In our recent conversation about Black History Month, my colleague Monique Burt Williams — CEO of Cadence Counsel, which focuses exclusively on the placement of in-house counsel — identified corporate legal departments that are leaders in advancing diversity. One company she highlighted was AbbVie, the Chicago-based, Fortune 100 biopharmaceutical company behind blockbuster drugs like Humira and Imbruvica. Under the leadership and vision of chief legal officer Laura Schumacher — who has led its legal department since AbbVie became independent from Abbott Laboratories in 2013, and who previously was General Counsel at Abbott — AbbVie has tirelessly promoted diversity, equity, and inclusion, in the legal profession and beyond.
What are some of the innovations that AbbVie has pioneered? And what can in-house legal departments and law firms learn from AbbVie’s example? I recently interviewed Joy Lyu Monahan, Associate Director, Legal Diversity and Outside Counsel Programs, to learn some of the secrets of AbbVie’s success.
Monahan graduated from Georgetown University, from which she earned her bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree in public policy, and a J.D. from Louisiana State University’s Paul M. Hebert Law Center. After clerking for state and federal judges in Louisiana, she worked in private practice in New Orleans, and then after Hurricane Katrina, she moved to Chicago and worked at Kirkland & Ellis and Edwards Wildman (now part of Locke Lord). She then moved in-house, serving as general counsel of World Business Chicago (WBC) before joining AbbVie in June 2020.
What drew her to the AbbVie opportunity? Monahan and I are both graduates of Jesuit educational institutions (Georgetown for her and Regis High School for me), and we bonded over this at the start of our interview. A key concept in the Jesuit tradition is service, being “men and women for others.” Monahan has spent much of her career in public service — at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Senate before law school, in her two clerkships right after law school, and during her time at WBC, a public-private nonprofit organization that drives inclusive economic growth — and she viewed the opportunity to promote diversity and inclusion at AbbVie as another opportunity to serve.
“I was looking not just for ‘a job,’ but a chance to do something deeply meaningful,” Monahan told me. “And I found it here at AbbVie. I work for a big company, doing meaningful things, and with both leadership and resources behind my work. We have significant legal spend here at AbbVie — and we can deploy it to advance diversity.”
Monahan knows firsthand the challenges of being a minority woman in a profession still dominated by white men. She was one of just a handful of Asian Americans in her law school class at LSU, as well as one of a small number of women of color at her two law firms. And during the course of her legal career prior to AbbVie, she encountered various forms of bias — often insidious bias — that she does not want future generations to face.
When it comes to diversity in the legal profession, the statistics are stark. As AbbVie CLO Laura Schumacher noted in a November 2020 article for Law360, only 5 percent of active lawyers in the U.S. are Black, 5 percent are Hispanic, and 3 percent are Asian — numbers well short of these groups’ representation in the overall population. Despite representing a majority of the U.S. population, women make up only 38 percent of the U.S. legal profession — and less than 23 percent of U.S.-based law firm partners. So despite the progress of recent years, the legal industry has a long way to go.
AbbVie is doing more than its share when it comes to addressing this problem. Monahan is responsible for facilitating eight workstreams with more than 50 legal colleagues focused exclusively on expanding the company’s already robust diversity initiatives. One of AbbVie’s long-standing programs is its Outside Counsel Diversity Initiative, a carefully designed, metrics-based program to accelerate diversity at the company’s outside counsel. Launched in 2018 with over 25 of AbbVie’s top-spend law firms, the Initiative began by assessing baseline metrics and creating individualized goals for each firm, in terms of the diversity of the lawyers working on AbbVie’s matters. By 2023, AbbVie’s aggregate goals for law firm representation on its matters are equal female and male partners, double the minority partners, and 50 percent underrepresented attorneys.
Given her longstanding commitment to diversity and the strong relationships she forged with managing partners and other law firm leaders during her time as GC of WBC, Monahan was the perfect person to drive the Initiative. And she’s optimistic about its power to bring about change.
