The Legal Department

Using DEI To Level-Up The Legal Department: Valerie Portillo, Diversity Lab

The Legal Department | Valerie Portillo | DEI In The Legal Department

 

Valerie Portillo leads the legal department and law firm integration at Diversity Lab, the organization that pioneered DEI for the legal profession. The Diversity Lab convened a hackathon of legal leaders at Stanford Law School, where the Mansfield Certification was developed. This framework has become “the” standard to measure diversity and inclusion at more than 300 law firms nationwide.

In this episode, we dive into the Mansfield Certification and how to engage with law firms on staffing and advancement for all attorneys. However, DEI is more than a buzzword. In this conversation, the components of a DEI program are good business. By prioritizing transparency, broadening the playing field for stretch projects, and being intentional about work assignments, the General Counsel and other in-house leaders deliver a better working environment and a better bottom line. And it’s no coincidence that Valerie’s pump-up song is “Level Up” by Ciara.

 

Listen to the podcast here

 

Using DEI To Level-Up The Legal Department: Valerie Portillo, Diversity Lab

I am Valerie Portillo. I’m the Director of Law Firm and Legal Department Integration at Diversity Lab where I work with legal departments primarily to help build inclusive teams. Fun fact about me, as hard as I try, I don’t know how to whistle.

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Introduction

In this episode of the show, I’m excited to welcome Valerie Portillo who is Director of the Legal Department and Law Firm Integration at Diversity Lab. She’s also a former recovering lawyer from both a law firm and in-house departments.

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Valerie, welcome to the show.

It’s so great to be here. Thank you for having me.

Thank you for coming. I have gotten a lot of questions about diversity and inclusion topics. When I was thinking about who could come and share that information, I immediately thought of Diversity Lab. For those in the audience who may not know what Diversity Lab is, would you give a really short overview of what the company is and what you do?

Absolutely. In short, we like to say that Diversity Lab does R&D for DEI. Since 2014, Diversity Lab has built, piloted, and measured the impact of experimental ideas that cultivate inclusive talent practices within communities and particularly workplaces. These ideas that we are piloting come through various sources, whether it’s through hackathons we host, focus groups, or conversations that we have day-in and day-out with law firms and legal departments. We test these ideas.

We work with over 400 law firms and legal departments. What we do is implement these pilots and see what works and what doesn’t work. Ultimately, we want to create industry-wide movements that drive systemic change as it relates to inclusive practices because that’s what we know is sustainable and will be around long-term.

The Mansfield Certification

I know of Diversity Lab through the Mansfield certification. When I was at USC, we launched a diversity and inclusion initiative. We started with the ABA Diversity Pledge. We were the first university to sign on to that. I started exploring Mansfield and got a little sidetracked on other things. I want to talk a little bit about how in-house departments can do it, but for those who are maybe not familiar with Mansfield and the certification, could you give a little bit of an overview of what it is? I’ve used it as a measure or an indicator for my law firm colleagues or partners on how well they are in the DEI space. Maybe you could talk a little bit more about what it is.

I mentioned hackathons earlier. Mansfield is a product of one of those hackathons that we hosted in 2016. We took this kernel of an idea related to Mansfield and thought about how we could adapt it to really fit the culture, environment, and systems at law firms and legal departments. At a high level, Mansfield is a structured certification process designed to ensure that all talent at participating law firms and legal departments have a fair and equal opportunity to advance into leadership. It’s focused on broadening the talent pool for consideration, whether that’s for open roles, promotions, and stretch assignments, and making sure that those who are historically underrepresented in the legal profession are part of that consideration pool.

One of the ways we do that is by making sure that participating law firms and legal departments are tracking those pools, understanding who is invited, and not only interviewing or continuing on with the process. Another way is through making transparency. A big commitment of these participating firms in legal departments is creating transparent pathways to leadership. To give a bit more information about Mansfield, the idea came out of a 2016 hackathon we launched in 2017.

I’m sure a lot of people know what hackathons are. I have an idea. I always think of them in the tech space. What was the premise, and how did it work? Was it at Stanford Law School?

Correct. That’s right. We partnered with Stanford Law School. The theme for that particular hackathon was gender equity in the law. We asked teams that had volunteered to participate in the hackathon. These teams were made up of law firm partners, legal department leaders, and thought leaders in the DEI space. They came together. They formed teams, and they came up with ideas for how we could improve gender equity in the legal profession.

Was it all women or was it women and men?

