Photo by Hugh Williams.
Diversity has taken on greater importance as businesses have gone global. Corporations have changed how they do business and structure their teams to reflect the diversity of their clients and customers. Stacey J. Mobley, the esteemed former general counsel of DuPont, has been a champion of workplace diversity throughout his career. He recently joined Dickstein Shapiro as senior counsel at the firm’s Washington, D.C. office, where he advises corporate clients and serves on the firm’s diversity committee. He talked to Lawdragon about his career at DuPont, the importance of diversity initiatives and strategies for counseling corporate America during the economic downturn.
Lawdragon: What led you to your interest in law?
Stacey Mobley: Well, I came about it in a very circuitous way. I started college wanting to be a pharmacist so I went to pharmacy school. It's a five-year curriculum, and in my fourth year we had this introduction to business law course. I was so fascinated by it that I pursued it further. The law school was on the other end of campus. I started going past there and talking to some of the law students. At the end of the day, I said this is something that interests me. So I applied to law school. I got accepted, graduated from pharmacy school one semester and enrolled in law school the next semester.
LD: Did you consider getting into healthcare law?
SM: y In fact, that was my original focus and plan after I graduated. I was interested in working for a company that was either a science company or a pharmaceutical company, and that's what led me to DuPont.
LD: Would you tell me about the DuPont business and diversity initiatives-their focus and goals?
SM: We actually started the initiative before I was general counsel. It's been 15-plus years. The initial motivation was to reduce costs. At the time we were using something like 300 law firms, and we weren't satisfied with the cost. We had a suspicion that the quality was not what it should be either. So we embarked on this program to rationalize the number of law firms we were using. Along the way we came up with the notion that we really wanted to have something that went beyond a transactional relationship with our firms. We wanted to have a network of firms that adhered to our values that could collaborate and be an extension of our law department. Out of those thoughts the network was born.
We reduced the number of law firms down to about 40, the number of service providers down to about five and the quid pro quo was that we would commit to give the firms 80 to 90 percent of our work based on what expertise was needed, and where it was needed, and the firms would buy into our values and our initiatives, one of which was diversity. Diversity has always been a core value in DuPont. We looked at diversity as a means to getting a competitive advantage. It was something that the organization bought into. It was something we saw great value in doing, and we wanted the firms that represented us to have that same value. We embarked on this journey, and it gets better every year. The firms have gotten better. There was a lot of skepticism early on and I think, like every program, it needs to be improved.
LD: How was the success of the initiatives tracked?
SM: DuPont has an annual survey which it conducts, it will probably be conducted in January, where the firms are asked a number of questions. Cost is one of the issues, their use of technology is another, but diversity is an important one. DuPont wants to know about who is representing it, whether there are either women or minorities playing a leadership role with DuPont, what are their programs around retention, and DuPont uses that as a way to track initiatives and to share that information within the network.
LD: Why is diversity so important for corporations and law firms?
SM: I think the world is getting more diverse. Our customers are more diverse and law departments and law firms, juries and the legal system are becoming more diverse. We need to reflect that diversity in our organizations. But more importantly, what we found is that a diverse organization is more likely to come up with more creative thinking-better solutions. Because people come from different places, they have different lenses and different experiences, and when you put a diverse team on a project, you are going to get more creative solutions. And socially, I think it is more fun operating in a diverse atmosphere than one that is not.
LD: How do you see the economic downturn impacting diversity initiatives?
SM: I think firms have to be very careful. Nobody knows how long this downturn is going to last. You don't want to react to a downturn and do some things that are going to have a permanently impact. You want to at least put yourself in the best position so that when you come out of this thing, those accomplishments you made going into the downturn will not be set back. This economic downturn may slow us down, but at least it should not alter our game plan. Firms need to be very transparent about the criteria that they will use in terms of letting people go and the programs they have in place that are going to assist these folks. It's a tough situation, but you cannot just let an outplacement program go forward on the basis of last in, first out. I think there are other things that you've got to consider in terms of the skills you are going to need coming out of this downturn. But it is important to let the organization know what those criteria are.
LD: I have to ask, why did you leave DuPont?
SM: I worked for DuPont for 36 years. It was my first real job after a fellowship and I wanted to leave to do other things while I was relatively young, and that's a relative term because I just turned 63. I would have had to leave anyway in a couple of years since DuPont has a mandatory retirement policy at age 65. But, more importantly, I feel organizations get renewed when there's movement at the top. I had a brilliant number 2, Tom Sager, who is now in the position to lead the team. We created a great succession plan, we got a new team in place, they're battle tested, and I just thought it was time to move on.
LD: And how do you feel about your new role? What will your main goals be and how will you focus your efforts?
SM: I wanted something different and this is different. Dickstein was one of DuPont's primary law firms. I had worked with them. Bernie Nash, one of the partners, and I have known each other for over 20 years. We talk often, not just in connection with business matters, but as friends. Bernie asked me what I was going to do after retirement and I said, "Frankly, I have an idea of what I want to do." I wanted to do some things with the Minority Corporate Counsel Association and I wanted to do some things about diversity in the profession that's been good to me. I'm on the board of Howard University and I wanted to work with the law school. Bernie asked me if I ever thought about being associated with a law firm. And that was the source of a number of conversations.
