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Shaping a culture: Top legal officers exert increasing influence as catalysts for diversity

Patrick O’Leary makes it clear that he believes in leading by example.

“I really feel like in the legal profession we’ve sort of taken the lead in trying to create diversity and expand opportunities for all lawyers, regardless of background,” said the vice president and general counsel for The Bar Plan insurance provider. “Within our organization, diversity is just part of who we are.”

But how does an in-house legal department instill its own commitment to diversity throughout an organization at large? It is a question that has grown in salience for in-house and general counsel across the spectrum in an era in which social-justice issues occupy the forefront of the public mind. Top legal officers in corporate and higher-education environments now find themselves in positions of expanding influence to act as catalysts for change in their organizations.

In-house attorneys today say they aren’t just trying to help their company avoid discrimination suits or issue compliance advice. They are looking to help shape organizational culture in ways that allow it to embrace new voices that haven’t always been heard.

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Mark Casey

“We have a greater opportunity today to redefine the traditional view of diversity to drive inclusiveness and to recognize the interests and needs of the changing workforce demographic,” said Mark Casey, general counsel at Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, which has its U.S. headquarters in St. Louis.

“The general counsel role has become more of a broad impact, front-line executive today than it was a decade or more ago,” Casey said in a statement. “With this shift, the general counsel can have more influence over company culture and policy, playing a more significant role in championing inclusion and diversity broadly.”

Echoing that approach is Janet Mark, associate general counsel for Kansas City greeting-card giant Hallmark.

“From an employment-law perspective, we fully support any way we can create an inviting, welcoming environment for all of our employees,” Mark said in a statement. “As Hallmark employees ourselves, we benefit from an open, creative and inclusive atmosphere where individuals feel comfortable, as it enables us to be better lawyers.”

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Janet Mark

For many in-house attorneys, making that happen can mean extensive coordination with the human resources department.

“When we are creating policies in the company or have job opportunities come up, I advise on how we get that word out, how we make sure that we’re reaching a wide audience and opening up the doors to everybody that we can,” O’Leary said. “Whenever you are in an advisory role, that gives you a sort of platform to make sure those types of policies and opportunities are made available to all.”

It also means being aware of your industry and who your customers are, something O’Leary notes can help management to understand the need for a corporate roster with a variety of voices reflective of larger society.

“Every business wants to be able to reach their customers and their potential customers,” he said. “Recognizing that you have a diverse customer base, I think, is important then in looking inward to say we need to have a workforce that can relate to the customer base that we’re trying to attract.”

‘It is up to me’

Sometimes, practicing what you preach in your own department is the best way to impart that philosophy.

“I think the example is maybe the strongest catalyst,” O’Leary said.oleary-pat

To embed a culture throughout a corporation, in-house attorneys can start by modeling that behavior in their own departments, said Mary Moorkamp, chief legal and external affairs officer and corporate secretary at Schnuck Markets Inc.

“My motto kind of is, ‘If it is to be, it is up to me,’” she said.

Moorkamp is in a position to have been a part of many changes in the role of the in-house counsel. When she arrived 15 years ago, there were women in the department, but they tended to work in administrative roles. That’s not the case anymore.

“Over time, with new hires, that has shifted to one where we do model diversity in the composition of our department,” she said.

Insisting on a diverse workforce exerts a positive effect not just on the organization’s public image but on its ability to make more well-rounded decisions, Moorkamp said, because it helps the company to avoid groupthink and the kinds of monoculture that breeds homogeneity.moorkamp-mary

“You conduct business better if you have different ways of looking at it with different backgrounds and experiences,” she said. “When you partner and share experiences with others, you recognize that what’s normal to me is maybe not normal to other people, and I need to be very mindful and respectful of that.”

To that end, Moorkamp said Schnucks hosts diversity, equity and inclusion training for its senior members of leadership. Not only does it raise awareness but it demonstrates that top-level managers are committed to the priority.

“You don’t necessarily get the lasting change if you are pushing it from the bottom up,” she said. “I think that it has to start at the top.”

But the effect a general counsel can have isn’t just limited to the organization itself. Moorkamp said “vendor scorecards” that assess organizations, including external law firms, with which the company works can help to promote diversity externally as well.

“Make it meaningful so it is not just ‘Here is what we would like you to do,’” she said. “It is a ‘We may have to take our business elsewhere if you don’t.’”

