three meetings with in-house counsel of large companies. As more senior CLS members have held out their hand to help him, he in turn is following their lead and helping others. “If a young associate fails at a large majority firm, we collectively have failed him or her. If an in-house counsel fails, again, we collectively have failed him or her. Ultimately, we all win together or we all lose together.” Clearly, the NBA CLS is showing by example how we can all win together. DB
Support the 21st Annual Corporate Counsel Conference NBA CLS! February 21–23, 2008, Ritz Carlton Hotel, New Orleans, La.
Francisco Ramos Jr., is a freelance writer and partner at the Miami-based offices of Clarke Silvergate Campbell.
From the January/February 2008 issue of Diversity & The Bar®