As general counsel of MassMutual, Mark Roellig runs a large, in-house legal department that seeks to position itself as a strategic asset for the business. For him, creativity is king.

“We’re not sitting around in our offices waiting for the phone to ring,” said Roellig, who has been with the insurance and financial services company since 2005. “In the legal department, we really step in and say, ‘How can we advance the business?’”

The group has 11 lawyers in its Enfield office and the rest spread out in Springfield, Mass., and across the globe. That basic philosophy Roellig follows with his 101-lawyer legal group is one of simplicity. “It’s all about talent and teams,” he said.

Roellig’s commitment to “getting creative” with how MassMutual lawyers do their jobs led to a federal court victory last year worth more than $200 million for MassMutual. The company also made strides last year to bolster its already strong commitment to diversity, by increasing the number of its attorneys who are women and minorities in leadership positions.

The group’s pro-active approach to managing the company’s in-house legal needs and creating and maintaining an inclusive workplace are why MassMutual is being honored by the Connecticut Law Tribune. The winner of Corporate Legal Departments of the Year awards for both Management of In-house Counsel and Diversity, MassMutual will be honored, with other winners, at a ceremony at the Hartford Club next month.

“I think it’s great to be recognized,” Roellig said. “You work awfully hard and at the end of the day, there aren’t that many things where someone says, ‘You did a great job, you did better than your peers.’ It creates a bit of a pat on the back.’”

Guarantee Pays Off

The law department wasn’t looking for kudos last year when it found a way to save the company millions by uncovering a previously unused tax deduction. What the in-house lawyers found was that, every December since 1995, the Board of Directors at MassMutual had unconditionally guaranteed it would pay its investors as much as $1 billion in dividends.

MassMutual’s in-house tax lawyers began to explore the possibility that the company could use that guarantee to its advantage. The critical point was to have the government recognize that MassMutual’s payment guarantee was a deductable liability for the tax year that the guarantee was made, rather than in the subsequent year when the dividend was paid out.

The company filed a claim in federal court in 2007 to gain that deduction.

In January 2012, MassMutual won a favorable decision from the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. In her decision, Judge Marion Blank Horn found that the company’s lawyers had creatively proved their case. “While in some cases, timing is everything,” Horn wrote, “here, timing is the only thing.”

Because interest on nearly two decades’ worth of deductions is so large, the company will reap a benefit of more than $200 million, including future savings that will come from changing the deduction timetable, said Roellig. The discovery of that tax deduction, he said, is an example MassMutual’s in-house lawyers taking the initiative and leading the business to a financial gain.

“We could have waited for the phone to ring, but instead, we identified an opportunity and went after it,” Roellig said.

‘Culture Of Inclusion’

Improving and maintaining diversity in the legal department is another opportunity that Roellig and his staff takes very seriously. “It’s all about getting better results for your company, and diversity is just as important as going after that tax case,” he said.

“Building a culture of inclusion in your legal team is critical, because it will improve your team’s performance. MassMutual views diversity as being critical to the success of the organization and critical to the success of the law department.”

MassMutual and its subsidiaries, with $443 billion in assets under management, stand out as an example for other corporations to follow, said Veta T. Richardson, executive director for the Minority Corporate Counsel Association in Washington, D.C. Her organization named the legal department at MassMutual as its 2011 Employer of Choice for the Northeast Region.

The company’s legal team was recognized for its commitment to a diverse work force, including a partnership with the Goodwin Proctor law firm, which has a Boston office, to provide scholarships for minority law students.

MassMutual also has started a summer law clerk program for minority students in association with the University of Connecticut School of Law. Last year, MassMutual offered full-time jobs to three summer clerks from the UConn program. “MassMutual creates opportunities for diverse lawyers both inside and outside of the company, setting a standard for other companies to follow,” Richardson said.

Ross Garber, a Shipman & Goodwin partner who works closely with MassMutual’s legal department, said his firm has seen the benefit of the diversity commitment by Roellig and his team. Roellig has personally recommended many law students from MassMutual’s mentoring programs to work for Shipman & Goodwin in Hartford.

“Mark came to a meeting of the partnership of Shipman & Goodwin recently to talk about how we can do even better in collaborating on diversity initiatives,” Garber said. “The impact of that presentation can’t be overstated. As someone who has the pleasure of working with Mark and his team at MassMutual, I have personally witnessed the positive impact he has had on lawyers both inside and outside the company.”

MassMutual itself has increased the number of minority hires and promotions to jobs steadily over the years and continues to do so. Of the last 12 attorneys hired by the law department, six were women. The legal department, Roellig said, has also promoted several minority attorneys to senior positions, meaning vice president or above, in the past 12 months.

Roellig sees building on diversity as a way of improving his legal staff. “If you want talent and you’re not focusing on increasing diversity, you’re missing out on a huge amount of talent,” he said.

The legal department has also worked on a number of pro bono programs that reach out to socio-economically diverse populations. The legal team has hosted a diversity dinner for attorneys of color in Hartford for the past three years. It’s members also were the hosts of the University of Connecticut’s School of Law Black Law Students lecture series in 2010, and this year hosted a reception with the Crawford Black Bar Association.

“Diverse teams create an environment of continuous learning,” Roellig said.•