How and Why, as Chief Legal Officer, I Lead on DEI

8 Min Read By: Nicole Linda Kelsey

A few years ago, my company did not yet have a leader dedicated to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI).[1] It was 2019, and I recognized the potential risk and critical opportunity for our company from oversight by our Board of Directors[2] to employee engagement. I took my passionate commitment to my legal team, to see if there was any appetite to engage on DEI. My team is diverse in gender, ethnicity, and other characteristics. So, it didn’t come as a surprise that there was definite interest to lead on DEI at our company. That same month, we organized the Amyris Legal DEI Initiative.

We started in our own camp: inquiring with our outside law firms on what they each did to incorporate DEI in how they provided their services to our team. We wanted to know if our law firms prioritized diversity in their own hiring, what measures they took to be inclusive in their professional development practices, how well their partnership composition statistics reflected diversity, and whether they were inclusive of diverse partners in the disposition of power across their own leadership. Being a smaller public company, we recognized that hiring/firing a law firm based solely on its DEI metrics wasn’t a viable option for us. But we believed that communicating our commitment to DEI could have real impact in our profession. We believed that inclusive professional practices lead to more creative and holistic advice and were, therefore, relevant from our client perspective. By conducting our review, we sent a message to our outside law firms: DEI matters to us as lawyers, and we were watching how each of our law firms was measuring up. Last fall, we conducted a follow-up DEI pulse survey with our outside law firms. We refreshed our message of commitment to DEI, and this time our survey was informed by my membership in the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity. This year, our Legal DEI Initiative formalized our position by developing our DEI Standards of Engagement that we now require our outside law firms to comply with when doing work for our company.

After engaging with our law firms, we decided to start leveraging cultural events and international holidays to educate on, and encourage dialogue around, DEI. Starting with International Women’s Day in 2019, I sourced “You Go Girl” t-shirts for us all to wear, and we took a group photo in our t-shirts and posted it on our intranet site and my LinkedIn page. It was a fun, simple gesture that modeled positive, inclusive messaging across our company. Later that spring, on behalf of our Legal DEI Initiative and in my executive capacity, I joined over 200 other public company GC/CLOs in an amici curiae brief to the Supreme Court that argued Title VII’s prohibition of employment discrimination included discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity (the Supreme Court agreed, 6–3, in July 2020). And in June 2019, we collaborated with our company’s LGBTQ+ employee affiliation group to co-sponsor a happy hour event to celebrate PRIDE month. Again, an easy way for our Legal DEI Initiative to show up in a positive way to message inclusivity with our own employees.

In August 2019, I joined the board of my company’s women’s group as its executive sponsor. My first move was to launch the first mentoring program at my company, by and for women. The program was so successful that it is now in its second iteration. In addition to this company-wide program, I have used my position on the board to forge alliances across my company’s employee affiliation groups, as I believe that collaboration on educational efforts and inclusive programming will render our company culture richer for everyone.

That fall, when it was my turn to do a “Talks in 20” at our employee townhall—where an executive presents and answers questions for 20 minutes on a topic that is relevant to the company’s mission and growth—I chose to present on “Diversity/Inclusion: Foundation Blocks for a Winning Company.” I brought my own angle to the topic: my diverse perspective as half French-Algerian; my passion for sports (women’s soccer, surfing, race car driving) and the issue of equal pay for women professional athletes; and my respect for female leadership and accomplishments in science and business. I outlined statistics from Boston Consulting Group[3] and McKinsey[4] on how diverse employees provide a company with creative approaches to business ideas and solutions, and how a company’s inclusive leadership not only drives higher revenues but allows for disruptive leadership in that company’s industry. It was a rich and engaging exchange that lasted well past 40 minutes. I took that as an indication that DEI was front-and-center in our employees’ minds.

When our country witnessed the atrocity of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, my team’s DEI Initiative assumed a leadership position in our company’s internal dialogue about this tragedy and the concomitant social justice issues that had seized center stage across our country. We organized our company’s first Roundtable on Diversity, Inclusion, Education, and Acceptance on the last day of June—a symbolic gesture of solidarity with our LGBTQ+ community—that included representatives from all of our employee affiliation groups and our CPO. Our team’s DEI Initiative moderated the event and managed both the Q&A with our company’s employees (more than 50% joined the lunchtime Zoom event) and follow-up on employee-requested deliverables. This roundtable event is now serving as the foundation for a company-wide DEI committee. Since the first quarter of 2021, my DEI Initiative has been running quarterly sensitivity and educational sessions on topics from hate incident bystander training to transgender inclusion in the workplace.

In January 2021, my team launched its second initiative: AMRS Legal Gives Back. Focused on efforts to give back to the community, on behalf of both our legal team and our company, this initiative seeks to address issues of social justice that surround us today. Last year, this initiative donated a set of seven books to multiple local elementary schools to educate about cultural diversity and understanding amid rising incidents of hate and violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. And this year, we’re coordinating with an edtech company in Brazil to donate paper microscopes to fifth-grade public school students in the Brazil province where we’re building our new manufacturing facility. By supporting our community through the lens of education, we believe we’re fulfilling our ethical obligations to give back to others—to, in our own small way, make our piece of the planet safer, better, more equitable.

I’m also focused on cultivating future diverse leaders in the law. For the past three years, for ten weeks every winter, my team has had the pleasure of working with a diverse group of externs from Northwestern Law’s annual Bay Area externship program. And this summer, my team will welcome a first-year law student participating in Gibson Dunn’s Summer Diversity Internship program. By supporting diversity within the structure of legal education, I intend to contribute to the development of our profession into one that better represents the diversity of our society and its legal needs.

Lawyers are ethically bound to uphold the laws and to defend the legal rights of all peoples, and therefore, I see leadership on DEI as a natural extension of our professional ethical obligations. Employees come to the legal team for a range of assistance, advice, guidance. And so, it is altogether appropriate for lawyers to lead on DEI within their companies. I do it with a mission of promoting DEI through education; by engaging in DEI, you will find a purpose that resonates with you as a leader. By better understanding ourselves and each other, we can impact positive change both at our company and in our local and global communities. You will also build a legal team comprised of champions of equity and belonging. When you do, you will certainly witness increased education, awareness, and collaboration among your employees, and across your executive leadership teams. This engagement will both inspire and fortify you to lead with a broader perspective, and it will enrich your experience of practicing law.

Editor’s note, April 29, 2022: This article’s discussion of the author’s initial recognition of the opportunity for further engagement on DEI issues at her company has been updated.


  1. I’m pleased to note that, as of this spring, my company has a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging leader who is focused on building a program attuned to our company’s mission and responsive to our employees’ needs.

  2. In addition, in August 2021, the SEC approved Nasdaq’s new board diversity rule (Rule 5605(f)), requiring its listed companies to have at least two diverse members or provide reasons for not meeting its new standard. And in late 2021, the two leading proxy advisory firms (the Institutional Shareholder Services and Glass, Lewis & Co.) updated their guidelines to recommend a vote against the chair of the nominating committee of a board of directors which fails to meet certain diversity thresholds (gender and race/ethnicity) in its composition.

  3. https://www.bcg.com/en-us/publications/2018/how-diverse-leadership-teams-boost-innovation

  4. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/delivering-through-diversity

By: Nicole Linda Kelsey

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