By Alison Preece | September 16, 2020 | Lawyer Limelights, News & Features
Cornell Boggs recently joined Quarles & Brady as Of Counsel and Senior Strategic Advisor. The dual position is perfectly suited to Boggs, whose career trajectory has always taken two interwoven paths (with some strategic offshoots): more traditional in-house counsel positions, along with an increasingly important role as a leader for lawyers with a focus on diversity, inclusion, and corporate responsibility.
Boggs was General Counsel at both Toys “R” Us and Dow Corning, handling legal and government affairs. Before that, he was the Chief Responsibility and Ethics Officer for MillerCoors. He started out as a clerk for the Court of Appeals of Indiana, then served in the Department of Justice as part of the Attorney General’s Honor Program.
Growing up in the segregated South, Boggs had an instinct early on to form relationships, seek out mentors, and learn from the best in order to build a robust career for himself. Equally, it’s always been part of his ethos to stretch out his hand for the next generation of professionals to start their own climb.
The common thread throughout his expansive legal career has been Boggs’ lifelong drive to champion diversity in the legal and business worlds, leveling the playing field for underrepresented communities and creating opportunities for them to rise through the ranks.
Lawdragon: Your career has been so richly varied, including across industries, as you were in the legal departments at MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch, to Toys “R” Us, to Monsanto, and Intel. How did this come about?
Cornell Boggs: My career led me to different opportunities for different reasons. At times, corporations sought me out and expressed how I could add value in a different way. An example of that would be, I was in the beer business and Tom Dunlap, Intel's general counsel, was looking for different voices around the table, who weren't all tech-centric attorneys. So I went from the beverage industry to tech.
Other times, there were downsizings in a city like St. Louis, when Monsanto went through its reorg. A local company, Anheuser-Busch, reached out and expressed an interest in talking to me and teaching me what they did in terms of the areas of law practice. As a young lawyer supporting his family, I was very happy to take a role in their organization.
Over time, I think having the agility to navigate different corporate cultures has been helpful. It’s the type of thing that I'll use to help the lawyers who are coming up the path in Quarles & Brady.
LD: When did you first know that you wanted to be a lawyer?
CB: Probably as a child, when my sister, Paula Boggs, who's also a lawyer, and I looked at each other after getting into some mischief. Our mother said that she brought us into this world and she could take us out. We probably wanted to see if that was accurate. So I think it was at an early age.
A little more seriously, when I was an undergrad student at Valparaiso University, I had an opportunity to serve on the university's Honor Council. The university has an honor code that students sign, and the Honor Council then reviews any assertions or allegations of plagiarism or other things that are inconsistent with what all the students have signed up for. The president of the university appoints students to at times be Honor Council investigators, and then serve in a quasi-judiciary role to actually review matters that are brought before the Honor Council. That was really my first opportunity in a setting like that to get drawn into the possibility of trying law as a profession.
LD: Then you served in the Department of Justice after law school, yes?
CB: Yes, after law school, I first clerked at the Court of Appeals in Indianapolis, Indiana for Judge William Conover. Then when I completed my clerkship, I applied for and was accepted into the Attorney General's Honor Program in Washington, D.C. I was assigned to the Civil Division Torts Branch and I did environmental and occupational disease litigation. These were toxic tort type cases and the government, in these cases, was the defendant and the individuals were suing pursuant to the Federal Torts Claims Act for activities in my cases, that were principally born out of World War II era government-owned contractor operated facilities, or GO-CO’s as we would call them, where civilian plants had been converted during World War II to military use. Correspondingly, as they were producing munitions, there were groundwater contamination issues, many years later that arose from those World War II era operations. A lot of my work involved the Army Ordinance Corps as a client.
LD: That sounds really interesting. Did these cases go to trial?
