Last January, Michelle Fang, Chief Legal Officer (CLO) at Turo, a peer-to-peer car sharing platform, initiated a call to action letter signed by more than 170 general counsel, marking the latest effort by GCs to influence the level of diversity within the law firms they hire. We spoke to Fang earlier this month to understand the impact of the letter since January and future plans for the initiative.
Fang earned her in-house expertise by rising through the ranks of the corporate legal department at eBay before joining Turo four years ago. During her time at eBay, she led the litigation team in North America, the global intellectual property team, and then became GC of the eBay business unit, StubHub. During her career, she has always been active in mentoring women and in diversity and inclusion (D&I) programs internally at her employer. However, the open letter was her first step to lead an effort externally.
Admittedly, since she had not worked at a law firm in more than 15 years, and said that in 2018 she “had naively believed that things had improved at law firms for women and other diverse attorneys.” Fang’s wake-up call was seeing the partnership announcements at the end of 2018. “I compared what I saw from law firms having chief diversity officers, D&I initiatives, D&I scholarships, and knew many women GCs,” she says, adding that she thought progress in advancing representation among diverse attorneys had advanced much more than it actually had.
In response, Fang and her GC women peers committed themselves to take action and thought hard about what to do. As a first step, Fang volunteered to draft a letter that her peers helped edit.
Seeking Support for the Letter
Fang and her colleagues were intentional about seeking male GCs to sign the letter because they wanted to make sure that it was about all underrepresented groups across the talent spectrum. “This is a much broader issue than a woman’s issue,” Fang explains. “It’s a race, sexual orientation, and disability issue.” To her group’s amazement, over the next few weeks and by reaching out to their networks, 170 GCs and CLOs agreed to sign the letter.
As more GCs and CLOs expressed interest in joining in on the next draft of the letter, Fang and her peers deliberately kept the letter high-level without being too prescriptive about the demands and requirements of how GCs and CLOs should be advising their outside counsel. “The idea was to release a statement of principal with individual legal departments reaching out to law firms to communicate expectations.”
Fang committed to going beyond the letter because many signatories did not know how to begin to collaborate with their outside counsel on D&I. Moreover, Fang wanted to make sure that this letter had a longer-term impact. As a result, she began reaching out to skeptics about the letter because “honestly, the naysayers indicated, ‘We’ve seen this before, and we haven’t seen much movement.’” Fang invited the naysayers into a conversation to better understand what they had seen before and what did not work. “I want to recommend to people to do something different, so I started collecting a list of recommended best practices and action items with the hope of circulating it to those who signed the letter.”
As a follow-up action to the open letter, Fang helped create in partnership with the Diversity Lab a menu of options that came to be known as the Strategies & Tactics For In-house Legal Departments to Improve Outside Counsel Diversity. As the next step, Fang plans to release a survey to track the actions that the signatories have made since signing the letter in order to measure the progress and effectiveness of their efforts.
Fang says she knows her leadership is paying off, and that indeed, she is proving the naysayers and the skeptics wrong. What separates Fang’s efforts from other attempts in the past is that its garnered the attention of some of the most senior leaders in the U.S. and that is having a ripple effect beyond the legal industry. U.S. Rep Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) and the Congressional Black Caucus within the U.S. House of Representatives contacted Fang to discuss the letter. “I was just stunned that the letter was even on their radar,” she exclaims. In response, she offered to sit down with Rep. Cleaver’s staff to discuss the options and strategies suggested in the document.
Even more astonishing for Fang is that her initiative is increasing the interest of diversity within the technology industry. As a result of Fang’s letter, the Congressional Black Caucus sent a letter to the CEOs of the five largest tech companies in the U.S. and referenced Fang’s letter. The group wanted to know what each CEO is doing to increase diversity and how they could learn more.
Fang welcomes the attention from Congressional leaders because of the impact that it will have in advancing D&I within the legal industry. “I think they really want to do something with it,” she says. “And the more attention and the more focus that we can gather on the issue, the more impact that we’ll be able to have on the legal profession.”
For a more in-depth look at Michelle Fang, read her interview in our recent “Upfront & Personal” column.