General Counsels from companies that are leaders in diversity spoke at the New York City Bar about their efforts and best practices to create a more inclusive environment. From left: Don H. Liu, Xerox; Sheila K. Davidson, New York Life Insurance Company; Gwen Marcus, Showtime; Joseph K. West, president and CEO, Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA); Teresa M. Sebastian, Darden Restaurants; James T. Breedlove, Praxair Inc.; Jane C. Sherburne, Bank of New York Mellon; Kimberley Harris, NBCUniversal, and Bret Parker, executive director of the city bar.
General Counsels from companies that are leaders in diversity spoke at the New York City Bar about their efforts and best practices to create a more inclusive environment. From left: Don H. Liu, Xerox; Sheila K. Davidson, New York Life Insurance Company; Gwen Marcus, Showtime; Joseph K. West, president and CEO, Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA); Teresa M. Sebastian, Darden Restaurants; James T. Breedlove, Praxair Inc.; Jane C. Sherburne, Bank of New York Mellon; Kimberley Harris, NBCUniversal, and Bret Parker, executive director of the city bar. (Eric Friedman)

When Don Liu began work as a summer associate, he showed up wearing a blue jacket and gray slacks. During an office tour that day, he realized, “I’m the only man” not wearing a suit.

“I just didn’t realize that, in 1984, you have to have a suit on. That’s because I grew up in a family where there was nobody who had worked in an office,” Liu said.

“If you run a law firm, if you run a company, you have to assume that we all come from different backgrounds,” said Liu, who is now senior vice president and general counsel and secretary at Xerox Corp. “Your policies have to recognize the differences. If we treat everybody the same, you’re going to wind up making the wrong assumptions.”

Liu joined several other general counsels at a New York City Bar Association forum last week to discuss diversity efforts, corporate challenges and pressuring law firms to increase diversity at their own firms.

The panel included Liu; James Breedlove of Praxair Inc.; Sheila Davidson, of New York Life Insurance Co.; Kimberley Harris, of NBCUniversal; H. Gwen Marcus, of Showtime Networks Inc.; Teresa Sebastian, Darden Restaurants Inc; and Jane Sherburne, of Bank of New York Mellon. It was moderated by Joseph West, president and CEO of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association.

Harris, a former Davis Polk & Wardwell partner who recently served in the White House Counsel’s Office, said everybody in an organization should be held responsible for promoting diversity. As one of the few black partners at Davis Polk, she said, “I could not be the mentor for every single minority lawyer at the firm, as much as the firm wanted me to do that.”

“Diversity is not an issue that is only the responsibility of diverse lawyers. It’s the responsibility of everybody in an institution,” Harris said.

The in-house lawyers said they wanted to see diverse attorneys on their outside counsel teams.

“You want the competitive advantage?” Marcus asked. “If your diversity pitch is real and meaningful and backed up with data, it’s going to be a competitive advantage” in obtaining her company’s business.

“As general counsel,” Sebastian said, “we have power of the dollar. So we have to use that to push forward those initiatives.”

She added that if outside counsel are not stepping up in their diversity efforts, in-house counsel can tell them, “Look, I want a diverse partner on this matter.”

Breedlove said one reason law firms need to focus on hiring and training diverse lawyers is to create better business relationships with clients.

Law firms “need to understand that the more their people get recruited into companies, the more likely is that these people become ambassadors for their firms,” he said. “I think it’s a huge mistake for law firms to not understand that they need to build a pipeline” of women and minorities.

West, the moderator, noted that he’s heard from law firms that they can’t keep diverse talent because clients often recruit them.

But Breedlove said, “That’s a fallacy.” If firms had a deep enough pipeline, they wouldn’t be worried about a few people getting recruited from time to time, he said.

Harris added that law firms should want “happy alumni” working for their corporate clients, “so it is in your business interest to develop really talented diverse lawyers,” she said.

NBCUniversal has relationships with diversity bar associations, Harris said, which helps the company identify women and minority-owned law firms “that we can develop as partners with us.”

Harris said her company tracks its legal spend with these firms, and “we have an incredible percentage” of matters going to them. When the company works with other law firms, Harris said, it looks at who is staffing their matters.

In a discussion about the business case for diversity, West brought up the racist remarks by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling and their effect on free agent players and on sponsors who left under his leadership. West said those dynamics could play out at law firms with “a Sterling reputation” that repels clients and talent.

Addressing LGBT diversity, Marcus said part of the business case often not discussed is “when people are comfortable in their own skin, they do better work.”

Panelists also touched on the importance of coaching younger lawyers.

Breedlove said one impediment in the workplace is “not understanding how to play the game.”

“I almost never found in my long experience in both law firms and corporate world, that a non-diverse person gave me those kinds of insights,” he said, referring to advice on how to presentation, leadership skills and networking.

Rather, he said, that kind of coaching, “I only got from people of color and in some cases women.”

Davidson said business leadership should have a formal program to ensure that help will go to everyone, and “that people are getting that same kind of guidance and attention.” Otherwise, she said, it might not naturally come to minorities and women.

Sebastian said some of her best mentors were white men who empowered her how to ask for a promotion. Speaking to the audience, she said, “You guys out there need to identify somebody and help them get into that same mind set to be successful.”

Davidson said her company has outside speakers talk with senior executives on diversity. When that discussion fades, “we have another speaker come in and we do it again. And you have to keep at it. You have to make it conscious.”

Sherburne noted the importance of top leadership enforcing diversity efforts with actions, not just words, or else “there’s no credibility.”

If nobody has been rewarded, or penalized for failing to meet a goal, “it’s meaningless,” she said.