Big Company GCs Sign On as Mentors to Foster Big Law Diversity

Left to right: Firoz Dattu, chairman of AdvanceLaw, A. Verona Dorch, Executive Vice President, Chief Legal Officer, Government Affairs and Corporate Secretary for Peabody Energy, and Jose Ramon Gonzalez, chief legal officer of QBE North America.

Momentum among clients to improve law firm diversity is continuing to build this year, with a group of legal department leaders now taking what they call a "practical step" to drive change in the industry.

In a new program organized by in-house collective AdvanceLaw, general counsel and other senior lawyers from Fortune 500 companies will mentor diverse associates at large law firms that are within the organization’s network.

So far, general counsel from more than 20 companies have signed on to participate in the mentorship program, including lawyers from eBay, Hershey’s, Pernod Ricard, PayPal, Jones Lang LaSalle, QBE, Peabody Energy and British Airways. Other participants are in the manufacturing, technology, financial services, retail and hospitality sectors.

AdvanceLaw, a network of about 250 general counsel that helps find and retain outside counsel by vetting firms and sharing feedback, announced the mentorship program on Monday.

Once paired up, the general counsel are encouraged to get to know the associates and to provide guidance on building client relationships, client service and career advice to help them gain promotion to the partnership at their law firms—the primary benefits of the program for associates.

While participating general counsel aren’t required to give the associates and their firms legal work, it’s very possible attorney-client relationships will flow from the mentorships, said Firoz Dattu, the network’s chairman.

“We wouldn’t want to force it, that’s not the point of it,” he said, but “I wouldn’t be surprised if work did flow. It should happen naturally because of it. That’s a side effect.”

The program will match diverse midlevel and senior associates of law firms with members of AdvanceLaw, including general counsel and associate and deputy GCs.

They have agreed to mentor diverse associates from AdvanceLaw’s panel of vetted firms, which includes Ballard Spahr; Crowell & Moring; Adams and Reese; Holland & Knight; Husch Blackwell; Thompson Hine; Dykema Gossett; Fredrikson & Byron; LeClairRyan; Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt; and Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs.

Dattu said the program has been planned since last summer, when in a strategy session, AdvanceLaw discussed the idea with its general counsel members.

AdvanceLaw expects the number of participating companies to grow to include a large portion of its 250 general counsel membership, meaning that general counsel and associate and deputy GCS from each company could end up working with several hundred associates, Dattu said. Over time, the mentorship program could grow beyond the AdvanceLaw membership, he said.

'The Next Level'

The initiative is part of a larger effort lately by corporate counsel to boost diversity in large law firms, which have struggled to retain and promote diverse lawyers.

More than 170 general counsel signed an open letter, released in January, pledging to give more business to firms committed to retaining and promoting diverse lawyers. Earlier this month, seven companies and 12 law firms announced they would participate in a program that gives law school students from underrepresented backgrounds an opportunity to split their summer between a firm and legal department.

The timing of the recent open letter was a “happy coincidence,” said Dattu, the AdvanceLaw chairman.

“The letter shows the strong intent of the GC community. We want to help take this to the next level,” Dattu said. “This is meant to be a practical step.”

Dattu said it was critical to focus on the mid- and senior-level associates in order to help influence partnership classes down the line.

The initial mentorships will launch next month. They will start out with a phone call, and it will be up to the in-house lawyer and the associate to figure out when and how often to talk, Dattu said.

However, AdvanceLaw does intend to check in with the participants from time to time and track the impact of the program.

So far, participating law firms have nominated hundreds of associates across various industry and practice area specialties. The associates are diverse in ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation and disability, Dattu said.

Jose Ramon Gonzalez, chief legal officer of QBE North America, a large insurance and reinsurance company, will be one of the mentors. A natural challenge for the program, he said, will be making sure senior corporate counsel are committed to the mentorship amid all the other priorities they have. “There has to be follow through,” he said. “That’s why it’s important to start out with committed GCs.”

Gonzalez said the recent open letter from general counsel brought a realization that “a lot of us are working on this individually, and there’s a real need to do this in an organized fashion.” The AdvanceLaw program, he said, is a reflection of that desire “to get some momentum behind it.”

Peabody Energy’s legal department in the U.S. has signed on to mentor, said A. Verona Dorch, its chief legal officer. The company was already committed to improving diversity and had asked each of the 13 law firms it works with in the U.S. to provide monthly data about the attorneys on its matters.

The picture has improved somewhat, but “we’re not really moving the dial," Dorch said, either because the company isn’t getting enough data or it still sees diverse lawyers leave their firms.

“I’m thinking back to when I was an attorney at a law firm,” Dorch said. If a client had taken a serious approach to mentoring her, she said, "that would have meant a lot."

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