Industry Resources

Celebrating Black History Month: An Interview With Monique Burt Williams

Cadence Counsel’s CEO talks with David Lat about this year’s Black History Month theme and why Black History Month feels especially significant in 2021.

Like so many of us, I was excited to turn the page on 2020 to reveal a new year — new perspectives, a new outlook, and perhaps a return to something resembling normalcy. But let’s face it: things still feel rather unusual, and I suspect they’ll feel this way for a while.

And I’m not alone in this view. I was chatting recently with my colleague Monique Burt Williams — CEO of Cadence Counsel, the sister company of Lateral Link that focuses exclusively on the placement of in-house counsel — and she commented that so many things still feel different. As an example, she mentioned Black History Month, which is taking place right now.

This gave rise to an interesting conversation, which I thought I’d share in these pages. I know that many of you are deeply concerned about diversity, equity, and inclusion, and so perhaps some of what Monique and I discussed will resonate. Here are some edited excerpts from our discussion.

DL:  How does Black History Month feel different to you this year, Monique?

MBW: The sheer range of emotion that we have collectively experienced over the past year has been staggering, particularly for African Americans. This is the first Black History Month since the killing of George Floyd and the activism triggered by that event. This is also the first Black History Month since Kamala Harris became our nation’s first Black vice president. So, here we are, grappling with this excruciating part of our reality, along with this incredibly joyous and groundbreaking piece of Black history to ponder.

So, yes, things feel different because things are different. I can see the actual movement and meaningful activism. I can feel the pace and power of the movement. And it’s taking place not just in the streets, where we have seen protestors calling for justice, but in corporate America as well.

DL: As an in-house recruiter, you talk to major companies every day about what they are doing on multiple fronts — including, but not limited to, diversity, equity, and inclusion. Can you offer some examples of companies that are advancing the ball on DEI?

MBW: Sure. Take a look at what Coca-Cola’s general counsel, Bradley Gayton, recently announced. It’s one of the legal industry’s most demanding outside counsel diversity programs to date, calling upon law firms to give a portion of work to Black attorneys specifically — and reducing legal fees for firms that fail to meet the new metrics.

Or look at what Laura Schumacher, general counsel at AbbVie, has been working on — for quite some time. As she explained in an interview last year, AbbVie has started an initiative with its outside law firms where they devise goals — ambitious goals, “stretch goals” — in terms of the female and minority

representation they want to see on their matters. The goals are measurable, so AbbVie and its firms can sit down every year and see what progress has been made against the predefined goals.

Also here in the Chicago area, Suheily Natal Davis at McDonald’s is doing great work. She was previously a senior counsel for global labor and employment and then general counsel for Latin America and McDonald’s, but she recently moved into the role of senior director for diversity, equity, and inclusion, so she can focus more fully on DEI initiatives.

DL: And how would you say Black History Month, and the introspection it promotes, affects your work at Cadence Counsel, helping companies find diverse, top-tier talent?

MBW: I spend a great deal of time thinking about our work at Cadence Counsel, and I was recently inspired by Andrew Cooper and his LinkedIn post about our perhaps surprising ability to impact total strangers.

This year, the theme for Black History Month is “The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity.” Whenever we make a placement, I think about all the lives we are affecting through that placement. We are helping the candidate to improve their career, and that in turn affects the candidate’s family, their new colleagues, their contribution to the economy, and more. We are helping our clients to build legal teams that will affect countless policies and employees across various industries. The stretch is amazing, really.  When I apply that same thought process to creating opportunities for individuals who have historically been marginalized, the impact is even more striking.  It’s why we do the work.

DL: Any final thoughts you’d like to leave us with about Black History Month?

MBW: Honoring the past is critically important, which is why Black History Month is so important. But I want us to also think about the future — the idea of using our history as a bridge to making history.  The work that we will do together to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in the legal profession is history-making. I am energized by the collaborations that are in the works to create measurable progress, and Cadence Counsel is excited to be a part of that impact.

DL: Thank you, Monique, for taking the time to share your insights with us — and thank you for your own work over the years in making a new history for DEI in the legal space.