Editors Note: Lack of diversity has for years been a major barrier to job growth in the legal profession. MCCA has long been a leader in promoting diversity in the ranks of corporate counsel and much has been accomplished. Noteworthy has been the selection of its long-time President and CEO, Veta Richardson, for the position of President and CEO of ACC.It is clear from this interview that MCCA has in Joseph K. West selected a worthy successor, and that the walls of discrimination will under his leadership continue to fall.We look forward to vigorously supporting the efforts of MCCA to break down barriers that still exist.
Editor: Please tell our readers about how you became active in the Minority Corporate Counsel Association.
West: I've worked in one capacity or another with MCCA and its mission ever since I came to Walmart. While there, I headed our outside counsel management group, which meant that I was responsible for managing the company's relationship with all of its external law firms. Those duties fell into three buckets: the gatekeeping function, the compliance function and what I'll call the matchmaking function.
As for gatekeeping, only those firms that meet Walmart's criteria and join its "approved" list can be considered for handling company matters. I vetted and approved firms for the list and occasionally removed firms as well. I handled other issues such as negotiating and setting billing rates; selecting which lawyers and paralegals within the firm could bill to our matters; and approving rate increase requests and conflict of interest waivers.
The compliance function was pretty straightforward. In order to do work for Walmart you agreed to follow the terms of our outside counsel guidelines, which governed everything from billing to quality control. I was a kind of ombudsman, the final arbiter and interpreter of the guidelines. I also decided conflict of interest waiver requests and handled ethical complaints.
Third, in the matchmaking function, I matched the various firms' skill sets and their specialties with the needs of the department. Walmart has 13 legal divisions, each of which has a divisional general counsel. These divisions were essentially my internal clients, as my department was the central repository for all of the information on Walmart's outside lawyers and outside firms. Walmart evaluated its outside firms using three basic yardsticks - cost-effectiveness, performance and diversity - all three were equally important in our minds.
I was very fortunate that the two general counsel I served under, first Tom Mars and then Jeff Gearhart, were both deeply committed to diversity and inclusion. They understood that because our outside counsel spend was the largest portion of our budget, we had a powerful incentivizing tool at our disposal. This is where I first became involved with the serious effort to drive diversity with our outside law firms.
Since Tom Mars's tenure as GC, Walmart has been a very strong supporter of the major legal diversity organizations (including MCCA) not only in terms of financial support, but also in active participation. Walmart lawyers serve as CLE speakers, board members and advisors; furthermore, Walmart requires that every lawyer in the legal department attend at least two diversity events in the course of a year. When you go to any major diversity conference - whether it be MCCA, the Hispanic National Bar Association or the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association - you'll see at least seven or eight Walmart lawyers in attendance. Meanwhile, the person who manages the company's outside law firms, which was my role, is particularly expected to play a leading role in advancing diversity at those firms.
Walmart has done a great job in the diversity arena, and I believe much of the credit goes to Tom Mars, who possessed both the courage and the foresight to commit our efforts and resources to the cause. Jeff Gearhart has continued that commitment and taken it to another level.
Editor: Please tell us how you came to Walmart from Entergy.
West:I worked at Entergy Corp, a Fortune 500 utility company headquartered in New Orleans. From 1999 to 2007, I was working in the litigation group at Entergy, which at that time tried all of its cases in-house. My wife is a physician, and during Hurricane Katrina we chose to stay in New Orleans so she could care for patients at her hospital, where many additional patients were transferred during the mandatory evacuation. Ultimately, the hurricane severely damaged our home and destroyed my wife's hospital, along with her medical practice. I moved to Entergy's satellite office in Houston, while my wife and our children moved into her childhood home in Orlando. It was a difficult time: I worked all week in Houston and flew to Orlando for the weekend, when I wasn't making trips to New Orleans to try and rebuild our home. During this time, Entergy became a member of MCCA.
That spring, I went to MCCA's regional dinner in Houston. I met Tom Mars and a number of Walmart lawyers. Later, when I learned through MCCA's "Hot Jobs" listing about an opening at Walmart in the litigation group, I applied. I was hired in March of 2007. Entergy is a great company and I fully intended to spend the rest of my career there, but after the hurricane my priorities were reordered; we needed a more family-friendly environment for the kids - not to mention that Walmart is a fantastic company. Tom Mars was even very helpful in helping my wife land a job with a local practice group, and in December of 2008 he promoted me to the head of our outside counsel management group. I really do owe this wonderful opportunity to MCCA. I not only have the greatest respect for the organization - Veta Richardson's and others' accomplishments, as well as the board and its staff - but also I don't have to guess about MCCA making a difference in people's lives, because it has made a major impact on mine.
Editor: You served as the co-chair of the ABA Minority Counsel Program and its Spirit of Excellence Award as well as on the ABA's Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession. How is MCCA different from other diversity organizations?
West: The ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession has a similar mission to MCCA - to promote an increase in the opportunities for women and minorities within law firms and legal departments. Aracely Munoz Petrich manages the commission, and she does a phenomenal job; the staff there is excellent as well.