It was women and men coming together for this issue which directly impacts women but also indirectly impacts everyone in the law. We know that diversity of opinion, experience, and background is what creates a strong legal team and profession as a whole. There were months of planning, team meetings, and understanding the data behind issues with gender equity in the law. They came together and pitched their ideas to judges and volunteer judges. Mansfield was the crowd favorite. It has blown up from there. We launched in 2017 with about 40-something firms. We’re registering for our seventh iteration. We work with over 350 firms. It’s quickly becoming an industry standard.

Diversity of opinion, experience, and background are what create a strong legal team and profession as a whole. Click To Tweet

It’s like the badge or an indicator that the firm is committed to DEI. This is a show for really in-house people. It is also for law firm lawyers. It’s a good sneak peek for them on how in-house life works. We both at USC and at my organization do look at Mansfield certification as an indicator of a firm’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.

I was thinking about talking about this later, but we’re at a good jumping-off point for it. I feel like for in-house people or in-house leaders, it’s not enough to have the data and your spreadsheet and say, “Smith & Jones Law Firm is Mansfield for whatever level.” For the firm to know you care about it, the in-house lawyers need to ask constantly and make it a priority with your relationship partner and the team you work with that they are showing not just their stats or their certification, but the teams that they’re bringing forward are diverse.

This is where legal departments have a lot of power and influence because they are ultimately paying those law firm invoices. It’s not just that financial leverage that legal departments have. It’s also their willingness to follow up with their firms and not just take a look at the data and see what the makeup is of the teams at the firms that are taking on the client’s matters.

It is having conversations with those firms and saying, “You’re doing really great in this area, but we want to see more over here. What can we do to help you bring more underrepresented junior folks into the mix so that we can get to know them, they learn our business, and ultimately become leaders on the team and at the firm?” It’s a two-way street. It’s not just legal departments wagging their finger at firms, but also taking on some of that work and making sure that their firms are staying accountable.

One thing I’ve done, and I don’t think I’m the first person, but when I did it, I didn’t know that this is something that a lot of legal GCs do, I had a big firm that we were working with. The lead attorney and very senior associate was a female, and she was a rockstar. I knew she was up for partner that year. I called the head of the firm and said, “She is amazing. I really hope that you’re going to look at her hard for partnership this year.” That’s something that matters. If the customer or the client who is buying the service is telling you, “Pay attention to this talent because they’re good,” I would hope that it makes a difference.

That’s one small thing that legal department leaders can do to make sure that the folks that they rely on and trust to help them run their legal department, answer all these questions, and figure out paths forward are sticking with the firm and are being rewarded in the way that makes sure that they are there, they’re becoming leaders at the firm, but also, they stay happy with you. There is a lot of trust that’s needed when you’re working with outside counsel. It is making sure that the people who know your business and are doing amazing work for you are around to do it for the long-term.

The Legal Department | Valerie Portillo | DEI In The Legal Department
DEI In The Legal Department: A lot of trust is needed when you’re working with outside counsel. Make sure the people who know your business and are doing amazing work for you are around to do it for the long term.

 

What It Means To Be Mansfield Certified

The Mansfield certification on the firm side, maybe you could talk about the elements that it tracks. I’m sure people can go on the Diversity Lab website and learn more, but maybe in a couple of minutes, what does it mean if you’re Mansfield certified?

This also applies to legal departments. To be Mansfield certified is to engage in a very rigorous process. This is not where you sign up and a year or two later, you check in with us, check all the boxes, and say you’re certified. To sign up and to be a part of this community means that you are tracking data as it relates to your candidate pools for open roles. You’re also tracking who is being promoted, whether it’s to equity partnership to meet the managing committee or executive committee and on the legal department side who’s being promoted from mid-tier to senior tier levels.

You are also understanding the demographic breakdown of those candidate pools. We are firm believers in the power of data and how important data is to guide folks’ plans when it comes to their DEI goals and efforts. It’s not, “I don’t know. We’re doing pretty well here, but maybe let’s focus more on this particular underrepresented population.” That’s not going to cut it. Especially in this climate with additional scrutiny on DEI, you need to present some numbers. That’s a big piece of Mansfield.

Another piece that’s very important is transparency. As this relates to legal departments, it is writing down and making accessible to everyone in the department what it means to be a level 1 senior counsel at your legal department or what it means to be level 2, 3, 4, or however many tiers you have. I’m not talking about job descriptions or postings that go out for open roles. I mean what kind of responsibilities and skills are people supposed to master to make sure that they are on the right track to be promoted if that is what their goal is?

