Goal IX Newsletter

Fall 2000, Volume 6, Number 4

The Pyramid Problem - by: Robyn C. Mitchell and Leroy C. Ritchie

Retention of minority lawyers continues to pose major problems throughout the profession. In a corporate setting, lawyers of color often face a unique challenge; it has been referred to as the pyramid problem. Basically, the pyramid problem refers to the fewer and fewer positions available in legal departments for in-house lawyers as they attempt to ascend the corporate ladder. While all in-house lawyers encounter this phenomenon, the pyramid problem may adversely impact lawyers of color even more so.

Two "seasoned" corporate lawyers of color offer their insight on the challenges of advancement for minorities in-house. Robyn C. Mitchell is senior counsel and senior vice president for Bank of America Corporation. Leroy C. Richie retired from Chrysler Corporation in 1997, where he served as vice president and general counsel for automotive legal affairs and in several other positions during his 14 years with the company. He is currently the chairman and CEO of Q Standards Worldwide, Inc., in Birmingham, MI. The following is based on their comments during a panel presentation at the ABA National Summit on the Retention of Minority Lawyers in the Private Sector, which was held in April 2000.

Robyn C. Mitchell

Promotion and advancement in a corporate in-house legal department can be a universal problem for all lawyers. Lawyers outside of the corporate legal setting have heard that it is wonderful to be in-house because you work more regular hours, you do not have to bill hours, and the work is pretty rewarding—not to mention the stock options. There are a number of factors about in-house work that cause people to accept positions and stay. Many will stay in-house 10, 15, or 20 years. These are individuals, often white males, who have been elevated to management positions. They are not going anywhere—not if they can help it. As a result, there are very few promotion opportunities in-house, absent a department restructuring, and unfortunately, legal departments rarely change their structures. This lends itself to retention problems for lawyers looking for promotion opportunities.

Legal departments were not as diverse a few years ago as they are today. As a result, minority and women lawyers make up a small percentage of top- and mid-level management positions. We all know that performance is critical but that performance alone will not win a promotion. Relationships, personality, and time with the company play vital roles. When a manager decides to leave, the general counsel or the departing person's manager will likely ask the departing lawyer or other managers who they think would be the best person for the vacated position. These lawyers, often white males, will then make recommendations. Quite often there is no internal interviewing or other process that provides opportunity for others in-house to compete. Minority and women lawyers, though they may be very experienced and produce great work product, are often less senior in terms of years and exposure in the legal department. Thus, the minority or woman lawyer may not be the first person who comes to mind when promotion decisions are made. Minority and women lawyers are less likely to have developed the relationships with second- and third-tier management to put them out front as promotion candidates. This is where there is a disconnect that results in a disadvantage for both minorities and women. It is, however, a disadvantage that can be overcome by developing and implementing a plan that markets your talents to management.

Leroy C. Richie

There are strategies for survival in-house. They are not strategies unique to minority and women lawyers—they are strategies for all lawyers. Lawyers can come to a corporation, stay for 10 or 15 years, bottom-feeding and making a relatively good salary. They can stay there, almost doing nothing, and not get promoted. The critical issue in corporations is promotion. Opportunities narrow dramatically at the top, and they narrow very quickly. The question is, how do you position yourself, if you’re an in-house lawyer, so that you can be seen?

Many people will tell you that the reason minority lawyers don’t get recognized is racism, and the reason women lawyers don’t get recognized is sexism. That’s not the whole picture. Racism and sexism exist, but if that had stopped me, I would not have become a general counsel. Let me give you an example.

In 1985, the general counsel of Chrysler walked into my office and said, "Roy, come see me." We walked into his office, and he had me and another guy in there, both of us associate general counsels. He said, "I’m leaving the company, and I’m going to recommend one of you two to replace me. And [Lee] Iacocca, then chairman of Chrysler, has said that it will be an inside replacement, and I’m telling you that it’s one of the two of you, and I’ll make my judgment in the next six months."

Now, the general counsel had graduated from Yale Law School, and the other guy graduated from Yale Law School, too. We were both great lawyers, and he wished us both luck and sent us out to do what we had to do. And when he made his recommendation to Iacocca, Iacocca said, "Gee, that’s nice, Dick, but six other people have come in here and recommended the other guy. So I’m appointing Roy Richie."

What the story shows is that the first thing you need to do is develop mentors. I don’t care whether you’re black or white or green—you have to find somebody within the law department and outside the law department who cares about your career at the company. You generally cannot do much about your career when you’re not in "the room." Somebody who is in the decision- making room has got to care about your career, and you have to identify that person and develop the relationship with that person. Mentors don’t pick mentees— mentees pick mentors. Find the person who meets your mentoring criteria, and develop that relationship. So, when the door gets closed and you are on the outside looking in, somebody in that room cares about what happens to you. That’s number one; if you want to get promoted, that’s what you have to do.

Next, produce good, quality work. It has to be the best you can do every time out of the box. That is the contribution you can make. When the guy in charge walks by the minority lawyer to get to the white male lawyer, sometimes it’s because he wants to work with a white male. But, sometimes it’s because his perception is that the white male is going to give him a better work product. Take away that second reason; that second reason cannot exist. And, remember, what you get paid for, what you get promoted for in a corporation—and I think at a law firm, too— is the perception that people have of you. It is not the reality of the work that you do, but the perception that that reality creates. Of course, perception includes the quality of the work product, but it includes a whole lot more.

Here’s another example. I will never forget the first promotion I made at Chrysler, which made some people very upset with me. I promoted a man, let’s call him George, to an assistant general counsel. But, the guys in the law department jumped all over me. "George wasn’t a good lawyer," they said. "The only reason you think he’s a good lawyer is that every time you’re here at 8:00 a.m., he’s here, because he finds out from your secretary when you’re going to be here." George did this for six months. I used to come in early to work out (we had a workout room on the fifth floor of Chrysler). As I would walk out of the workout room he’d walk by me with his head down. "Oh, hi, Roy," George would say. I found out subsequently that he’d routinely been there 20 minutes waiting for me to come out so he could walk by. But he got promoted. You have to be seen. You have to be where people are. You cannot hide in your office because when you start in a law department, you are indistinguishable from everybody else there. What you have to find a way to do—whether it’s a law department or a law firm, or a law school, or anyplace else—is to distinguish yourself from the crowd.

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