General or in-house counsel also can advocate for inclusion and diversity within an organization by ensuring that the recruiting process for hiring its attorneys and those in support roles seeks a wide range of candidates with diverse backgrounds and skill sets, said Mallinckrodt’s Casey. They also can coach legal in-house teams on their roles as leaders and champions of diversity and inclusion within the organization, he said.

“As Mallinckrodt’s general counsel, I see the imperative role we play in this process,” he said. “I believe it is also important that a general counsel clearly reinforces tone at the top and brings their organization’s commitment to diversity and inclusion to life in day-to-day actions and as a leader.”

In their roles, general and in-house counsel also can see to it that outside counsel and vendors share and demonstrate their company’s commitment, Casey added.

“Perhaps more subtly, we can foster that work environment, both within our legal function and with our business partners, that welcomes, respects and promotes diverse ideas and contributions at all times,” he said.

One such example: Mallinckrodt’s “robust” supplier-diversity program, which Casey said aims to provide equitable purchasing opportunities to diverse businesses, including those that are certified minority-owned, woman-owned, veteran-owned, small and/or disadvantaged, or part of the HUBZone program.

Imprinting a culture

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Mark Falkowski

At Columbia College, vice president and general counsel Mark Falkowski said he believes law firms are stressing diversity as a way of boosting their attractiveness to in-house counsel who may be looking for specialized services they provide.

“I think some firms are actively promoting that and take that as a way to differentiate themselves in the marketplace for legal assistance,” he said.

Imprinting a culture of diversity can present a dual challenge in an educational environment, which includes both a student component and an employee dynamic, Falkowski said. He said he believes general counsels should participate on committees dedicated solely to matters of inclusion and awareness so the organization can learn quickly about issues as they occur.

“You can get a core group of folks who are engaged and who can communicate with the workforce — and in our case, the student population — to know what topics are important or might be at the forefront and work to engage with them,” he said.

Falkowski said those committees also can host events to obtain outside feedback. At Columbia, he noted that some of those activities bring in not just staff and students but also constituents in the larger community.

“It was a great way to get people from outside the college included in that kind of inclusive culture we promote here,” he said of one such recent campus gathering that helped to build connections with minority businesses.

Falkowski also stressed the importance of staying in touch with other in-house lawyers to share best practices and with colleagues in other departments.

“You can make them aware of what people are finding effective at other schools and institutions and trying to bring some of those things back to our campus,” he said.

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Matt Geekie

At Graybar, a St. Louis-based distributor of electrical, communications and other products, general counsel Matthew Geekie said the human resources team takes the lead in the company’s diversity efforts, but the legal department plays a strong supporting role that includes development of a program to seek out and engage with female-, veteran- and minority-owned enterprises.

“Whether it is from a federal, state or local contractual-requirements perspective or a commercial-contracts perspective, we want to understand what is required and then help our business colleagues identify those requirements as well as find those companies,” said Geekie, who also is a senior vice president and secretary at the enterprise.

To that end, Geekie’s department has helped compile a list of such businesses in each jurisdiction where Graybar has a presence.

“We’ve developed brochures that can be used internally as well as shared with customers to help them understand with whom they can work,” he said. “We’ve also developed brochures to take to minority-business enterprises to help them understand how they can participate in business opportunities.”

He said one key for in-house attorneys is to pay continuous attention to their companies’ data on demographics and hiring, making sure they fall in line with each other. If they don’t, the discrepancy should prompt questions about the reason why.

Like Moorkamp, he believes that an organization makes better choices if more voices are heard.

“It is useful in getting folks to say, ‘I get it. That makes sense,” he said. “‘Let’s bring in as many different diverse points of view as we can to help our business colleagues succeed’.”

At City Utilities of Springfield, associate general manager/general counsel Dwayne Fulk said his organization’s diversity initiatives are tied to a co-op internship program for the legal department and elsewhere within the utility that seeks diverse candidates.

“Our thinking is that we get [interns] involved in the legal community in Springfield as well as some good experience and some good background,” he said.

The utility also participates in other initiatives ranging from internal training to job fairs and community forums, Fulk said.

“It is the best business practice according to what our philosophy is,” he said. “It is the right moral thing to do, and it is something that pays dividends in the future when it comes to compliance with the law.”

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