Three General Counsels on Diversity and Inclusion

Meredith Ritchie, general counsel and chief ethics and government affairs officer of Alliant Credit Union and co-chair of the Governance Subcommittee of the ABA Credit Union Committee, sat down with three accomplished general counsels to discuss the issue of diversity and inclusion. Faith Anderson is general counsel of American Airlines Federal Credit Union and is former chair of the ABA Credit Union Committee. Lisa Washington is SVP and chief legal officer of WSFS Bank. Jacquelyne Belcastro is VP and general counsel of Hydro Extrusion North America.

 Meredith Richie: What does diversity and inclusion mean to you (or your company)?

Faith Anderson: To me, diversity and inclusion means having a diverse workforce where everyone is allowed and encouraged to participate.

Lisa Washington: In my opinion, it’s important that the composition of the workforce reflect the current marketplace in order to properly serve our customers. Additionally, diversity and inclusion goes beyond gender and race but also encompasses socioeconomic and physical abilities.

Meredith Richie: What are the benefits of having a diverse workforce (or legal department)?

Jacquelyne Belcastro: The benefits of having a diverse workforce and legal department include encouraging the voicing of different views and opinions. Research demonstrates that diverse teams are smarter because they are more likely to remain objective, reexamine facts, question assumptions, and overcome biases.

Faith Anderson: By having a diverse department, you begin to mirror your credit union members (customers) that you are actually serving. You learn to be more empathetic to issues that you may not have experienced; diverse team members can bring a different skillset to the workforce. Most importantly, your members see that you are valuing them when you hire people that they relate to and that look like them.

Lisa Washington: An organization needs diverse experience to grow as an organization! In today’s world, we have so many media choices and can filter what we want to see and what we do not want to see, which can lead to a sheltered existence and point of view. We need to make sure that our workforce and legal departments are diverse so that we consider all perspectives and therefore make better informed decisions.

Meredith Richie: How can the legal department drive diversity and inclusion?

Jacquelyne Belcastro: There are a number of ways that a legal department can drive diversity and inclusion. First, the legal department can demand that its outside counsel firms include diverse attorneys working on matters. The best way I’ve found to do this is to include a requirement in requests for proposal when seeking out counsel on new matters. Do not be afraid to be direct with outside counsel firms on this issue. Second, start a diversity committee at your organization or in the legal department. I just spearheaded this effort at my company. Third, participate in summer intern programs like the Association of Corporate Counsel Chicago Chapter’s Diversity Summer Internship Program.

Faith Anderson: A legal department can drive diversity and inclusion in many ways: by hiring firms that are diverse and inclusive, mentoring diverse law students, hiring diverse candidates, and volunteering.

Lisa Washington: Try to identify in firms strong attorneys who are diverse and work with them. It’s important that as GC we ensure that the diverse attorney bringing in business or working on a matter at a firm is getting credit that results in compensation.

Meredith Richie: What steps have you taken personally or in your role to help with diversity and inclusion?

Faith Anderson: As a diverse general counsel (petite Asian woman), I am always aware of the types of people that I am with at any given time. This came about from growing up in a small town of 2,000 people where my family and I were the minorities. Even today when I attend meetings or conferences, I always notice if the attendees and speakers are diverse. The ABA Business Law Section does a very good job of being diverse and inclusive. I am proud that my department is very diverse and inclusive. For example, in my department we have employees who are African American, Asian, White, Indian, and Hispanic.

Meredith Richie: Is there a difference, in your opinion, between diversity and inclusion? If so, what is the difference?

Faith Anderson: Yes, there is a big difference. One of the analogies that I have heard and like is that “diversity” is being asked to the dance, and “inclusion” is being asked to actually participate and dance!

Meredith Richie: If you had to give advice to a new general counsel on diversity and inclusion, what advice would that be?

Faith Anderson: It’s tempting to hire someone who is a clone of yourself. Be open to working with all different types of people and you will enrich yourself and your department. You will be surprised how much you can learn from others, maybe because they take a different approach, come from a different background, or are more technology savvy, etc. It opens your mind to a different approach and way of thinking. To begin, you need to look at and be aware of what is around you and start by making small changes.

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