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“Work side by side” With James E. Meadows

To develop the level of understanding required to create an inclusive, representative and equitable society, we must each commit to listen and put forth a good faith effort to learn from what we hear about what another individual thinks, what they have experienced, and what they want and need. We must participate, immersing ourselves in […]

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To develop the level of understanding required to create an inclusive, representative and equitable society, we must each commit to listen and put forth a good faith effort to learn from what we hear about what another individual thinks, what they have experienced, and what they want and need. We must participate, immersing ourselves in that other person’s experience. This can encompass any number of things — from inviting that person into your home to joining with them and their families and friends in social activities, to working side by side, or offering to provide mentorship.

As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’, I had the pleasure to interview James E. Meadows.

James E. Meadows is a co-founding partner and CFO of Culhane Meadows, the largest national, full-service woman-owned law firm in the country. His practice focuses on Outsourcing and Technology law and his clients include some of the largest companies in the world.

At the outset, I should note that the views expressed in this interview are my own. I did not make an effort to verify the opinions of my other 70+ partners, who I expect may agree or disagree on certain of the points made herein.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

For the most part, I grew up in a middle-class family in rural Western North Carolina, where my father worked as a manager/engineer for a manufacturing company. During a couple of summers, while I was in high school/college, I worked a union job in the company. I am a generation removed from small farmers in the Midwest, where I spent a large portion of my childhood helping out (and playing) on my grandparents’ family farms. I think it is the experience on the farms and over the summers (i.e., I always had a summer job) that helped develop the work ethic in which I take the most pride.

I attended the University of North Carolina for my undergraduate degree, and Wake Forest University for law school. UNC-Chapel Hill played a significant role in my development, as it provided me with my first real exposure to the concept of diversity and the benefits of and need for inclusion.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown. I did not grow up in an area that was particularly racially diverse, so my views have had to evolve over time, based upon a number of personal experiences. My kids, a daughter who is 23 and a son who is 18, have grown up surrounded by much more racial diversity. The minority enrollment of the high school from which they both graduated is 49%. For them, inclusion is a given (an assumption), and not something to strive for. It would be easy to leave it to them and their peers throughout the country to resolve our social (and other) problems; in other words, “kick the can down the road.”

When my kids were young, we read to them frequently, and at least every night before they went to bed. Not only was this enjoyable from a parent’s perspective and the opportunity for quality one-on-one engagement, but it helped prepare them to become the people they are today (including voracious readers). It was during this time that I realized that it was “my” responsibility to do my part to create a better world for them. Those early childhood years have affected not only my view of the world, but also almost every decision I make, for myself, for my family, and for the people with whom I interact. For myself, my choices included leaving a BigLaw partner position in a major city (Atlanta) in favor of a position enabling me to have more control over my practice (both how I work and how I provide a good value proposition to my clients). For my family, my decisions included not only the job change (resulting in more family time over the past decade), but a move to Florida where air quality and lower population density contribute to a better quality of life. For my community (meaning my career), I was able to work with several other like-minded friends/attorneys to create Culhane Meadows PLLC, the largest national full-service women-owned law firm in the country, and one committed to furthering the development of an inclusive, representative, and equitable society, not only through its words, but its actions.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

“Always say ‘yes’ to the present moment.” For this, I credit Eckhart Tolle and his book The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. This entire interview speaks to the importance of this quote, whether it involves seizing opportunities presented each day to make the world a better place, or relieving stress by refusing to dwell on what “might” happen in the future.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is evidenced not by the qualities of the “leader,” but rather by the individuals who follow them. Superior intellect does not necessarily result in a good leader. Same with the ability to command actions by subordinates. A good leader leads by example (generating respect) and creates the impression within their team that the leader has each person’s back under any circumstances, especially when things go wrong. A “leader” to whom subordinates fear bringing bad news is not a leader.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

First, I would admit that I haven’t historically done a good job of managing stress, as I tend to internalize it and dwell on the upcoming meeting or decision in the hours and days leading up to the event. Even today, I would not consider myself to be a good role model for others to follow (albeit I think I have gotten better over time).

In the first half of my career, I did a lot of public speaking in continuing legal education (CLE) seminars and other conferences. In preparing for my talks (say a 50-minute to one-hour presentation, including Q&A), I invariably invested 20–30 hours of my time developing an outline and talking points. I made sure my coverage (sub-points) was complete. I practiced. And here is the worst part, I would spend hours trying to anticipate questions from the audience and the crafting of potential responses. Invariably, I would get into the presentation, settle down to a relaxed pace, and then not be able to get through the materials, and then at the end, NONE of the questions that I had anticipated were asked. I realized after a few years that (1) people in the audience generally feel for and respect presenters, and would seldom try to put a presenter in an awkward position by challenging them or asking a difficult question, and (2) by loading up my presentations (focusing on completeness), I was doing the audience a disservice. I was giving them too many take-aways that no one could likely remember.

Funny story, but I recall one time having a partner who did not practice in my area come to me for details about a 45-minute lunch presentation he was giving about a topic for which I was the firm’s top resource. He only had 20 minutes before he had to leave, so he just wanted the high points. I told him that it would be impossible for me to give him enough content in 20 minutes for him to fill up 45 minutes on a legal topic that did not fit his practice; nonetheless, I laid everything out for him in the time allotted and he left on schedule. I was in the audience and he gave a beautiful presentation focused on the 3–4 key points I gave him, and it was very well received. Lesson learned.