That seems like that makes business sense even without having a DEI driver that’s having you do that. That’s one of the criticisms of in-house departments. Most people know in a law firm, there are certain things that you need to do to advance from associate to senior associate to partner or equity partner. I’ve heard from several folks, colleagues, audience, etc., that they’re not sure how to move to the next level regardless of whether they’re a diverse person or not and that there’s a black box. It strikes me that being clear and transparent about what the expectations are at those different levels is good for your department regardless.

You hit on a broader point here. When we say DEI work at Diversity Lab, we say that if you focus on inclusive practices, which are generally good business practices, the outcome is diversity. It is making sure that you are putting everybody on a level of playing field as possible and making sure that you’re minimizing insider information.

If you focus on inclusive practices, which are generally good business practices, the outcome is diversity. Make sure that you are putting everybody on their level of playing field. Click To Tweet

If you’re a corporate lawyer, for example, you really need to make sure that you are working well with the tax group and the finance group because they’re integral to getting your deals done. That kind of stuff you might figure out down the road, but why not have it out there in the open at the beginning? It’s not only good business practice and good for the legal department, but also, it’s very empowering for folks joining the department or looking to move up and say, “I do need to get more exposure or a better understanding of how tax structuring works here. Let me schedule a meeting and get that conversation going.” That benefits everybody, employees included.

It strikes me as you’re giving that example that the in-house department’s going to be more effective if everybody knows what it takes to do well in a particular role and who your key clients, constituents, and partners are. Having worked in-house for the majority of my career, we’re so busy that it feels like there’s almost no time to be so thoughtful and intentional. It’s like, “We’re going to learn on the job.” You get the work done that way, but maybe it’s penny-wise, pound-foolish. You should take more time and be intentional. There are all these different benefits that come from thinking and being really thoughtful about it at the outset.

Things move very quickly in a legal department. You are being asked to make decisions with maybe less information than you would like. Having access to that kind of information as it relates to job responsibilities takes a lot of the mystery out of what it means to be a leader within the legal department.

The In-House Experience

As you’re talking, I’m thinking, “Why not?” It’s similar to a conversation I had about legal operations in a prior episode where being more thoughtful and intentional at the outset really benefits you. One of the things working against us is there’s a rush of inbound requests. It can be really hard to carve out that time. What about your own in-house experience? The concept of it being a mystery of how to advance and how to be successful, was that your experience?

Yeah, somewhat. First of all, the transition from being a law firm lawyer to being in-house is in and of itself a huge pivot. At a legal department, you’re not being asked a single question and asked to write a memo about it. Memos are no. You’re not expected to present a treatise. You need to solve the problem. Knowing who to ask, where to get more information, and who to talk to and have a coffee with this person was not something that came to me at the beginning. There was a lot of figuring it out as my time in-house progressed. Looking back, it would’ve been helpful to have more of that knowledge upfront. I might not have understood what that meant in the first few months of being in-house, but something I could have referred to later on.

We’re having whoever was your supervisor being really intentional about what you needed to know, who you needed to know, and how to do it. I’ve been more intentional in the onboarding experience with lawyers who come from law firms because I know what their practice is in a law firm and that this is a whole new world. I really do take the point about thinking through and being intentional with what are the different roles in an in-house department and how to outline what it takes to be successful in each of those roles. That’s a good takeaway.

To build on that, something that I don’t necessarily hear talked about enough is not only what it takes to be successful within a legal department but also how high visibility or stretch assignments are being doled out. We talked about the fast-paced nature of in-house legal work. If something comes up, we have to pull something together for the GC, the CLO, or the board. Who’s going to take that on? Usually, it’s the person who has done it before or whose job description covers something like that.

High visibility projects beget high visibility projects. It’s like anything. Once you get the opportunity or once the doors open, if you’re good, you’re going to get more of that.

How do you know if you’re good if you never get exposure to it? One of the big pieces of Mansfield for legal departments that I know a lot of legal departments struggle with is developing a process around creating consideration pools for these high-visibility projects. If I’m your manager and I know that you enjoy public speaking and you’re good at it, every time there’s going to be some presentation, I’m going to go to you. If something comes along, what’s the harm in pausing for a second and saying, “Stacy has taken the last two presentations. Who else on my team might be ready for this or would benefit from being a part of this team?”

This is not to say that the assignment won’t ultimately go to you because this is not about determining or using any type of selection criteria as to who will get the job or that assignment other than quality and what makes sense. If you’re broadening the door and expanding your idea of who might take on these roles or assignments, it’s highly likely that you’re going to get a more diverse set of folks who are ultimately taking these on. Inclusivity is the practice and diversity is hopefully the outcome, the result.

