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Black History Month began in 1976 as an expansion of the previous Negro History Week, which celebrated the birthdays of both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. But February’s commemorations should be of interest to all Americans, says Lester Parrette, general counsel of Aquila, Inc. “It’s a time to reflect on significant events and people that have influenced the course of our country’s cultural and economic development,” he says. “It’s not unlike Veterans Day or Labor Day.” Parrette and two other African American GCs talked with us about race and the law. The fact that all three head the law departments of major corporations is itself “a great tribute to the progress of the civil rights movement,” says Parrette.
Byron Marchant, Executive vice president, chief administrative officer, and general counsel, BET Holdings, Inc.

The Washington, D.C.- based BET, a subsidiary of Viacom Inc., has been informing and entertaining African American audiences through its cable channel for over 20 years. BET took the center stage in December with its interview of the embattled Senator Trent Lott. Marchant, 45, supervises six lawyers. Memories of the civil rights era: I grew up as a kid of the sixties in Chicago, but as a kid I don’t know how much I understood of it. … The media had as much of an impact on the civil rights movement as anything else, because it spread ideas. [As a result], in a weird way the media ended up being a hero of the movement. The state of race relations today: There [has been] a significant amount of progress, and yet there is more to be done. We are still dealing with issues of segregation and racial profiling, [so] in a sense we are faced with the same issues that [led] to the civil rights movement. Advice for young lawyers: Develop substantive competencies in areas that go beyond the law. You need to know the law, but you need an interdisciplinary understanding of business, economics, media, [and] technology.


Deval Patrick, Executive vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary, The Coca-Cola Company.

The kingpin of soda controls over half the world market, selling hundreds of brands in 200-plus countries. Patrick, 46, joined the Atlanta-based company in 2001 and runs a department of almost 150 lawyers worldwide. Memories of the civil rights era: I remember one occasion [when I was] growing up on the south side of Chicago. My mother took me and my sister to hear Martin Luther King speak in a park. I don’t remember a single thing he said, but I do remember an incredible sense of solemnity in the crowd. [King] combined extraordinary dignity and restraint with the most creative kind of militance. His genius was much more than a rhetorical genius-it was to connect [the civil rights] struggle to fundamental American aspirations. The state of race relations today: It is characterized in large measure by avoidance, by the practice of having to put each other at ease before we can even begin to talk about what’s on our minds, and it deteriorates into well-rehearsed debates about means. Advice for young lawyers: Get prepared. Make your own opportunities, and remember that life is what happens while you’re making plans.


Leslie Parrette, Jr., Senior vice president, general counsel, and secretary, Aquila, Inc.

The Kansas City, Missouri-based gas and electric utility, which changed its name from UtiliCorp United last year, serves over 6 million customers in the midwestern U.S., Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Parrette, 41, has headed the company’s law department, currently containing 15 attorneys, for almost three years. Memories of the civil rights era: In the summer of 1967, my family lived in the inner city of Kansas City, well known as part of the ghetto. There was a white cab driver who had just dropped off a resident, and as soon as he drove away, bottles and rocks were thrown after the driver. It was part of the race riots that were sweeping across the country-the spontaneous rage. The state of race relations today: To me, there is no denying that they are significantly improved. … If we look at it from a historical perspective, we have to be very encouraged. Advice for young lawyers: Always run to areas of conflict rather than from them. At the end of the day, lawyers are here to solve problems. When the phone rings, we don’t expect to hear good news. The more experiences [you] have of conflict and disagreement, the more [you] can argue and debate–if not indeed yell and scream and shriek–over problems.

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