For GE - Legal Diversity Is Not An Afterthought - It's An Imperative

Wednesday, March 1, 2006 - 00:00

The Editor interviews Cecilia Lofters, corporate intellectual property counsel - transactions, GE Legal, and Lead Member, GE Legal's Diversity Council ("Diversity Council").

Editor: How long have you been with GE and what did you do before coming to GE?

Lofters; I have been with GE for a little over five years. I was a partner at White & Case's New York office in the intellectual property group before coming to GE.

Editor:ÄPlease tell our readers about GE Legal's commitment to diversity.

Lofters: GE Legal has a Diversity Council within GELegal made up of lawyers and Human Resources for Legal. The Council has existed for quite awhile but was reformulated recently. The Council is made up of lawyers from each of the major business units within GE so the Council provides a wonderful opportunity to exchange best practices that each of the businesses develops in regard to diversity. Thus, if a business has a successful program they can share that with other businesses. And it is a way to share information and develop metrics and programs that are useful to all the businesses. For example, we have, through the Diversity Council, collected data covering the diversity efforts of our outside counsel. We are also focusing on networking with external legal organizations and benchmarking our efforts with other corporate legal departments. In these ways, the Diversity Council can drive increased diversity throughout GE Legal and at our law firms.

Editor:ÄHow does senior management of GE Legal communicate its dedication to diversity and what other steps does it take to communicate a positive tone at the top?

Lofters: The Diversity Council works closely with our General Counsel, Brackett Denniston, on key objectives and metrics. The Council is planning an annual in-person meeting for April, 2006 to review progress and plan for the upcoming year. Brackett attends that meeting and communicates his objectives to the team. The general counsel's direct reports also meet once a quarter and they discuss diversity at every meeting. These meetings play a vital role in assuring that diversity gets the attention of lawyers at the most senior level and that a diversity culture permeates GE Legal.

Editor: What metrics are used to measure the diversity commitment of your law firms and how is that information used to encourage your law firms to strive for diversity?

Lofters : We collect diversity statistics twice a year on the 50 firms that do the most work for GE. We request two types of information. The first pertains to the diversity of the firm overall. We ask for information on a firm-wide basis about the numbers of women and minorities at the partnership and associate levels, respectively. The second request seeks the same information with respect to the staffing of matters handled for GE. This is important because we want to be sure that they are assigning diverse lawyers to GE matters.

Based on the law firm responses, we identify the five firms that are most diverse and the five firms that are least diverse. We meet with the five least diverse firms to see whether we can help them improve their diversity performance. If they are not making an effort, we want them to know that this is not acceptable and will affect their relationship with GE. We are also considering how to appropriately recognize those firms that are most diverse.

We try to identify what techniques to improve diversity are working for our law firms and which ones are not working. We also look at whether firms are improving or falling behind. When we have auctions for our legal work, we identify diversity as one of the factors that will be considered and we let the contenders know that it will be taken into account in making our decision.

What we now have to consider is whether we should be asking for additional information. And we are trying to make sure the form we use is easy to digest. We don't want to inhibit firms from responding promptly.

Editor: Do you also request information as to whether minorities and women are serving as lead counsel in GE matters being handled by the firms?

Lofters: We have not asked that question. We are still collecting our data for 2005 and are beginning the process of determining the information that we will collect in 2006. We are looking at whether we should request additional data in 2006; that could possibly include examining the diversity of relationship lawyers and lead lawyers. We are also looking at ways we can make the data collection process more streamlined in the sense of making it more automated than it has been so far.

Editor: How does GE Legal use organizations to help it in its efforts to hire women and minorities?

Lofters: We think that it's critical to have meaningful contacts with diverse organizations that promote diversity. These would include for example certain bar associations and bar association committees that focus on diverse populations, such as the National Bar Association. We also think the Minority Corporate Counsel Association is a really good source of data and contacts. GE is a sustaining member of that organization.

Editor: Tell us about your use of recruiting firms.

Lofters: We also work with recruiters. We look at how good they are at identifying diverse candidates. There is an effort across GE Legal to always have diverse slates for positions that are open. We want recruiters we work with to know of our desire to include minorities and women among those we consider for jobs.

There are several recruiting firms that have a good track record of identifying women and minority candidates. One of the activities of the Diversity Council is to identify these firms and collect information about their effectiveness. We want to make sure that this information is distributed to all the business legal organizations within GE.

Editor: What is the role of job fairs?

Lofters: We have also attended job fairs and feel that they play a very important role in bringing candidates to our attention. Since we typically do not hire lawyers right out of law schools, the value of a job fair can depend on the experience of the lawyers attending it. We have a Networking Committee within the Diversity Council that focuses on how we can best develop contacts that will improve our ability to utilize organizations, recruiters and job fairs most effectively.

Editor: Retaining minorities and women is sometimes a challenge. Do you provide them with mentoring support?

Lofters: We think that mentoring can play a very significant factor in helping lawyers build successful careers in GE Legal. It is of particular importance to minorities and women lawyers. Because mentoring is provided in the context of a particular GE Business, it must be designed to meet the special needs of employees in that business.

Our Aviation Legal Organization has a really good mentoring program. The Diversity Council has selected that program as a best practice, and is circulating it to other businesses within GE. The Diversity Council plans to coordinate the mentoring efforts of all GE business legal organizations so that it can make other success stories available across GE and assure that best practices are communicated. The Diversity Council also plans to play a troubleshooting role to help in addressing problems that may arise in the mentoring efforts of particular businesses.

Within GE, we have network organizations for women, African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians and Asian-Pacific American Forum at GE. Those organizations (which are not limited to GE Legal) have been helpful to their members to learn about GE, identify opportunities for advancement and gain support.

The network organizations are among the most important contributors to the success of GE's diversity efforts. They have developed great resources on various topics relating to diversity - among which are some really strong mentoring packages. These packages include information about what mentors need to know, what mentees need to think about, how frequently should mentors be rotated and how to best implement long distance mentoring relationships. The Diversity Council is adapting these packages to meet the needs of the lawyers at the various businesses and share them across GE.

Editor: Do you also review the retention of women and minorities by the GE legal department?

Lofters: Yes, that is being closely followed by the Diversity Council. We are particularly interested in tracking how our retention rate for minorities and women compares with that of other groups of legal professionals within GE and whether there are ideas and strategies that might help improve our performance.

Editor: Do you benchmark with other companies that also have successful diversity efforts?

Lofters: Yes. As you know GE is in a number of different industries. Therefore we try to benchmark with the legal departments of leading companies in similar industries. Our theory is that the nature of the industry as well as the size and structure of its legal department can influence how a diversity program is structured. MCCA has been an extremely important source of information about best practices. So have the individual relationships of our senior lawyers with their counterparts at other companies. As part of the contacts we make with other legal departments in the course of our benchmarking activities, we ask them to tell us about their experiences with different programs and approaches. We try to find out what has worked and what has not worked and to identify the key factors in successes or failures.

Editor: What are GE Legal's diversity goals over the next five years?

Lofters: Our goal is to increase diversity within GE legal by using the best practices available and to make all GE businesses aware of the practices of GE businesses that have been most successful in achieving diversity. We are fortunate at GE Legal in that there is a very strong commitment to diversity among the senior leadership. That is a key success factor for any diversity effort. We plan to leverage that commitment and best practices to increase the hiring, retention and promotion of women and minorities in GE Legal.