“Like other large companies, we have significant legal spending power at AbbVie,” Monahan said. “These are relationships that are meaningful to law firms. And when it comes to diversity, what’s different about our program compared to many others is that we really mean it. We sit down with law firms on a regular basis, we review their numbers, and if their numbers aren’t where they should be, we tell them they need to improve — or they’ll lose our business.”
The program is already showing results. In 2020, compared to baseline hours in 2017, underrepresented lawyer hours are up by 12 percent, female partner hours are up by 18 percent, and minority partner hours are up by a whopping 46 percent.
“We have so many success stories with our outside counsel,” Monahan said. “Sitting in these annual review meetings and seeing these numbers going up, seeing how change happens — that’s one of the best parts of my job.”
Of course, in order for law firms to be able to meet diversity goals like those of AbbVie, they need strong representation of women and minority lawyers, at both the associate and partner levels. This requires addressing the so-called “pipeline problem,” making sure that there’s a steady pipeline of diverse talent going into firms in the first place. This is an issue that AbbVie also appreciates — and addresses.
Monahan spoke proudly about AbbVie’s IP Group Intern Academy, a first-year law school internship program for students with an interest in diversity and intellectual property — an area of law that’s important to AbbVie as a pharma company, and one that historically has trailed other practice areas in diversity. The interns, who are often diverse law students with science backgrounds, work for AbbVie after their 1L summers, gaining valuable experience in IP law — and then AbbVie helps them find jobs with leading law firms for their 2L summers. The program has an excellent track record so far, with 100 percent of diverse interns from the program receiving offers for summer or full-time employment with top firms.
“Many of the interns come from law schools where it’s difficult to land a job with a major law firm,” Monahan explained (and noted that it’s a situation she can relate to, since not many LSU grads go straight to firms like Kirkland). “We pick people who normally wouldn’t have a chance, and we give them a chance. After working for a summer for us, they are ‘AbbVie-endorsed,’ which helps them get hired by top firms as 2Ls. And the firms love our interns — they come back to us and say, ‘She’s amazing, and can we get all of your other interns?’”
“We are now in our third year of the program, and our interns continue to get offers from great firms, all because they got a chance. That’s what the program is about: picking people who wouldn’t normally have a chance, and giving them a chance.”
AbbVie focuses on diversity in its own internal hiring as well. Women make up more than two-thirds of the company’s global legal department, and underrepresented minorities make up almost a third. Under Monahan’s leadership, the company has built strong relationships with a wide range of minority bar associations, whom it turns to when it has job openings to fill. In addition, AbbVie works with outside recruiting firms that prioritize diversity — such as Cadence Counsel, led by Monique Burt Williams, one of the few Black women CEOs in the recruiting industry.
Not surprisingly, AbbVie and its legal team have won numerous awards for their commitment to diversity and inclusion. In 2020, the Coalition on Women’s Initiatives in Law gave AbbVie its Benchmark Award, which goes to a law firm or corporate legal department that has demonstrated passion and commitment to leading the advancement of women’s issues. In 2019, Chambers and Partners recognized Laura Schumacher for her outstanding contributions to furthering diversity in the legal profession. AbbVie has also been recognized as a top employer or workplace for diversity by such authorities as Fortune, Forbes, Working Mother, DiversityInc., and the Human Rights Campaign.
The honors and awards are nice — but to Joy Lyu Monahan, what’s most meaningful about her work is the ability to bring about meaningful change. And if recognition and positive publicity can help AbbVie’s approach spread throughout the legal industry, that’s all to the good.
“We want to be a leader and to set an example,” she said. “This is why we want to get the word out. We want to propagate our model. We want other companies to say, ‘We want to do what AbbVie is doing.’”
“When filling my role, AbbVie chose me — but I also chose AbbVie, for its longstanding, outstanding commitment to diversity. I work with an amazing team of leaders and colleagues who share these values, and could not have made this progress without them. I’m so excited to be at a place where I can make real change in the legal profession.”