Veta T. Richardson, President & CEO, ACC speaks with David Perla about challenges for in-house lawyers and diversity in law

Veta T. Richardson, President and CEO of the Association of Corporate Counsel, sat down with Burford’s Co-Chief Operating Officer David Perla to discuss ACC’s approach to DEI, ACC Foundation’s DEI maturity model, how law firms can add value for their clients and her new book, Take Six.

A recording of their conversation appears in the three videos to the right. An edited transcript of their conversation appears below.

David Perla: Under your leadership, ACC has launched a number of impactful and award-winning diversity initiatives, including the DEI Maturity Model. Can you tell us about these efforts and why you've made them a priority as ACC’s President and Chief Executive Officer?

Veta T. Richardson: Going back to when I was first hired at ACC, their big ambition was to become a global organization. ACC was founded as the American Corporate Counsel Association—very much US-centric. Although my predecessor as CEO was very successful in growing ACC, he left this one incomplete sliver of the pie: To take ACC global. As I came into the organization, I saw that it wasn't organized and ready to be global. We needed to have a much more global board, more global competencies on staff, greater multicultural awareness; basically, to use a lot of the lessons that I learned as part of my Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) experience to help organizations be more diverse and inclusive. ACC was living proof of the fact that when you have a more diverse board, diverse leadership and staff and increase your cultural competencies, you're better enabled to execute strategies that help your organization grow outside of your origins. That's what we experienced at ACC.

I experienced the power and results that come from being more diverse, and that's something that we wanted to make more widely available to organizations that may not have such strategies in place. That’s what caused us to put together the DEI Maturity Model. We offered our own views and worked with top companies to encapsulate and summarize the ways that you could move along a continuum to become a more diverse, inclusive and high performing organization. So, we offered that and decided to put it in front of that firewall and make it available to all organizations who needed that information. We’ve received lots of good responses from it, so it seems to be helping the legal community.

DP: Following on that, what do you see as the areas where in-house lawyers are succeeding in improving diversity in the legal profession? And what are the areas where they remain more challenged?

VR: Like any group, there isn't one monolithic type of experience, but in general, I would say that in-house organizations are doing better in terms of the composition of their teams. We recently did a survey around DEI to ask organizations where they feel the challenges are and many of their challenges are with their external relationships. Most are able to put together attractive practices and professional development opportunities to attract a more diverse team. There tend to be challenges with some of the outside counsel relationships and finding more diverse counsel to serve their needs.  

DP: As you know, Burford launched the Equity Project to help address the diversity gap in commercial disputes, by earmarking legal finance capital to fund litigations and arbitrations led by female and racially diverse lawyers. You've been incredibly generous in supporting our efforts as one of our Equity Project Champions. How can economic incentives like the Equity Project help close the diversity gap in law and how can they be helpful specifically to in-house lawyers?

VR: A lack of economic opportunities always seems to be a barrier that more diverse groups grapple with. Being able to have the capital to invest in funding high-value litigation is instrumental to these groups being able to carry it forward. I know that you're involved with organizations like the National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms (NAMWOLF), and certainly if you think about a smaller firm type of environment, which these organizations tend to cater to, having access to capital will allow these firms to take on cases to be able to compete with larger peers because they're well capitalized and equipped to do so.

DP: Veta, you not only lead ACC, but you're also the author of a book that seeks to empower developing and mid-career professionals. I've seen you described as one of the best mentors around. What's the piece of advice you are most likely to give to an ambitious in-house lawyer who wants to grow in her career?

VR: David, thank you for that. When one of my mentees told me that he thought I was the best mentor ever, it really was very uplifting to my soul. I feel it's important to invest in the next generation. It's something that I've done all my career. Therefore, I think the advice that I would give to any person who aspires to be able to lead is to really invest in other people.