One of the values I am trying to contribute is helping the lawyers in the firm know what the reality is in-house, what general counsel are facing, how they approach things, what are the opportunities and those sort of things. Thus far, it's been interesting. I've been meeting a lot of people at the firm. I've just been amazed. As long as I've known the firm, I didn't really know about all its capabilities. So it's been a new experience. And I think that life is about having new experiences.
LD: In terms of your in-house experience, how do you feel that has especially prepared you for law firm practice?
SM: Working in-house I've had the advantage of working with a number of firms and looking at the best of each, which gives me a frame of reference. It is just amazing how some law firms do things better than others. It doesn't detract from their offerings, but being able to have a view of that contributes to my being able to ask, "Have you ever thought about doing it this way?" So it's sort of a work in progress, but I'm enjoying it. I am particularly interested in working with some of the younger lawyers in the firm and mentoring them in terms of corporate practice, what they should focus on and adding value, and that's exciting.
LD: What do you consider the most challenging aspect of law firm practice? It's so different from in-house practice.
SM: Oh, it is. In-house we never had to worry about law business coming to us. I mean it found us. But in law practice, you have a number of fine firms and fine lawyers. How do you distinguish yourself? How do you at least let your consuming public know about your skills? You're practicing the law but also there's got to be a salesmanship element. How do you balance that? And that's an aspect of the practice I never really had to worry about in-house.
LD: What do you consider the most important steps companies must take to avoid discrimination and enhance diversity-especially in multi-state and national corporations and in light of the down market?
SM: As my good buddy and partner Tom Sager always said, diversity should not just be a minority issue. Diversity is a mainstream business issue, and a diverse organization cannot achieve that status just by having one person have that as an objective and drive it. It has got to be an objective that the organization takes up and adopts. I think it is important to have the right tone at the top, but if you don't have buy in throughout the organization, you're not going to be effective. In a number of cases, that requires that you take the extra time to explain why we're doing this, not just send directives over the table. Explain how it is going to make you more effective and the context for doing it. Even though you have to spend a little additional time getting buy in, it pays on the other end. When DuPont works with its law firms and promotes diversity, it wants to make them own their diversity programs, not just respond to DuPont directives. They need to see how that makes their firm that much more exciting and effective.
An organization can sniff out a verbal-only program. They're in a position to know if you are serious. You have to not simply talk the talk, you have to put things in place that reward folks who are getting it and get the attention of people who don't. Otherwise any program is not going to be successful. People respond to how you react and what gets measured.
LD: What advice do you have for corporations on preventing discrimination and addressing it when it occurs?
SM: I think you have to be pretty clear what the organization stands for, what the values are and completely reinforce that. Communications have to be heavy. I can't stress enough that communication is key. Also, while transparency is not a total insulator to problems, it goes a long way toward getting people on the same page. It's not a total guarantee that you're not going to have problems, but I'll tell you, I think communication and transparency go a long way toward solving those problems.
LD: I love the DuPont Pipeline Project-reaching out to schools to motivate inner city and underprivileged kids to excel and enter the field of law. Would you tell me about the program?
SM: When we looked around and went to various job fairs, it dawned on us that we have a lot of firms chasing a small pool of minority lawyers. We had a supply problem and it was too late at the law school level to correct that problem. We felt that we had to start at the beginning with kids in junior high school, exposing them to legal practice-not just lawyers but the entire legal practice. Working with a community organization in Delaware, we started this project. A lot of DuPont's young lawyers got involved in working with some of the schools and the Delaware State Mock Trial Competition. We would bring these kids into our offices on a fairly regular basis. Mike Clarke, one of our lawyers, came up with a curriculum and you just saw these kids grow. While not every one of those kids will grow up to be a lawyer, we felt that if 2 or 3 did, we'd be substantially moving the ball. And then we were working with the Association of Corporate Counsel. We put together a kit based on our learning. It had a videotape, teaching manuals, examples of things we did. With Susan Hackett at ACC, we made this kit available to corporations and law departments and we asked them to replicate it. . . .
It was one of the most rewarding processes to watch these kids grow. The first day when we brought the kids into our very formal conference room, they were so intimidated. But then we'd have pizza parties there and you could just see their comfort level grow. We brought in all kinds of lawyers from our department and we told a little about our background. Some of the lawyers even came from the neighborhoods where these kids live. You could see the kids starting to realize, I can do this too. It was a delight to see. And I think we got as much out of the project as the kids did.
LD: Is there anything further you'd like to add?
SM: I think that our profession is a great one that can be enhanced by becoming more diverse. If you look at all the advancements—social policies, civil rights, whatever—the legal profession has performed such a crucial role. Furthering diversity is another role for us to play in terms of establishing leadership so other professions can follow.