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The Power Of A Diverse-Majority Legal Department

It’s not every day you encounter a legal department in a $23 billion company with the level of diversity that was the reality at US Foods, a NYSE-listed Chicago-area company that ranks in the top quarter of the 2017 Fortune 500, during Juliette Pryor’s tenure as General Counsel.

When Juliette was the company’s Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer from 2009 to 2016, her legal team comprised 15 lawyers, of whom seven were women and nine were people of color. At the 2017 MIHCA (Minority In-House Counsel Association) annual conference, we assembled a panel of power attorneys from that former team in a discussion we called, “The Secret Sauce for Success,” and explored the pressures, benefits and skills acquired from working on a team with this makeup. I was asked to moderate because, prior to joining Major, Lindsey & Africa in 2013, I was an Assistant General Counsel under Juliette at US Foods.

As a female African-American GC, Juliette was not alone, but she was a rare standout. Part of what distinguishes her comes from how she led a diverse staff; she helped them develop the leadership skills required to forge their own successful paths in leading to their own GC positions elsewhere. That team included Dorothy Capers, now global GC for National Express; Gail Sharps Myers, now GC for American Tire Distributors (placed by Major, Lindsey & Africa); Wendy Webb Williams, former GC, IFCN for Mead Johnson Nutrition/RB; Luis Avila, former interim GC and Chief Compliance Officer at US Foods, and current GC of the Hispanic National Bar Association; Jim Pyle, Vice President and AGC for Cars.com; and me.

The diverse attorney hiring process

The team, according to Juliette, came together as part of US Foods’ move of its corporate offices from Columbia, Maryland, to Rosemont, Illinois, in 2009. She was convinced by her CEO to make the move. Juliette credits her GC predecessor, David Eberhardt, a straight white male, for initiating diversity within the department with other lawyers of color even back in Maryland: “He always cast a broad net when recruiting. And during his tenure as GC of US Foods, the team of lawyers was 40% people of color and 40% female,” she said.

Several in-house attorneys left the company instead of relocating, but as Deputy General Counsel, Juliette encouraged some of her direct reports to head west to Chicago (Rosemont is a suburb of the Windy City). Wendy Webb Williams was one of the staff attorneys in Maryland who took up her offer. Wendy wasn’t sure the Chicago move was right for her because it meant working on new (to her) parts of the business. “I was nervous,” said Wendy. “But Juliette told me, ‘You’re smart, you are hardworking, you’ll figure it out.’”

By 2009, Juliette ascended to the GC role. Her process for building the legal department was as objective as possible. In one example, when hiring for a position in the department, her Associate General Counsel, Jim Pyle, had to choose between a female African-American, someone of Indian heritage and a Caucasian male. When Jim expressed his preference for the African-American female, Juliette asked him whether the department had hired too many African-American females. Jim replies, “She is the best candidate.”

The anatomy of diversity leadership

What a great leader understands about building a team is that’s it’s about the caliber of talent as well as acceptance. To really develop a thriving team:

  • Understand what diversity brings — For Luis Avila, the experience was particularly important because he is both Hispanic and gay. “Working for this company in this department allowed me to be authentic,” he said. For Jim Pyle, diversity was functionally a plus: “My experience was that diversity works. We had the advantage that different perspectives bring. It made me, and us, better lawyers.”
  • Set an example for the rest of the company — Gail Sharps Myers observed she didn’t feel pressures relative to her race that were any different from everyday life. But she thinks the team collectively provided something: “We wanted to set an example for the whole company that diversity is easy,” she said. (Panel members noted that the company overall wasn’t exceptionally diverse.)
  • Act objectively and decisively — Just because an attorney is the “right” demographic doesn’t make up for deficiencies. Juliette said that as a leader she sometimes had to provide hard feedback and make difficult staffing decisions. “It’s always bad for a GC to be perceived as tolerating low-skilled people,” she said.
  • Hire outside counsel that reflects your company’s values — All panelists had something to say about their experiences hiring outside counsel. Dorothy Capers shared that when paring down the number of firms they work with, she went to the National Association of Minority & Women Owned Law Firms (NAMWOLF) for referrals. Juliette and Gail Sharps Myers say they make law firm staff diversity a part of their requests for proposal (RFPs). Wendy and Luis said they scan prospective firms’ websites to look for lawyers of color; they and Gail wants to see those attorneys in the pitch, not just on paper. “If I don’t get the chance to look them in the eye, they don’t get hired,” she explained.

Juliette Pryor led the team almost from the start, and perhaps summarized their experiences in true leadership style: “Social scientists say we’re drawn to people like ourselves. But you can bond across differences if you find those common human bonds. One of the best outcomes of a diverse workplace is when people can simply be themselves, not trying to mimic anyone else.”

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