As the top lawyer for one of the largest credit card companies in the world, Laureen Seeger has no shortage of responsibilities. But she still invests plenty of time and energy to ensure that women and minorities are given opportunities within the organization and specifically within the general counsel’s group.
American Express Co.’s legal department of 200 lawyers is comprised of 57 percent women, Seeger said. The number will fluctuate, but giving females room to grow is something that’s important to her.
In an April interview, Seeger shared with Corporate Counsel what she and the legal department are doing to build a diverse and inclusive workplace and create opportunities both within the company and externally. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Corporate Counsel: More than half of your legal department is female. Is there something specific you’re doing to bring in more women and people of color?
Laureen Seeger: As we manage our female talent, we also try to make sure we’re growing them not only for their job at American Express but for their careers. And we’re incredibly proud of the women we’ve developed here who have gone on to be general counsels of other corporations.
In our recruiting, we’re constantly making sure we have a diverse slate of candidates for open roles. We’ve brought in some very senior-level women, [like] our corporate secretary. And we just brought a woman into a senior role on our global security leadership team.
Then we invest a tremendous amount of effort every year in mentoring programs and in sponsoring diversity and inclusion programming in our offices around the globe.
What kind of programming are you organizing?
We focus on diversity issues, gender-oriented issues. We not only do that programming for the law department but we have events where we host maybe 500 employees in a location. I’m really proud of it. We’ve always had a big event on the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. We had a four-hour implicit bias program a few months ago that was standing-room only.
I’m the executive sponsor globally for our PRIDE network for the LGBTQ network.
[Last year] I had [Uber CLO] Tony West come in and we had black employees from many other companies attend who are part of a community of lawyers. I interviewed him on stage and we focused on Tony’s career, which has been very successful, and talked about the challenges he’s encountered and overcome.
[Earlier this month, American Express hosted] the global women’s conference, with nearly 200 employees from countries all around the world, and we host them in New York for two days. We’re investing in their personal development as leaders. We have every member of our executive committee attending the majority of the meeting, so we’re providing exposure for all the women around the world. It’s pretty remarkable.
It would be hard for me to find a week in the past year where the general counsel’s organization or the leadership of this company hasn’t had a diversity event.
Do you spend a lot of time personally mentoring lawyers?
Yes. I’ve spent a lot of time in particular with women but also with men who are at different phases of their legal career. Some may have worked for me in the past and others are connected to me by other executives in the company who know them.
I just reached out to a new general counsel, a female who has not done the job before, and I wrote to her and I’m trying to set up a time to get together with her to pay forward a lot of the advice that I received in the early days from my female peers when I first became a general counsel.
I have to do that because other people have done it for me, and because I just think it’s the right thing to do. I take an interest in other people. I feel that people’s potential is unlimited and, in the right circumstances, people can do remarkable things.
As one of the highest-paid public company general counsel, is compensation something you’re addressing with your mentees?
I wouldn’t say it’s a focus in some of my external conversations, but I do help folks that are in law firms or are thinking of going in-house or are thinking about taking a general counsel job. I help decode the whole package, because it’s very different for a law firm partner who’s got a lot of cash compensation—whereas when you come in-house, most of your compensation is deferred. You see a big number, but that number can shrink or grow depending on how valuable the company is on your watch, which is going to depend on how good of a job you do partnering with the business on long-term and short-term objectives.
I think there are a lot of talented people out there that work very hard and I think I’m very fortunate to be on the lists that you see, but I have to say, I’m much more focused on career growth and having an impact in helping the company. I also focus here at AmEx, as do my executive peers, on pay equity.
And how are you approaching pay equity within the company?
The company periodically goes deep on a pay analysis by band across the globe and they look at what the pay ranges are for jobs in certain areas at certain levels and they look at the compensation of men versus women in those jobs. And to the extent they can’t find any discrepancy, they change the compensation of the woman who is paid less or the diverse person who’s paid less. The company has a regular process of addressing any inequities. In our last review, we didn’t find any. There was very little, if any, difference.
But the opportunity for us and many other companies is to get a higher representation of women and in people of color in the highest level of the company. Once the men and women are there, the compensation isn’t all that different, according to the analysis that our human resources team and outside consultants do each year.
What about with your outside firms?
In our most significant litigation matter in recent years, the DOJ antitrust case [that is currently awaiting a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court], our team was very diverse. If you came any day to the courtroom, you would see that and I was very pleased with that.
We’re working with outside counsel on their current diversity metrics and we’re also looking for that when selecting new counsel. When we’ve had a new case, if the firm wasn’t diverse enough, we haven’t selected them to represent us on that new matter.
We know this has been a topic that hasn’t seen a lot of progress, despite efforts years ago by members of the bar. The only way we’ll know we’ve succeeded and other companies have succeeded is when we start seeing more women partners as a percentage and more people of color as a percentage in the law firms that we hire. So we know in the end that’s the ultimate measure of success, and we know we have a ways to go as a community.