Tom Sager - Diversity's Agent Of Change

Monday, January 31, 2011 - 01:00

Al Driver


Individuals possessed by an ideal and drawing conclusions from circumstances to which they are exposed can be game changers who have an immense influence on the future. Tom Sager, general counsel of DuPont, stands out as a towering example. As a result of his vision and foresight, he serves as a catalyst in a process, not yet completed, that has opened up the American legal profession to women and minorities.

The process of change started with the end of the Second World War and end of segregation shortly after the War. Within a few years, the GI Bill flooded the country with talented young people who reinvigorated the business sector and the professions that served it. Many freshly minted young lawyers joined top Wall Street and other fine firms around the country. Others joined the few existing corporate legal departments or created the nucleus of new legal departments. However, the process of change was slow and it took time before the establishment firms that served the thriving business community included among their partners women, minorities or those from different ethnic backgrounds.

Over time, many lawyers left law firms to join growing legal departments of major companies. Here again, they were not likely to find women or those from different ethnic backgrounds in management positions - and very few people of color even at lower management levels. A faithful attendee at meetings of the ABA Committee on Corporate General Counsel at the time was unlikely to hear many serious discussions of the need for greater diversity.

However, the general counsel of growing legal departments found that they needed skilled lawyers and hired lawyers without regard to ethnicity or sex - but relatively few people of color were available.

Law firm concern about client reactions to women, minorities and those from different ethnic backgrounds changed, because legal departments as they grew in size and professionalism not only became more diverse, but made it clear that they expected their law firms to become more diverse. In many cases, convergence programs were implemented pursuant to which traditional law firm relationships were reexamined as law firms, responding to requests for proposals, bid to become part of a convergence team. Many corporate legal departments included diversity as a standard in the requests for proposals sent to law firms.

The seeds of these changes were planted in 1976 when Tom Sager graduated from law school and was hired by DuPont Legal. Before very much time had elapsed, things began to happen at DuPont. In helping to develop DuPont's convergence and law firm partnering program, it became clear to Tom that both DuPont and its law firms would benefit if they implemented policies that would contribute to their mutual success - diversity being foremost among them. Tom said in an interview with this newspaper in March of 2008 that "I believe we get better results if our lawyers reflect the diverse nature of the communities with which they may be involved. Their diversity makes them better able to connect with juries, judges and governmental bodies. We believe it is important to include in our legal team lawyers who can bring to the table perspectives gained by diverse backgrounds. You must understand the psychology of the local people in order to know what arguments will appeal to them. Diversity needs to be addressed daily."

Tom's efforts were strongly supported by the then general counsel, Stacey Mobley, who captured in 2004 for this newspaper DuPont's vision of the role of diversity in the global village we now inhabit, "We believe our workforce should reflect the diversity of the countries in which we do business. We need to draw upon the perspectives of people who come from a variety of backgrounds and cultures. Only then will we be able to serve the special needs of our customers, wherever located."

But Tom was not satisfied to keep the power of diversity a DuPont secret. DuPont Legal invited corporate legal department leaders that wished to do so to come to Wilmington to learn about the DuPont Legal Network and the power of diversity. And to make sure that its message reached the widest possible audience, DuPont published a book about the DuPont Legal Model and created a Dupont Legal Model website to familiarize even wider audiences with its message. Just as Tom used diversity as one of the standards to be met by DuPont Primary Firms, many other legal departments made diversity an important criterion in selecting law firms.

In 1997, Tom helped found the Minority Corporate Counsel Corporation (MCCA) an organization that encourages diversity in corporations, law firms and legal service providers and addresses the issues that hold back women and minorities. In 2001, the MCCA established the Thomas L. Sager Award given to corporate law departments and firms for their commitment to diversity.

We are fortunate that Tom is a work in progress and an example for every corporate counsel. If you have a great idea that will benefit the legal community and open the doors of opportunity to vast numbers of people, pursue it - Tom is a role model to be emulated.

The role of the media should not be ignored. We are proud to have kept our readers advised of the need to support the work of MCCA and of the role that diversity plays in the successes of the DuPont Network.