Larry D. Thompson’s work biography reads like the résumé of three attorneys. Prior to joining the global food and beverage company in 2004, Thompson was at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. Before that, he served in the U.S. Department of Justice as deputy attorney general. In 2002, he was asked by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to lead the National Security Coordination Counsel. He also led the department’s Enron investigation. Thompson was U.S. attorney in Atlanta from 1982 to 1986, and a litigation partner in King & Spalding’s Atlanta office from 1986 to 2001.
“My legal and life experiences have put me in a place where I’m able to help the corporation achieve its business objectives within the law and pursuant to high ethical standards,” says Thompson. “My time as a prosecutor gave me the knowledge of what can happen when compliance failures take place. I think it all adds to my effectiveness as general counsel.”
Throughout his career, Thompson says, he has appreciated the value of public service and not allowed money to be his top priority. He has also stressed the importance of substantive skills: “Early in my career as an associate, I was able to gain a lot of experience handling smaller matters independently,” says Thompson. “That’s no longer possible in large law firms. Today, very highly paid young associates are often little cogs in the big wheel working on important cases. It seems to me that attorneys suffer from this change.”
Thompson grew up in Hannibal, Mo., the son of a railroad laborer and a cook. Despite his conservative reputation, he describes himself as a child of the ’60s, and his plan in college was to become a social worker, to do something that could help other people. In Thompson’s junior year at Culver-Stockton (a small liberal arts college in Missouri), a history professor spoke to him after class and suggested that he pursue a legal career.
After college, Thompson postponed his legal ambitions to pursue a master’s degree in industrial sociology from Michigan State University. He went on to the University of Michigan Law School in 1971—a time when many law schools were opening up to black students.
In time he discovered that he possessed an innate talent for litigation. His graduating class included fellow successful African American attorneys Michele Coleman Mayes (general counsel of Allstate) and Jerome A. Atkinson (Assurant Inc.’s recently retired executive vice president).
Although Thompson is typically not subject to as much criticism from the liberal black community as other conservative African American public figures have been, he has taken some heat for being against affirmative action. “In fact, that isn’t true,” says Thompson. “I’m all for legally constituted permissible affirmative action programs. I’m just against those that exclusively benefit friends of people in high places.”
Currently content with his position at PepsiCo, Thompson is not certain where the future will take him. He does not anticipate any big changes anytime soon. Whatever the case, we suspect Thompson has not yet finished adding to his résumé. DB
From the September/October 2008 issue of Diversity & The Bar®