Welcome to FNEI Insights, a blog series where FNEI interviews thought leaders about issues informing sustainable and socially responsible business practices in a variety of industries. This month, we talked to Bradley Gayton, Senior Vice President and General Counsel at The Coca-Cola Company, about his organization’s renewed commitment to diversity, inclusion, and belonging and its focus on new guidelines for all law firm partners, announced in January 2021. As he writes in his letter to The Coca-Cola Company’s outside counsel, “The time has come for us to stop championing good intentions and motivations, and instead, reward action and results. Quite simply, this is now an expectation.”
First of all, can you tell us how your personal and professional experiences have informed the new initiative you’re spearheading at Coca-Cola? How did you learn about what works with DEI and the law, based on previous work you’ve done?
Throughout my career, I have worked to make our profession more diverse and more accepting of a difference in thought, experience, and perspective because I strongly believe it is a business imperative – data shows that diverse teams produce better results. I have personally traveled to firms, sat down with partners, worked through plans, and reviewed scorecards. I have probably spent thousands of hours doing this in the last five years alone. I have seen the conversation move up the maturity curve. We have moved past discussions on why diversity is important. This work has absolutely had an impact on individual people at specific firms but not the systems-level change we need.
It is incredibly disheartening to see data showing the stagnant progress across our profession and a precipitous decline in Black lawyers followed by new headshot collages proudly shared with no racial or gender diversity. It felt like the right time to try a new approach. We need to make it unequivocally clear that there is a demand for diverse attorneys and the firms that foster them.
A lot of my ideas on this topic stem from those thousands of hours sitting with law firms as well as from my personal experience. I was introduced to Ford Motor Company as a student at a job fair through a Black law student association. Ford was being intentional about where they recruited from, and I think there is a lot we can learn from that intentionality. We need to challenge long-held assumptions and think through where we recruit from, how work is assigned, and who is receiving matter credit. This is not hard, but it does require intentional actions.
One thing that impressed me is how Coca-Cola’s letter outlines billed time commitments with diverse attorneys. But many firms fall short of having diverse attorneys to begin with. Can you speak to the challenge many firms may face in responding to and upholding these billing requirements in a timely fashion knowing they don’t have that representation to begin with?
The issue of the diversity of our profession is not a complex challenge. We should approach this like any other business imperative by allocating capital and investing in aspects of our business that move us forward to achieve our goal and grow profitably.
These guidelines aim to make it unequivocally clear that there is a demand for diverse attorneys and the firms that foster their growth. We have already begun having substantive conversations with many of our partner firms about how they can meet these guidelines. Those conversations are broadly focused on the capabilities within the four walls of the firm and understanding where strategic partnerships make sense.
I also mention in the letter an upcoming initiative with Diversity Lab around recruiting, which will take a fresh look at current practices and challenge assumptions around which law schools are targeted and the success factors most commonly considered when selecting and hiring talent. This will be yet another tool to ensure we aren’t continuing down the same path and expecting a different result.
It seems like companies have primarily grasped DEI as a business imperative once a moment of racial reckoning occurs. How can we ensure corporate executives are not only turning an internal lens to their firms, but also staying authentically connected with what’s happening at large in our society, with how Black people are treated, and the massive inequities at play?
The business imperative that I refer to is twofold. First, credible data shows that diverse teams produce better results. When I think about the clock speed of business innovation and business-model disruption, it’s clear that we need to assemble diverse teams that will produce winning solutions in today’s dynamic business environment. Secondly, if we aren’t creating cultures of belonging where people can be authentic and where their unique talents are sought after, we will struggle to create those diverse winning teams.
There are many things we need to look at as a society. It can be overwhelming to know where to begin but each of us can start somewhere. My understanding of the law and position at Coca-Cola afford me the opportunity to make an impact through pro bono work and expanding access to justice, as well as through initiatives like this that work to increase demand for diverse attorneys. Others may have different starting points. Anyone across corporate America who controls a budget, no matter the size, could enact guidelines similar to ours and have an impact. The important part is taking action.
How will law firms and the legal profession suffer if DEI doesn’t become more integral to their efforts? What’s at stake and what will be lost if things don’t change?
I am concerned about the ability to attract and retain top talent at the firm level and for them to be able to put together diverse winning teams for clients like The Coca-Cola Company that require them.
I’m also concerned that not enough diverse students see the law as a viable career option for them, given the lack of diversity throughout the profession and at the most senior levels. As a profession, we run the risk of being left behind as top minds pursue other careers.
You mentioned in your letter how managing partners must publish a personal commitment to DEI. How does holding executive leaders accountable help drive DEI?
I need to ensure we have winning teams working on our matters and that requires a diversity of thought, perspective, and experience. I need to ensure buy-in from all levels of the organization — beyond a mission statement or hypothetical future plan — and believe in the power of personal accountability.
FNEI facilitated a DEI virtual roundtable in January, and one key point that came up is the mistake companies make when focusing on diversity, but not creating a culture of inclusion. Can you share how Coca-Cola’s plan will address a culture of inclusion that goes beyond just hiring more Black attorneys?
This is an incredibly important point. Hiring is one piece of this. I like to think about the other piece not as inclusion but as belonging. We need to do more than simply include by inviting someone to a meeting but rather foster a culture of belonging where diverse perspectives are actively sought after. We need to create innovative environments where people with ideas are afforded the autonomy and resources to go pursue them.
We also need to consider how we allocate work and if it’s accretive to an individual’s development. That includes more transparency around origination and relationship credit, as well as succession planning. These are all important elements to fostering talent and ensuring they are on a path advantageous to their career aspirations. This is true belonging.
Twenty years ago, The Coca-Cola Co. agreed to pay $192.5 million to settle a race-discrimination class-action lawsuit, one of the largest such settlements in U.S. history. Can you share where you hope Coca-Cola will be, in terms of changing the narrative of Black employees at the company and also in the law firms you hope to inspire, 20 years from now?
After nearly 30 years at Ford, there were only a few companies I would have left for, and Coca-Cola has always been on that very short list. As I spoke with leaders across the organization throughout the interview process and in my time here, our shared vision was clear.
A few weeks ago, James Quincey, Coca-Cola’s Chairman and CEO, was on a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos speaking about his commitment to ensuring our company is representative of the markets we serve and how he expects leaders across the organization to be drivers of that change. As he said, we all need to push ourselves to think boldly about the actions we can take inside our company, within our areas of expertise, and across the community. If we all do that, there is significant change we can affect collectively.
Twenty years from now, I hope the conversation within the legal profession has moved even further up the maturity curve. I would love to see a significant change in the data and no more new partner headshot collages without diversity. I would also love to see a new generation of diverse talent working toward a career in law because they know there is a place for them to be successful and have an impact.
- Read Bradley’s “Open Letter: Commitment to Diversity, Belonging + Outside Counsel Diversity”
- ABA Model Diversity Survey
- National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms (NAMWOLF)
- Diversity Lab
- FNEI’s “Executive Summary: Turning Accountability into Action: Creating Real Change that Advances Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion”
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