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Advocating for Change and Thought Leadership as In-House Counsel

Paulette Miniter

Advocating for Change and Thought Leadership as In-House Counsel
xavierarnau via Getty Images

Meyling Ly Ortiz, managing counsel of Labor & Employment for Toyota Motor North America, discusses the role of in-house counsel in advancing diversity and inclusion in the legal profession. 

As managing counsel of Labor & Employment for Toyota Motor North America, what does your role generally entail?

Generally, my role is to provide employment law advice to the company, develop and train employees on complying with employment laws, and . . . manage outside counsel handling litigation for us. I also lead some compliance-related projects.

How do diversity and inclusion tie into your role as in-house counsel?

From a company perspective, diversity and inclusion is very important; and I’m lucky to work for Toyota, a company that devotes a lot of time and resources to walking the walk. In fact, Toyota has a department [called Social Innovation] that is specifically focused on social innovation, which is responsible for our diversity and inclusion strategy, as well as for the company’s community engagement programs. An example of Social Innovation’s work was creating a 2:1 match for employee donations that supported organizations like the Equal Justice Initiative. Toyota Legal One, our legal department, also has its own diversity and inclusion committee and its own pro bono committee. I’m on the pro bono committee, and I’m especially proud of the work we’re doing with Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement and Jim Crow Juries.

In my role as in-house counsel, I am personally very passionate about making sure that we advocate for diversity and inclusion from the ground up. Where from a company perspective, when we think about suppliers and vendors, we try to make sure we are engaging with women- and minority-owned businesses, in my role as in-house counsel, I want to make sure we take a similar approach. That means when we look for our outside counsel, we are consistently looking for a diverse slate of attorneys to represent Toyota.

How do you define diversity and inclusion?

Diversity and inclusion means having different viewpoints represented and included, whether that is a team, a strategy, or a product. In this sense, it is a little too simple to use diversity and inclusion as a synonym for simply having a woman or a person of color on the team. Diversity of thought may be most easily achieved by having a diverse representation of genders or ethnicities because with each person necessarily comes their unique life experiences and worldviews. But it may also include socioeconomic diversity, geographical diversity, and diversity of age and familial status. For example, whether someone is a parent can make a very big difference in how they experience a work environment or a particular product. 

What impact do you see in-house counsel having with respect to diversity and inclusion in the legal profession?

In-house counsel have the power to be thought leaders and change agents. As outside counsel, the demands are different; it is a lot to stay on top of your billable hours requirements and develop business while trying to have a life outside of work. As in-house counsel, while we may not necessarily have less work, sometimes we do have a bit more flexibility, which means time to mentor and advocate for the next generation of law firm partners and leaders. We also have the power of the purse; we can ask for diverse teams, we can ask for underrepresented attorneys to get development opportunities and sponsorship, and we can ask about who is receiving origination credit for our matters.

But this doesn’t have to be in-house counsel wagging our fingers at outside counsel. It’s so much more powerful to be a real partner with the law firms you work with and deepen the client relationship by doing good together. For example, if we receive a business pitch and there is not diversity on the team, we can do more than simply ask for diversity, we can also ask and explore why. Look, we get it. The partner probably chose the associate with the relevant experience. Instead of turning down the firm, which may not move the needle enough, we can offer our help: “I appreciate you want to staff this case leanly and with the right level of subject matter expertise. I would also love to talk about which underrepresented associate you will bring on as a training opportunity so that he or she can gain the relevant experience and be on the next pitch.”

Another example of how in-house counsel can really make an impact is to support those attorneys we are mentoring and sponsoring at the critical point when they are nearing the partnership decision. I don’t know that it’s any secret, but, as in-house counsel, we have strong referral networks. And for those of us who are intentional, we are mindful of the women and people of color in our networks who are up for partner and do our best to direct business to them during that critical year. Not only does this help increase diversity among the ranks of law firm partners, [but] it also creates an incentive for law firms to develop their attorneys who are women or people of color so that the firm receives the referrals. 

What obstacles do you see to increasing diversity and inclusion in the legal profession?

The lack of prioritization and personal accountability. The question I ask of everyone who says they want to do their part is, “What are you personally doing right now, and what are you going to do tomorrow?” The temptation is to just throw a committee at the issue, assign an attorney who is a woman or person of color to lead the “initiative” even if that person is not really empowered within the organization, and then call it a day.

The lack of mentorship and sponsorship is also an important reason we aren’t seeing much movement in the numbers of women and people of color in the ranks of partner or general counsel. While young lawyers and law students could use personal mentorship, more senior-level attorneys are incredibly busy and may be hesitant to mentor because it sounds like an extensive, hours- or years-long commitment. It really doesn’t have to be, and one initiative I have thought a lot about is how to demystify the idea of mentorship. For example, I mentor people by text and Marco Polo, a video messaging app; I promote their wins on LinkedIn, which takes just a minute or two. I think if every lawyer set aside just 30 minutes a month to mentor someone, that could help move the needle one person at a time.

What advice do you have for law firms with respect to showing their commitment to diversity and inclusion?

I think law firms sincerely want to increase diversity and inclusion, and they have heard it loud and clear that clients want it. But on top of trying to get billable work and managing and developing associates, there is a feeling of, “I don’t know what more we could do.” If firms are in that boat, consider going to in-house counsel with whom you have a solid relationship; let them know what your firm has been doing; and then, humbly, ask for their ideas! Ask for recommendations on diversity training or program development.

This type of outreach will show true earnestness, and it’s a much smarter approach than trying to make your firm’s diversity and inclusion initiatives look bigger or more impactful than they really are. The days where hosting a “women’s event” at a spa was enough have long passed. There is more power in authenticity and vulnerability. 

Given the heightened awareness of diversity and inclusion issues in the public conversation today, some companies might feel pressure to focus on diversity and inclusion for marketing reasons, but they are not sure about what the financial or operational impact will be on their organizations. What are your thoughts on that, based on your experience?

I would again go back to the idea of diversity of thought and think about it from a product perspective. Yes, being a champion of diversity is the right thing to do. But it’s also the smart thing to do. When we think about vehicles—if we never considered dog owners, we may miss the demand for SUVs with trunks lower to the ground so that people’s dogs can jump in more easily. Or if we never considered customers with disabilities, we would have missed out on an entire customer base who need a product that can be configured to fit a number of needs. But getting away from cars: many parents have undoubtedly been in a public restroom of an establishment that they frequented before kids, found no changing table, and thought to themselves [that] there probably wasn’t a new parent at the table when that space was designed; and worse, the next time the family discusses places to visit, the one without a changing table will likely fall to the bottom of the list. Bottom line, you should want a diverse range of life experiences and worldviews reflected on your teams—not simply because it’s the right thing to do and, practically, you can no longer “get away” with not being intentional about it from a public relations perspective, but because it really will benefit your organizations and your customers.