The Legal Department | Valerie Portillo | DEI In The Legal Department
DEI In The Legal Department: Inclusivity is the practice, and diversity is the result.

 

As you’re talking, I was thinking about the conversation I had with Scott Westfahl who’s the Director of Executive Education at Harvard Law School. He talked about a practice in consulting where with a new project, they do a team launch or a launch meeting. They ask all of the consultants on the team, “What do you want to get out of this assignment? What do you want to get out of this project? What do you want to learn?” etc.

As you’re talking about the consideration pool, I’m thinking about marrying those two strategies. If you are intentional in building your team and running team projects in the way that Scott suggests, you could then take what people want to learn and marry it against your consideration pool or the different projects that you have. Diversity is the outcome because it sounds like good business, honestly.

People don’t think about that right away when they think of DEI work. They’re like, “What does that mean?”

It seems the right thing to do or a checkbox, but there’s value in it beyond that it’s the right thing to do.

It means it’s a shoo-in for building it in. You would think so, but then, I wouldn’t have a job and maybe I’d still be practicing. It’s understanding what makes sense for the team and your organization and making sure that as many people as possible have the opportunity to be a part of that. There’s a lot of focus on recruiting and hiring metrics, but what about attrition? We don’t necessarily hear a lot about what the turnover rates are.

I had a conversation with a big law partner about this. They were saying that a lot of firms don’t care about that. This goes back to the earlier point about in-house leaders not just asking for the stats but really asking about throughout your work with the firm and asking to have diversity on your team. I asked, “You’re investing so much in recruiting and training people. That money’s gone when you don’t retain them.” They said, “Unfortunately, we’re trying to get numbers in some respects.”

It is surprising. When you think of a law firm’s hierarchy, it’s so structured. You hear about this churn. It’s almost like a given. That’s how it is, but does it have to be that way? What if you could retain all this talent that you have invested very much time, effort, and money into? Not everybody is going to make equity partner. That’s how law firms are structured. Can you build a lawyer and develop a lawyer in such a way that even if they do not become equity partner, they’re successful in-house or in government? You’re perpetuating a system of excellence. Your firm could be part of that.

Back to the business point, I’ve thought about this for a long time. Even if there’s an expected attrition in law firms, it is in the firm’s interest to have good relationships with those people who attrite. I’ve hired a number of people from a firm where I worked. They’ve done millions of dollars of work for me throughout my in-house career. If they had treated me poorly, maybe not. There are people that I won’t work with, so it really is a good business practice.

Positioning People For Stretch And Visibility Projects

I want to go back to the topic of stretch projects. In in-house departments, there are certain roles where it’s natural that you are going to get a stretch or high visibility project, and then there are certain roles where it’s doing the business. If your in-house department handles contracting, for example, a bulk of that work could be routine. You may not be able to see what the high-visibility projects are for somebody in that kind of role. Do you have suggestions for how to not pigeonhole people? If somebody has the meat and potatoes of the practice, how do you position them or think of them for stretch and visibility projects?

My advice for this would be to not get blinded by this idea of high visibility. Usually, you think flashy, like making presentations to the board or the C-Suite or leading a task force. That might be high visibility for someone at a certain level, like a senior attorney, but there are high visibility opportunities for folks who are more junior. That could mean becoming an expert or the go-to person in your job responsibilities or your scope. Maybe it is introducing a new process to your meat and potatoes work and being seen as an innovator.

One example that comes to mind is when I was in-house, we had a colleague who was primarily responsible for negotiating the NDAs that we signed or our business unit had to sign. There were so many. He started thinking about an idea. This was before AI exploded. He was like, “What if we worked with a company that could do a first pass at these NDAs that we are receiving? Based on the training and input that we provide, I’m reviewing that first pass rather than taking the time.” That was very much a meat and potatoes role, but he found ways to innovate. He then started getting questions from our GC about other ways in which we could leverage AI at the time to make some of the more routine tasks that we were doing more efficient.

intentionality is a word I use over and over again. I’ve heard you say it too, which I love. It is figuring out ways to make the most of where you are and pushing the boundaries. You may not be making presentations to the C-Suite, but you are finding a niche for yourself that allows you to shine and really showcase your talents.

The Legal Department | Valerie Portillo | DEI In The Legal Department
DEI In The Legal Department: Figure out ways to make the most of where you are and push the boundaries. You may not be making presentations to the C-suite, but you are finding a niche for yourself that allows you to shine and showcase your talents.