In my book, Take Six, there's a whole chapter devoted to the concept I call “take a hand.” That’s “take a hand” in two ways. It's admitting that despite being a very ambitious or successful professional and someone who has a lot of upward mobility, you have to be humble and recognize where you need help and not be shy or feel that you're too proud to ask others to help you. But in my life I've also found that it's been more important to be a net giver. And that net giver concept means, although I admit when I need help and will ask and reach out for it, what has made me stronger is when I help other people.

If I were to add up the hundreds of lawyers that I've given career advice to over my professional span, by giving advice to others and hearing their complicated stories and helping them chart a path towards solving it, you develop a muscle memory that enables you. When you encounter shades of those problems, you've already thought it through with someone else. Being that giver and giving advice actually means that when you encounter problems, you're better equipped and able to analyze your problem and chart a path forward for yourself too. So “take a hand” has two aspects. It's asking for help, but it's also extending your hand even more frequently to others because that's how you actually learn and grow yourself.

DP: I love this concept. Do you have an example of where you've been the giver and seen the success, whether for you or the person you've given to, and then the flip where someone else has helped you?

VR: I would say that I've not been shy about sharing that at different points in my career, I've had an executive coach, someone who would gather feedback and then offer you feedback. Sometimes that's difficult to hear. One of the things that I've advised a mentee when they sit down and have their performance review is to really listen when someone gives them constructive or critical feedback. So, imagine how it felt when it's flipped on me and I'm the one receiving the critical feedback.

Mine specifically was that people get confused about whether I'm giving directions. In terms of my leadership style, I'm a person who likes to think out loud. When I think out loud without people knowing, they're wondering, “where is she in terms of decision making, she's all over the place”. I was having the unintended impact of confusing people that worked with me. Instead of trying to fight the feedback, I did what I advised others to do, which is just to accept that it's a perception and it's something that you have to develop a plan to address.

I've been the person who said, when people have gotten the “needs improvement” feedback, to really digest it, think about how you're going to apply it, and not be the type of person who's always trying to rationalize or offer excuses. We all have blinders to the impact that we're having. Sometimes we need to hear how we need to improve.

DP: Listening to you, is it fair to say that growing leaders should have coaches?

VR: I think so. I believe that a coach is really an investment in yourself. It’s not necessarily remedial, but it's someone who can look at where you are and help you to improve and get better.

DP: There's a lot of uncertainty in the business world right now as we continue to grapple with the long tail of Covid and growing number of economic and political shifts. Given this backdrop, what are some of the current key areas of concern for your membership? And finally, how can the law firms that serve your members be helpful and add value?

VR: That's a great question. What’s interesting is every year for dozens of years, ACC has surveyed the corporate community and Chief Legal Officers especially. We have consistently been seeing that Chief Legal Officers report data privacy, cyber security and technology issues as top of mind challenges. Layered on top of that second only to the data privacy and cybersecurity area, DEI is one of the areas where general counsel project that they will be seeing challenges for their organizations. In fact, 71% expect that DEI is going to be even more of a top-of-mind issue. Beyond this, getting their arms around the regulatory environment that we're all grappling with and dealing with issues related to ESG; we've seen that more general counsel are being assigned responsibility by their corporation to really be leaders in the ESG space. As law firms think about ways that they can serve their clients, they should make sure that their practices are enabled to offer guidance with respect to those topics. Thinking about how the law firm is also contributing in positive ways in the ESG and diversity space will be important because corporations care about those values.

DP: Veta, thank you so much. We at Burford have been privileged to work with you on diversity and equity initiatives together. Personally, I feel privileged to have worked with you over the years on many different things and to call you a friend, and indeed a mentor. So, thank you and we look forward to working together to improve the profession.

VR: We look forward to working with you, too. And thank you for inviting me.

About the author

David Perla

Co-Chief Operating Officer

+1 646 849 9410

David Perla is Co-Chief Operating Officer with overall responsibility for Burford’s global marketing, origination and underwriting activities and is a member of the Management Committee. He is an entrepreneur and legal industry leader with expertise in building high-growth legal and technology-driven businesses.