MCCA is unique in a few ways. First of all, it boasts an infrastructure that a lot of other organizations simply don't have. At MCCA, I'm not only the head of this organization, but I'm also an employee, a staff member like everyone else. I believe I'll have more say in the ongoing direction, formulation and execution of the programs. The MCCA staff is amazing; I'm very impressed with the experience level and commitment of everyone here.
The ABA appoints commissioners for a one-year term (two if they are reappointed), so continuity depends upon how well board members coming in and going out are integrated into the board's mission. MCCA's three-year term limits are long enough for the directors to gain traction.
In addition, MCCA is a member-driven organization whose members are entities - among them several hundred major corporations - rather than individuals, which enables it to influence and incentivize behavior of entire organizations.
Furthermore, our board of directors includes general counsel such as DuPont's Tom Sager, Gap's Michelle Banks, American Airlines' Gary Kennedy and Xerox's Don Liu. Mary Snapp, who chairs our board, is deputy GC at Microsoft, and Sam Reeves is GC of Walmart's stores division. And none of these highly influential individuals is just "phoning it in": all of them are active and engaged in formulating policy and ideas and executing them.
I believe MCCA's research portfolio, with its impressive research on a wide range of issues, also sets us apart. MCCA's annual Vault survey, highly anticipated each year, has become the gold standard of demographic surveys of law firms. We are excited that this past month we published a similar demographic survey of in-house corporate counsel, probably the first of its kind, which includes demographics of the leadership ranks in legal departments.
Also recently out is our Gen Y study, which marks the first real deep dive into the thoughts, feelings, work habits and communication styles of the generation of lawyers who represent the future of our profession.
A look at MCCA's website reveals a wealth of studies across a broad spectrum - women in the profession, attrition issues across the board, changing demographics within law firms, compensation issues, all of which are very, very important. It takes quite a bit of institutional patience - as well as institutional courage - to undertake research projects.
Editor: What goals do you plan to set forth for MCCA in terms of implementing ways in which minorities may avail themselves of education?
West: As you know, we've got a very strong scholarship program as well as KAN-Do!, our mentoring program, both of which are managed by Lori Garrett, a VP and our Southeast Regional Director. Lori is amazing, as are Brandon Fitzgerald, Jen Chen, David Chu and the rest of the staff. I know that these programs are already doing extraordinarily well but of course I'm also encouraging the staff to think outside the box and come up with new ideas to improve them.
Editor: Do you plan to build upon the MCCA Scholarship Fund?
West: Yes, absolutely. We are already working on growing a greater funding base for the scholarship. I would like us to keep up with the scholarship alums more closely, perhaps getting the organizations they're working with to spread the word and become stronger partners in our efforts. Doing so will also provide us with useful metrics from both the mentoring and scholarship standpoints.
Editor: Will mentoring be continued on a one-on-one basis or do you plan to setup mentoring groups?
West: We will definitely continue one-on-one mentoring. My understanding from our experiment with group mentoring is that it met with mixed results, so I've encouraged the staff to think as creatively as possible about ways to make it work better because I strongly believe there is an opportunity there.
Editor: I understand you are undertaking more diversity training at law firms.
West: Late last year, we launched the Law Firm Affiliate Network, or FAN. In part because historically our members have been corporations, MCCA has been viewed as an organization with a scope limited to corporations, but since December of 2010, law firms with a demonstrably strong commitment to diversity can now enjoy the benefits of MCCA by joining FAN. There is a symbiotic relationship between law firms and their corporate clients, and I believe that FAN will enable us to provide real value to our corporate members by connecting them with law firms that share their values. I'd like to see us use our robust infrastructure and broad research portfolio to develop diversity training programs for our FAN members, such that once they've completed certain training stages, they will receive a kind of MCCA "seal of approval," which will serve as a sign to our corporate members that a particular firm is serious about diversity and perhaps ought to be considered for work. Thanks to our very active roster of corporate entities, we're uniquely situated to do just that. I think it was inevitable that we create something like the Law Firm Affiliate Network.
Editor: How do you plan to judge the effectiveness of your education and mentoring programs?
West: We will judge the effectiveness of our education programs by tracking numbers of corporate legal departments we do training for, the numbers of attendees at our CLE offerings and the numbers of law firms we do training with. But ultimately, the make-up of managing partners, law department leaders and the longevity of diverse attorneys in these roles will be the critical indicators. The goal is to improve the inclusiveness in the profession, and MCCA will continue to do research and surveys on the conditions within these various workplaces.
Editor: How can the press be helpful in furthering your and MCCA's goals?
West: By helping to keep "inclusiveness" in legal workplaces top-of-mind. We all have to understand that diversity and inclusiveness are not "sometimes" concepts. They should not be ancillary. These concepts should be a central part of the DNA of every organization. Today, we understand that an ethical culture is integral to an organization's long-term success. People need to be reminded that organizations that create diverse and inclusive environments will be more nimble, stay more relevant and, ultimately, be more successful than those that fail to utilize the talents of their entire workforce.
Published October 4, 2011.