CB: Yes. A lot of the work I did was motions work because it's a very narrow window in which a person can have a successful claim under the Federal Torts Act based upon the activity that occurred during those years, because the rules and regulations at that time were not as sophisticated as they are currently. When you look back at the ordinance safety manual, you look back at other things that were in play during World War II, the chapters and sections on environmental contamination and how you build pits, ponds, and lagoons were not nearly as sophisticated as current day. Many of my matters were won on summary judgment motions.
LD: Great experience for a young lawyer. How did you decide to attend Valparaiso, for both undergrad and law school?
CB: For undergrad, it was a very different process. Our family lived in Europe, as we were U.S. Government children. My mother was a Department of Defense school principal for U.S. Army base children and my stepdad was an Army Command Sergeant Major. Our parents were not going to fly children back to the United States to visit colleges. We just needed to do what we could. This is all pre-internet. So I mailed out for information. When I took my SAT test, I checked a box for any school that might be interested in my scores to send me information. Valparaiso University sent a comprehensive packet of information to me in Germany. When I saw it, I liked it.
I didn't know at the time, but is turned out that one of my mother's teachers at her school had actually graduated from Valparaiso University. Having somebody who had attended the school in our little town in Kitzingen , which is adjacent to Wurzburg , was a nice, kind of support mechanism that encouraged me to give it a shot. So my parents left me at the Frankfurt airport and I caught an airplane to O'Hare and caught a bus to Valparaiso, Indiana.
LD: Wow! That must have been exciting. Then you stayed through law school?
CB: My parents had four children, with three pretty tight in age. My sister, Paula, who's 13 months older, was in undergrad and then in law school around the same time, and my younger sister Lynette was entering undergrad at Notre Dame when I was getting ready for law school. So our family had a lot of tuition payments all at once. Valparaiso offered me a merit scholarship to stay. So for financial reasons, I chose to just go where I had a financial opportunity to help my family.
LD: That makes sense. Sounds like a supportive family.
CB: Definitely, yes, very supportive of our education. My father and mother divorced when I was in about the seventh grade. My father was a college professor at historically black colleges and universities, including Virginia State College, when we were growing up. While my mother remarried when I was in high school, when I was in junior high school in 1972, she took the four kids to Europe as a single parent, where we stayed until we went off to college. My mother stayed in the DOD school system for many years after, so even when we were professionals, we would visit her home in a European-based location.
LD: Before Europe, you grew up in Virginia? It seems incredible now, but schools were still segregated in Virginia back when you were a kid, were they not?
CB: Yes, yes. Schools were definitely segregated. When I was in my early primary years, my sister and I attended a Catholic school in Petersburg called St. Joseph's. There may have been only one or two other black children in the school. Later I attended for sixth grade what was called a laboratory school, Matoaca Laboratory School, which was on Virginia State's campus. I shifted from an environment where I was one of a very few black children into a lab school with all black students, and in a college setting. I had a very different experience in the sixth grade than I did first through fifth. Then a totally different experience in the seventh grade being in Karlsruhe Germany.
LD: Wow. What a whirlwind. A background like that must impact your current work. I think its interesting how your career has followed a somewhat traditional path on the one hand, clerking, working for Main Justice, then working your way up through in-house counsel roles. Then at some point, your career become more about managing lawyers and leading lawyers.
CB: Yes, yes.
LD: And of course you have this career-long focus on diversity and inclusion.
CB: Yes. That's been very important.
LD: People are slowing catching on to just how important it is. Is it fair to say that your background gave you that impulse earlier than others might've seen it?
CB: Sure, absolutely. We left the segregated South, when we left Virginia. Our first assignment on a military base was in Karlsruhe, Germany. We went from a community in Chesterfield County that was predominantly black, all black. We moved to a base housing situation where everybody in our stairwell was from a different state. The Hashimoto family from Hawaii lived on the first floor. There was another family from Boston that lived above them. We were on the third floor and on the fourth floor above us was a civilian, an army civilian from Indiana University and his two sons and wife. So the notion of a kind of inclusive community became something that was born right in our own stairwell of living on base at Paul Revere Village in Karlsruhe, Germany.
