Wal-Mart’s Alan Bryan on How Men Can — and Should — Be Champions of Women in Legal

Topics: Diversity, Law Firms, Leadership, Talent Development, Women’s Leadership Interviews & White Papers


In July, the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) presented its 2016 “Lead by Example Award” for a leading male attorney in a law firm, company, government agency or public interest entity who supports the advancement of women within his organization. The award was presented to Alan Bryan, Senior Associate General Counsel for Legal Operations & Outside Counsel Management at Wal-Mart Stores. (You can view Mr. Bryan’s acceptance speech at the NAWL Annual meeting here.)

Thomson Reuters’ Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law (TWLL) discussed with Mr. Bryan what the award meant to him and how he pushed himself to become a male advocate of women in the legal profession.

Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law: What does being the winner of NAWL’s “Lead by Example Award” mean to you?

Alan Bryan: I was incredibly honored that NAWL selected me as its 2016 “Lead by Example Award” winner. Honored, and extremely humbled. There are many men in the legal profession who, in their own ways, advocate and act for the important issue of recruitment, retention and advancement of women in the law. They do so by their sponsorship, mentorship, guidance and other support of women in the profession, even when their efforts are small or go unrecognized. Their willingness to support and help advance women within their own organizations make them better recipients of an award like this one. While I can speak to the issues, they are the ones truly capable of solving the problems in arenas where the playing field is not level.

Wal-Mart Stores' Alan Bryan

Wal-Mart Stores’ Alan Bryan

The problem, however, is that there are not enough of them. If I can do anything going forward for women in the law, I hope it is to bring more men into this conversation because issues facing women affect us all. When we segregate those things about the legal profession classified only as affecting women (or minorities) we also stigmatize those same issues and those we associate with them, thereby marginalizing women in the process. Men should be interested because marginalizing women limits economic performance…not just of your company or firm, but of the economy as a whole.

TWLL: Tell me about your involvement with NAWL.

Bryan: It begins with telling you about Walmart.  Around 260 million people visit Walmart stores around the world every week. Our customers are of all different races, ethnicities, genders, orientations, situations, backgrounds, and beliefs. Walmart wants to serve a broad customer base. To do so, we seek diversity within our company and among our suppliers, including legal suppliers. Diversity and inclusion is important not only to the legal department but to the company as a whole.  Walmart has been a supporter of NAWL and diversity in the legal profession for years. My chance to join NAWL presented itself after I came to Walmart in 2011. My participation started as an attendee at a mid-year meeting. By the next meeting I attended, I was a panelist. I began joining committees, talking to the officers and board, and offering my ideas toward advancing the NAWL organization and the mission. I have seen firsthand from my time as a practicing attorney, and at times still today, that the legal profession still needs organizations like NAWL. My goal is to convince more male attorneys of the righteousness of this mission. That includes seeing more men speak publicly about the detrimental factors impacting women in the law.

TWLL: How do you approach the discussion of encouraging your male colleagues to advocate for women?

Bryan: Before I answer that question, we should discuss the issues that adversely affect women in law firms. That is not to pick on law firms, as some of these issues also affect women in other areas of the legal profession, but there is no doubt from the numbers that law firms could make certain changes. I think most law firms would admit the same. Impediments to women in law firms can include, but are not limited to, “fitting in” to the firm’s culture, career satisfaction, lack of training/mentorship/sponsorships, lack of business development opportunities, requirements for billable hours, training opportunities, credit allocation, compensation equality, client succession opportunities and leadership opportunities. Of course, some of these transcend other organizations, including those that are non-legal.

Men need to understand these issues. They should be open to education on the value of diversity and inclusion, open to honest and frank dialogue, and willing to learn from women attorneys about the impediments facing women in the profession. We should recruit and require diverse teams in our organizations and hold people accountable for creating an inclusive workplace.

To truly be leaders, it is men, often in positions of authority and influence, who have a responsibility to act toward gender parity in the profession. That is what’s best for the profession. It starts by speaking on these issues, by being mentors, by being sponsors, by creating those visible female role models through targeted and purposeful succession planning. These actions, and more, are where men can show leadership.

And men who control law firms and legal departments should care. To name just one reason, attrition costs money. Entities who invest heavily in the recruitment, training, and development of women lawyers, only to see them leave the organization within five or six years, could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars based on time and actual monetary investment. But, the cost is in more than real dollars. The firm or company loses out on the knowledge, credibility and relationships that woman lawyer built while there, not to mention the immeasurable cost of her future contributions.

To truly be leaders, it is men, often in positions of authority and influence, who have a responsibility to act toward gender parity in the profession. That is what’s best for the profession.

The 21st century law firm is facing challenges like never before. The advent of low-overhead legal service providers, legal staffing agencies, artificial intelligence performing legal work, and the rise of legal operations groups within legal departments are all going to be major disrupters to the profession. These are all disruptors to the law firm business model.  Men should also see the lack of true gender diversity and parity at all levels of the profession as an additional disruptor.

I believe men will take up the cause if they are given an equal and welcoming invitation to the conversation. We must be willing to talk to each other and learn about experiences of colleagues of opposite gender. This may take men getting out of their comfort zones and listening with empathy to what they may not be observing or understanding. In addition to learning the issues, men must make sure women receive fair credit for ideas and successes, they must not condone disparaging treatment through silence, acceptance, laughter, or any other affirmation that overt bias is tolerable under any circumstance, and they must work against gender stereotypes.

TWLL: And how should women approach the subject?

Bryan: I saw where Ida Abbott once said “Why is it that every time we talk about women’s issues it’s always women talking to each other, but the people who are in control, the people who run things and make decisions, aren’t in the room?” I agree, and having been to my share of meetings on the subject, I know the “echo chamber” to which she refers. My suggestion is, and has been, for women to start engaging men directly about these issues. Start with a colleague in the office or perhaps a leader in the organization you believe is open to the conversation.

My advice to women lawyers has always been the same: Learn to be not only advocates for this cause but also facilitators for it. In this way, they are seen less as a self-benefactor to these efforts and more the intermediary between what is best for women (plus the organization as a whole) and the hesitation of men to go there, in words or in deeds.

Women should also look toward the future, perhaps to generations who see the world differently, and should actively seek to mentor men, not just women. You will be educating men who, hopefully, in turn educate other men through words and actions, and who will also be our next generation of inclusive leaders.

There is no doubt that our economy works best when all individuals, regardless of gender or human trait, have an equal chance to be part of it. For some time, I have heard about the business case for diversity. Studies have shown time and again that increased female participation in the workforce results in better economic growth, greater return on sales and higher profits. This same principle applies to the legal profession.

Indeed, the oft-stated economic case for diversity is actually the “why” for diversity and inclusion. But I think the focus should not on the “why” we need it but on the “how” we achieve it. In my mind, it starts with women and men working together toward it.