"You are different. We support that."

Insurance giant Cigna, which has one of its two main offices in Bloomfield, stands behind the words on its website with a legal department devoted to diversity.

After all, the Fortune 500 company provides policies for customer from all walks of life. And so it makes sense to get a broad range of perspectives from its employees, says General Counsel Nicole Jones.

Of the seven top positions in the department's leadership team — located in both Connecticut and Philadelphia — are four women and two minorities. Overall, the legal department has 76 attorneys. Of that total, 44 are women and 56 minorities (counting both men and women), including African American, Asian and Latino.

The legal department handles a variety of matters, offering corporate leaders advice on government compliance, general business, public policy and tax and investment law, as well as handling litigation.

"I embody diversity. I'm African American," Jones said. "You want to feel like you can create an opportunity for someone else to blossom, so let's create that opportunity," Jones said. "People who come from diverse backgrounds might not understand the [potential opportunities] in front of them. It benefits the corporation by enriching the culture and the company's perspective and also, for me, it's a chance to create the opportunities that people were nice enough to create for me."

That commitment has earned Jones, and CIGNA, the Diversity Award in the Law Tribune's 2013 Legal Departments of the Year competition.

Shifting Focus

One of Jones' first opportunities came when she was cutting her teeth in the legal business. She recalls the kindness of an older law firm partner who pushed her to write better and taught her to be solely responsible for her work. Another time, she was given a chance to prove her mettle after interviewing at a telecommunications company for a job that required 20 years of experience. Jones had eight.

"I wasn't the number one candidate, but people took risks on me and that's tremendous," Jones said. "I found that all through my career."

And she brought that philosophy to Cigna. If someone can communicate well, displays tenacity and appears to be able to learn the ropes quickly, Jones said she is not afraid to take the same sorts of chances that people took with her. A few years back, the legal department hired an African-American lawyer with only a year-and a half of experience.

"But we were really impressed with her," Jones said. "Normally we take more seasoned attorney with more experience. We brought her on, trained her, created opportunity for her and she's been here about four years now in successive roles. She's been one of our shining stars."

Jones says creating a diverse legal department "makes a tremendous difference. As an organization, we are shifting [our focus from] corporations to individuals. We have a push to customer-centricity. Everyone, including the lawyers, is supposed be to thinking about how this impacts our customers."

One example: The legal department now drafts contracts and summarizes benefits so that they are understandable to all of Cigna's clients. From a diversity standpoint, having any inclusive legal department means that it mirrors the population. Jones said, "we need someone with the perspective and background that can acknowledge, 'This isn't understandable to the Latino community or won't be received the way we think it should be received.' It helps us as an organization to relate to our customers better."

John Bogan, the department's head litigator, said it's the person at the top who sets the tone. That person is Jones and the tone is progressive and broadminded. Bogan said when searching for ideal job candidates, a focus on diversity ends up creating a better legal department.

"It's all about talent," Bogan said. "The wider you cast the net, the more you find top talent. By looking past the surface characteristics, [hiring is] based on merit. Different backgrounds bring different ideas and perspectives. A narrow focus is limiting."

Jones, he added, is perfect to lead the legal team because "she's an extremely open communicator. She's not afraid to share her personal story and has a casual style with people. She is approachable and treats everyone the same regardless of their level of experience."

As a result, said Bogan, the legal department's culture is one where "we respect people for their differences, their ideas and their perspectives. People feel they get a fair shake and are valued for what they bring to the job. There is a sense of fair treatment and inclusion. People's character matters. Being diverse has created a more client-oriented approach. People are here to provide a service. We need to relate to clients and what they need."

Romey Murphy, a senior litigator at Cigna, said having a dynamic leader helps the department, and the company, continue in a progressive direction.

"There is a sense of community within the legal department that Nicole has created where each one of us is encouraged to use our own insights, perspectives and experiences to find new and better ways to approach things," Murphy said. "When important issues are brought to the leadership team, Nicole leverages the diverse makeup of the legal department to examine the issues and recommend changes. She pulls together an inclusive and broad range of individuals who share a common goal but offer a diverse approach on achieving that goal."

Jones started out in private practice at the international firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell, leaving after five years to go in-house at Johnson & Johnson. She admitted that she missed the adrenaline rush of a busy law firm and returned to private practice for a brief stint before joining Cigna.

"I was here for three years as deputy general counsel and then in 2011 came back as general counsel. When I came back, there was a goal to change our culture — to make our culture a more open one — where people feel empowered and clear on our goals and objectives," Jones said. "A lot has changed culturally in our department as where before it wasn't something that was spotlighted."

In recent years, the legal team has partnered with diversity-oriented organizations to help recognize diversity initiatives. The department also focuses its community service and corporate social responsibility activities on diverse organizations.

"We've long been passionate about this," said Jones, "and with the arrival of our Chief Diversity Officer a few years ago, we really took a strategic leap forward in engaging employees in diversity and inclusion. People around the company are active and engaged in levels we've never seen before."

The bottom line, said Jones, is legal department diversity is about far more than hiring practices.

"We make sure we are thinking about everything we do — in the contracts we write, the summaries clients will read," she said. "It helps us internally to take a broad lens and not just think about our clients one way, but to think about the diversity of our clients. We have a diverse pool that we draw from. Without being as diverse, it would be different. There would be things that would be harder to get right."•