What’s more, the school systems in the Department of Defense recruit teachers from all over the world and definitely all over the 50 states. We had educators in our life from a myriad of different places. Your math teacher may have been from Boston. Your science teacher may have been from Albuquerque, New Mexico, they came from all over. The notion of being educated and immersed with an inclusive society was just part and parcel of our fabric from junior high school days forward.
The military was also a place where you saw diverse leadership. The army was an early adopter of promoting, advancing, and supporting the careers of diverse people into higher roles. It was not an odd thing in a military situation to see an African American base commander being a general or being an officer, or a female rising through high ranks. I saw these things growing up. We didn't view them as impossibilities because they were part of what we were growing up with.
LD: Now you’re in a position to create and promote that kind of diversity in the corporate sphere.
CB: Yes, now at this kind of capstone space of my career, I have an opportunity to work with inclusive teams of attorneys to support the work of corporations who see diversity and inclusion as important to their corporate success. Many times we've seen, even in recent months and weeks, corporations make statements and express their willingness to be committed to more diversity in a real way. They’re being more observant of inclusion, and diversity, and wanting to do something different to make change. This opportunity gives me a chance to actually work with inclusive teams of lawyers, and we can actually build out plans to meet what the corporations theoretically would like to do it.
LD: Do you think you can share some of your strategic plans for Quarles & Brady?
CB: They're two phases. One is to get to know the lawyers at Quarles & Brady, because having been an in-house counsel, one of the things that's very important is to know the lawyer, your outside counsel who’s advising you, as a human being. The relationships that are sustainable are not born out of just knowing someone as a tort practitioner or a deal lawyer. You know them because you know who they are, you know what their interests are, you can get a deeper appreciation of who's helping you. One of my first steps is really get to spend time and know the team, because I want to be able to reflect back to the general counsel community who these lawyers are and why they are so special.
Then, we work with general counsel who are desiring to have inclusive representation, but they either don’t have the bandwidth to create plans, or, they're working in such a fast-paced environment that it just isn't something that they can really put their teeth into. Upon learning who our team is, I can then share those insights with general counsel, who come from the world in which I've spent the last 30 years.
I want to tackle issues that are front and center in the legal industry – namely that our profession hasn’t seen much growth in the equity partner track in recent years. Not seeing any significant change in the equity partner track over many years has led to a lot of lawyers becoming discouraged and leaving the profession altogether. Diverse lawyers either feel pigeonholed, or find that they don’t have access to the strategic projects that companies value and which lead to sustainable work over time.
I feel that being a former General Counsel and coming from an in-house space, I can actually help someone down the road create a different snapshot than the one we're seeing today. The goal is to use this season of time in my life to find a way to impact this diversity and inclusion issue in ways that might be a little different than others had done before. I call it nontraditional, to kind of be this of intermediary between the in-house world and other lawyers, who've never had access to those in the in-house profession.
LD: How did you decide Quarles & Brady was the next right place for you?
CB: The leadership at Quarles & Brady were all very receptive to these ideas. I couldn't have taken on this role alone, without their support. They were open to something nontraditional and I think a lot of that is born out of their own history of inclusive leadership. They have a track record of strong leaders, like John Daniels, who was the chairman of the firm when I was general counsel at Coors Brewing Company and onto MillerCoors, and he's been followed by Kim Leach Johnson, who is not only female but comes from a nontraditional practice area in terms of firm chairs — her practice area is complex estates and estate planning. The current managing partner, Michael Aldana, is a Hispanic lawyer. So the track record and journey of inclusive, diverse leadership has been part of their story for a number of years. That was very important and very special, that they had this receptivity to something that you might not see in a lot of other firms.
LD: That makes sense, and seems like a great fit. You are clearly a strong community-builder, and I know you have a strong sense of the importance of mentorship. Where did that come from, do you think? Did you have mentors early on?
