Leaders from McGuireWoods, Duke Energy, Ford Motor Company and the Pro Bono Institute came together July 20 for an online panel discussion on racial justice and how law firms and companies can work together to advance the cause during a time of social unrest.
McGuireWoods Chairman Jonathan Harmon led the hour-long discussion with panelists Kodwo Ghartey-Tagoe, Duke Energy’s executive vice president and chief legal officer; Ford chief administrative officer and general counsel Bradley Gayton, who will become senior vice president and general counsel at Coca-Cola on Sept. 1; and PBI president and CEO Eve Runyon.
Harmon noted that the forum was timely, following nationwide protests triggered by the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. “In light of that, we thought it was very important to convene this event because we believe that our community, our profession, our organizations and, frankly, our country need to hear from the wonderful voices we have assembled on this panel,” Harmon said.
Nearly 250 people registered for the program. Panelists shared ideas about immediate and long-term steps law firms and companies can take to address systemic racism and promote equality and social justice.
Ghartey-Tagoe, who grew up in Ghana and moved to North America to attend college, recalled personal experiences with racial bias. In most of his job interviews after law school, he said, “we spent 99 percent of the time talking about my name, a very foreign-sounding name.”
“I remember writing to my father asking for permission to change my name because I thought the name I had was just not acceptable in the culture I had immigrated to,” he said. “So these are some very jarring experiences for me that have formed my own views — how I behave today, how I expect others to behave, how I raise my three daughters.”
But Ghartey-Tagoe said cultural differences can be overcome in law firms, companies and other professional settings when colleagues recognize and appreciate what they have in common. He encouraged those in mentor roles to seek out mentees from different backgrounds.
“You will find mentees who don’t look like you, don’t talk like you but want the same things you do,” he said. “And you just start that conversation, going down that path and very quickly you will find that there are things from your own background, your own experience that will be valuable to this person who you thought had nothing in common.”
Initiatives such as helping low-income clients regain their driving privileges can have significant benefits, the panelists said.
“Clinics like driver’s license restoration are so critically important because revoking driver’s licenses for things like unpaid fines — minor crimes that aren’t related to health and safety issues — take away people’s ability to get to work, maintain work,” said Gayton. “We have to focus our pro bono efforts in places where they can have the biggest impact on getting at these systemic issues.”
Gayton said education, criminal justice and voting rights are longstanding civil rights issues that must be addressed. He said the desire for immediate action in the wake of George Floyd’s death must be balanced with a thoughtful approach to solving structural problems.
“I’m concerned that, in an effort to get speed, some of the thinking for solutions is too shallow,” he said. “The risk in that is that we won’t . . . take advantage of this crisis to really get at building a strategy to try to solve the long-term systemic racism.”
“The challenges that we are facing are entrenched and they are pervasive,” Runyon said. “It’s not something we can address with immediate action and hope for immediate change.”
Law firms and corporate legal departments can maximize their impact by working with civil rights organizations in their communities to target pro bono efforts to specific areas of need, Runyon added.
“One of the things that’s on my wish list, that I hope law firms and legal departments do with their pro bono programs moving forward, is adopt the things that we are talking about — being intentional and being strategic and working collaboratively . . . with the civil rights organizations to think through how we can collectively make a difference,” she said.
Noted Ghartey-Tagoe: “It’s got to be a collaborative effort, and working together we can come up with better solutions than individual institutions trying to go at this alone.”
To watch the webcast, click here.