Damien Atkins, General Counsel of Panasonic USA, believes in-house counsel play “the most important role” in diversifying the legal industry because he’s experienced it first-hand.
“My personal story is that I got some opportunities because some clients at my former law firm started asking the diversity question,” Atkins said during a recent interview with Big Law Business. “I’ve seen the power of having a general counsel who is interested in that and asking questions.”
Atkins cut his teeth as an associate at Chadbourne & Parke, and credited several partners there with helping him develop his career. He said he was not familiar with the gender discrimination lawsuit that several former partners have filed against his old firm and declined to comment on it.
But Atkins said it is important for law firms to build “mechanisms” that curb implicit bias and to make sure they are giving women and minorities access to the correct training early in their associate years.
“The pipeline typically goes from college to law school, then to law firms and then in-house,” he explained.
After leaving Chadbourne, Atkins spent ten years in-house at AOL before taking his current role at Panasonic in 2015. Now, he runs a legal team of approximately 30 lawyers and 30 support staff, plus another team of 20 to 25 public affairs employees dedicated to lobbying efforts, product safety, and environmental compliance.
Atkins said his team is lean due to the structure of Panasonic’s business, but that he’d love to bring more of his legal work in-house. “If I had the resources to do a full-fledged M&A team, I wouldn’t need the law firm,” he said.
Earlier this month, he was awarded the Metropolitan Black Bar Association’s Corporate Counsel of the Year award for his work supporting younger attorneys of color. It wasn’t the first time he was recognized for his efforts. He was previously named Diverse Attorney of the Year by the New Jersey Law Journal and was included on Savoy Magazine’s “Most Influential Black Lawyers 2015 List”.
Big Law Business spoke with him about the changes he’d still like to see, and about the advice he gives to lawyers just beginning their careers. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Big Law Business: When you accepted the MBBA corporate counsel of the year award, you spoke about “repairing” the diversity pipeline in the legal industry. What part of the pipeline is broken?
Damien Atkins: It’s a couple things. If you look at the data, like the NALP [The National Association for Law Placement] report on diversity, you saw the percentage of women associates has decreased more often than not since 2009, as has the percentage of African Americans.
The pipeline typically goes from college to law school, then to law firms and then in-house. In the first few years, you’re getting by on attitude and effort. But once you get beyond that hump, it’s about do you have the right skills to get farther in your career. Typically around the fourth year of associates is when you start building intrinsic value, and if you don’t have access to networks of insight and experience to learn how to be a high quality, superior lawyer, you see the stats and the numbers start dropping off.
BLB: What do you think needs to be done to fix that?
Atkins: One thing to fix is ensuring that women and people of color get access. I think associations like the MBBA and the MCCA [Minority Corporate Counsel Association] play a vital role in creating a space where young associates and mid career people can exchange insights. One of the reasons I joined the MCCA board is to address this head on.
I also think it’s incumbent on partners in law firms to build mechanisms in the firm, particularly at the assigning partner level, mechanisms that decrease implicit bias. I think it’s really thinking about the way law firms recruit and about performance management. Too much is based on relationships and affinity. At those entry points, what are the real critical skills you need to develop? Focus on those.
When you’re assigning and giving experiences to young associates, my sense is that it’s typically better to have a panel of people regulating assignments for particular assignments, that way you reduce the chance of someone playing favorites. It needs to be a lot more open… and you need to be a lot more systematic about it.
I had several different partners while I was at Chadbourne show me the ropes. But a lot of women and folks of color struggle with making that leap, and I think there are techniques and mechanisms law firms can borrow from the corporate world, following the leadership development of a place like GE or Google, for example, to make it more structured.
When we recruit [at Panasonic], instead of focusing strictly on school and law firms, we test for certain things that are critical to the job. If you’re coming from an M&A position, we’ll give you a contract or ask you to put together a PowerPoint presentation to give to a panel.
BLB: What role do you think corporations can — or should — play in pushing diversity in law firms?
Atkins: I think we have a critical role, and probably the most important role, since we are the ones primarily responsible for allocating work. What we can do is be very honest and open about it. When firms get your business, ask questions, ask who is the team. We like to see diverse teams because diverse teams perform better. It’s incumbent on in-house counsel to push for it because at the end of the day, it’s a client business and [law firms] will be responsive to client needs. Frankly, I think we’re on the front lines for this.
I think law departments, as they conduct RFPs for business or do their annual law firm evaluation process, should include diversity and inclusion as a metric to measure a firm’s performance. It’s not going to determine whether you win nor lose the business, but it will be an important influence.
BLB: How much do you think about diversity in the hiring stage with a law firm?
Atkins: I am probably less explicit about it [than other GCs], but I do pay attention to it. I do notice if there are no women on the team, or if there are no people of color on the team, and I talk about it. I won’t explicitly say I’m not going to give you the business because of it, but it’s something I bring up as part of the process.
Firms are having a hard time distinguishing themselves, and one of the best ways to do that is through diversity and inclusion. If firms are looking for an edge, I can get any expert in these areas of law, but if a firm comes to pitch and they have a diverse team, that’s a plus.
BLB: How do you go about hiring law firms?
Atkins: It depends on the nature of the matter and the area of work. If it’s a routine thing, where we don’t do a lot of activity, like real estate, it’s focused on price and location. If it’s high stakes commercial litigation we’re more selective, so it’s less about a firm and more about partners, individuals. For M&A and government investigations, it’s really partner-specific. I do take into account how strong the rest of the team is, but at the and of the day I’m hiring a specific person for a specific matter. A caveat is that some firms will be able to give me a certain amount of quality and breadth. If I have a great lawyer whose firm is only excellent in one geographic area, I’m probably going to look at a different firm.
BLB: Many corporate counsel have said recently they’re moving more work in-house, turning to law firms primarily for specialized projects and advice. Have you had any similar changes at Panasonic?
Atkins: We’re looking at it, and I’d love to be able to do more of that. You can probably get more work done in a more cost effective manner if you bring more work in-house, particularly things that are more routine. My challenge is that you’re getting asked to do a lot more work with a lot less resources, which translates into headcount. I’ve found it hard to implement so far, but it’s something we’re moving towards.
You have to look at how legal departments are funded. At some companies, the legal department gets a set allocated budget for rent, headcounts, and litigation. At other companies, the model is more that all the litigation expense is rolled into the business units. When you have that kind of model it’s a little different for them from a value proposition.
At Panasonic, it’s more the latter model. For litigation and M&A, those fees tend to be subsumed by the business. If I had the resources to do a full-fledged M&A team, I wouldn’t need the law firm. But [the structure] impacts how you’re allocating resources as a department, because it drives you to be as lean as possible internally. The incentives aren’t really designed to allow you to have a large, beefed up, internal function.