CB: I’ve had wonderful mentors and yes, it was critically important. I view it as a key, central element of my success, both mentorship and sponsorship. Before I ever went to law school, I was able to find some of the alumni from our school, who were in corporate general counsel roles, namely Richard Duesenberg, who at the time was Monsanto's general counsel. He really invested time in coaching, in guiding me, and explaining different things to me, even as a student, and then later once I became a lawyer. He was a resource that I could check in with throughout the years, over the whole span of my career.
Others include Bill Lytton, who was actually my sister Paula’s mentor. When I worked at the Justice Department, my sister worked White House staff and her boss was Bill Lytton. He had been a General Electric lawyer as well. He was also a person who always made time. Any time I went to Washington, wanted to sit down and have breakfast with him, or just ask him questions, he was a resource who was available.
My sister herself was a mentor of sorts. Having a sibling who was in the same professional space was something that was very special and I think really helped. I always had someone to talk to about what I was going through, who was in a similar career dynamic. We were always able to ask each other questions and get insights from one another.
Lawyers who I worked hand and glove with, like David Snively, who later became Monsanto's general counsel, really showed me how they did things. Outside counsel people, like David Curtin and Jack Bray, over the years who represented Monsanto, they would do the small things and show me as a young professional, "This is how you host guests. These are ways in which you understand wine ordering." Those softer skills that really round you out as a professional. I was always very grateful for a community of people who mentored me, and it’s a passion of mine to mentor others.
LD: It makes sense that your career has evolved to where you are organizing and leading groups of lawyers, bringing them together to make change. Is there a highlight you can share to that end?
CB: One highlight was when I had the opportunity to be the general counsel at Dow Corning Corporation for a number of years. I had a global legal department, lawyers in a myriad of geographies. A highlight was getting those lawyers across the globe to begin to work as a collective team. We worked on projects that we identified, we did surveys to see where our gaps were, and we spent a year navigating through how we could collectively, all around the world, better serve our clients and better serve each other.
That culminated in a global meeting with lawyers from many geographies presenting as a collective teams on issues that were important to our company. To see the energy around a team that included lawyers in Michigan, lawyers in Brazil, lawyers in Tokyo, lawyers in Belgium, lawyers in India, all kind of collaborating together, was as much of a career highlight as any substantive legal win.
LD: Do you have any advice for law school students or young lawyers starting out, who might be interested in a trajectory like yours?
CB: My advice for students is to pursue your passions. I think as a general counsel, I always knew when someone truly appreciated what we were doing in our business versus someone who was doing it simply because it was a job. I think many times students gravitate to the, "What will make me the most money," scenario. They're diminishing things that were their natural affinities and that really made them excited. I think the opportunities to be valuable to general counsel are born out of really embracing things that you really find passion and interest in.
LD: Do you have the same passion for the work that you did when you started?
CB: More so. I think over time, you grow into a level of maturity and tenure and you really want to continue to see things happen. As I've grown in time and learned more over time, the interest has just continued to grow.
LD: Do you have a favorite book or move about the law?
CB: “Vernon Can Read,” by Vernon Jordan. It was just impressive, about his start and some of the struggles of being a young African American lawyer in the South. It was fascinating to see how he began in humble places and evolved into the business executive and lawyer that he became.
LD: If you could give one piece of top-level advice for law firms and legal departments to increase and promote diversity in their ranks, what would that be?
CB: Find opportunities for informed exposure for those in underrepresented communities. Until someone understands and has a capacity to understand what is required of them in a given position, what the expectations are and what they need to do to meet those expectations, they're basically flying blind.
Many in underrepresented communities don't have that natural, organic way to learn those things. What happens over time is when some of the organic relationships are evolving because of affinities because of other relationships, these folks are just not included. We've got to find a disruptor to cause someone who typically wouldn't be at the table to have an opportunity, to really be educated and put into situations where they can learn how they can be more effective and be more representative at the table. A lot of the work we're doing is going to be built around that concept.