 

It’s bringing creativity right to the role. People want different things in their roles. I’ve had a number of different people on teams for me. I always tell my kids, “People like different things.” Some people don’t want to be out in front and making a presentation. That’s a nightmare. They’re stressed about it. They like having a set portfolio that’s reliable. You can still find ways to highlight their contributions and their gifts.

Not to go too deep and technical, and this came up because I was at a conference, about the Supreme Court’s rulings on those college admissions cases invalidating the use of consideration of race in the admissions process. I learned at that conference that many states took that and went full-on implementing policies that were a direct hit to DEI efforts. I wanted to touch a little bit on how that has impacted the commitment you’re seeing from law firms and legal departments to DEI work. Is there anything you recommend as we’re considering these kinds of initiatives?

This has been a hot topic for almost a year. Even before, people were speculating as to what the decision might be. People had an idea. We certainly were preparing for that decision to come down as it did. Ultimately, on a federal level, everything that was illegal before as it relates to hiring, promotion, and work practices is still illegal. Everything that was legal is still legal. A set-aside is not allowed and not something that’s part of Mansfield.

We have seen, however, on the state level where certain laws have been passed that have directly impacted public institutions that we’ve worked with. Unfortunately, because they were directly affected, they needed to step back from their work with us. Overall, we have not had a single law firm or legal department drop out or step back from their commitment to Mansfield or their DEI work as a result of this SCOTUS decision.

That means that people are staying strong and are really sticking to what they’re putting out there in the world, which is that they are committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion. It does serve as a wake-up call. We’ve counseled people to take this opportunity to take a look at their language, their policies, and what they are putting out into the world and making sure that there’s nothing in there that could be perceived as exclusionary.

People are staying strong and sticking to what they're putting out there in the world, which is their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Click To Tweet

Is that something that Diversity Lab would help with or is that more legal work? Is that something you would help folks with?

It’s something that we certainly help counsel legal departments and law firms. Since every organization is very different and risk tolerances across organizations are different, we ultimately leave that to the individual organizations, but we provide a lot of counsel and guidance. We had our employment lawyers from a well-known employment firm host a call with us where we continued to talk about the SFFA decision, its aftermath, and where we are almost a year after that decision came down. We had over 330 people on that call. That has been the case with, I believe, three other calls that we’ve hosted with these partners.

It’s keeping abreast of the ever-changing landscape. It’s being intentional and thoughtful about your policies. It’s making sure that they are shored up by data and that it’s not based on the whim of whoever’s in charge or what you think is the right thing. There is data and evidence that you can say to back up, “We’re not doing very well with this particular group. If we don’t have an ERG, let’s think about how we can put one together. Let’s get advice. Let’s talk to people.”

A big piece of the Mansfield certification is not just doing your work in isolation, but leveraging the insight and experience of your fellow Mansfield community participants. Knowledge-sharing is a big thing with us. There’s no need to start from scratch because somebody’s probably already tried it and done it. If we haven’t, then we all figure it out together.

The Legal Department | Valerie Portillo | DEI In The Legal Department
DEI In The Legal Department: There’s no need to start from scratch because somebody’s probably already tried and done it, and if we haven’t, then we all figure it out together.

 

Where can people find out more about Diversity Lab? As you’re talking, I’m sure there are so many resources that are available.

We have our website, DiversityLab.com, which we’re in the process of revamping to be new, shiny, and bright. That’s coming down the pike. Our website is a good resource. I’m also happy to answer any questions. I primarily work with legal departments. I run Mansfield for the legal department, so I’m a good person to talk to about that. I’m happy to funnel any questions that come our way.

My last question, which is a softball hopefully after this heavy DEI topic, is what is your pump-up song?

I know this is supposed to be a softball question, but I listen to music all the time, so this was a hard one for me to think about or come up with. The song that came to mind immediately because I feel like I use it mostly in professional settings is Level Up by Ciara. I’m a huge fan of dance music and hip-hop. I  particularly love the message in this song. She talks about how she has learned from her mistakes and she’s moving on and taking things as they come.

I love that message because it’s something that I listened to over and over again when I was going through my career transition and thinking about what I needed to do next. I was like, “All my experiences and background have gotten me where I am today.” It’s all about moving forward. That’s my pump-up song.

Closing

You may or may not know, but the show is where people come to level up in-house, so it’s right on point. Thank you so much for being here. I really enjoyed it.

Thank you so much for having me. I love this conversation.

 

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