The majority of my practice/career has focused on “bet-the-company” deals involving high stakes negotiations, especially since founding Culhane Meadows in 2013. There are also many stressful issues inherent in running a law firm of 70+ partners. As with public speaking, I agonize over decisions to be made and/or upcoming negotiations. Invariably (again!), I lose sleep anticipating all opposing counsel’s possible points and/or arguments to the same effect — negotiations far less stressful than anticipated, and many of the points/arguments dwelt upon never arising. Luckily, several years ago, at the suggestion of one of my co-founders, I had the good fortune to read Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now: A Spiritual Guide to Enlightenment, and it has helped shape my perspective since then. I still have room to grow, but I am getting better. Again, lesson learned.

As a final point, I would note that I have been a runner since 1977, for exercise, as a competitive outlet, and for stress relief. I have always found running and exercise to provide an escape from the stress and tension surrounding daily life, and have even solved some of my most significant work/deal problems while out on the roads and trails, wherever I happened to be at the time. I hope to continue some form of aerobic activity for the rest of my life.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality, and inclusion. This is, of course, a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

We are where we are today as a result, on the one hand, of frustration over promises not fulfilled clashing with deep-set views of a few individuals/groups trying to justify preserving the inequality on the other. And on the sidelines are the vast majority of the population holding views on tangential topics that tend to fall along political lines. Anti-racism has become the focus of the movement currently, and it appears to be drawing positive energy. But it often encounters responses along the lines of people claiming to not be racist, and in the same breath, asserting other agendas that should take priority over racism.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

My personal journey began when I graduated from law school in 1986 and landed my first job in New York City. One of my early mentors was Sylvia Khatcherian, a woman who at that time was a senior associate and then a junior partner at Brown Raysman & Millstein (one of the first boutique technology law practices in the country). Even though we separated in the early 1990s, when I moved to Atlanta, she has continued to participate in most of the major decisions in my life. She is an incredible person, as law firm partnership was only the beginning for her. She went on to lead the global technology law practices for two Fortune 100 financial services companies and currently serves as Deputy General Counsel to the world’s largest hedge fund. During her spare time, she served on the management board of the International Bar Association (IBA).

Sylvia may have started me down the right path, but many others have influenced me along the way. For more than 25 years, I have represented American Express (to which I also owe thanks to Sylvia for the initial opportunity). I have long considered the company to be one of the first “true” (meaning that at an institutional level, their actions spoke louder than their words) early adopters of the diversity and inclusion mandate. I had the good fortune to work with Ron Gray, Managing Counsel and author of a 1993 New York Law Journal article, which I believe provided the template for in-house legal departments to drive inclusiveness in the legal profession by enhancing outside counsel selection criteria to include a diversity metric. And also, with Wanji Walcott, currently General Counsel at Discover Financial Services, and before that at PayPal, and recently recognized by Black Enterprise Magazine as one of the “Most Powerful Executives in Corporate America.” Through the years, I have worked with and for a number of women and minority GC’s, in-house practice leaders, and law firm partners, all of whom have influenced my views on what our society (legal and beyond) should look like, and why.

The law is one of the few professions in which mentorship has long been both a privilege and an expectation. Young lawyers learn to practice law not in law school but by emulating more senior lawyers, in the performance of legal services, in the development of business and management of client relationships, and in the conduct of ethical duties as a professional. I have benefited from the mentors who have revealed to me or enhanced my view of the importance of diversity and inclusion, and have long understood my obligation to “pay it forward.” I can name those who have served as my mentors (and have named a few of them already). I will always appreciate all they have given me, and since achieving my own law firm partnership in the mid-1990s, I have always embraced the duty to mentor others. I wish I could name them, but mentors don’t claim mentees (any such attempt would be presumptuous at best or self-serving at worst), only a mentee can award a mentorship designation. I only hope that I have influenced others in a positive way along the journey.

As the performance of legal services is described as a “practice,” so too is the pursuit of an inclusive, representative, and equitable society. I continue to receive regular reminders, and insights into how we can all work together to get there, through Culhane Meadows’ involvement in the National Association of Minority and Women-Owned Law Firms (NAMWOLF) and Women-Owned Law.

Of course, I saved the best for last: Culhane Meadows, the management of which demands a daily commitment that goes to the essence of working toward diversity and inclusion, namely, that what we each do within our own organization matters. This extends beyond Culhane Meadows’ status as a women-owned law firm, and having 60% of our management team comprised of women. Providing only the basics (as a complete description of the firm would be its own article), Culhane Meadows has developed an objective compensation system that eliminates the “glass ceiling,” as there is no ceiling in our firm. Any one of our partners can achieve the most compensation in a given year through their performance. In fact, in most years, half or more of our highest-earning partners have been women (including our highest earner, a couple of years ago), and last year, on average, our female partners made 4% more than their male counterparts. Seniority (which has long been the barrier to women and minority attorneys reaching the upper echelons of the law firm partnership ranks) is not one of the “objective” measures we use in our compensation system. In fact, on several occasions, attorneys in their first full year with the firm have achieved the highest compensation for that year. If an attorney is willing to put in the effort, they can reach the top of the pyramid.

On the other hand, if they define success differently (e.g., work/life balance), Culhane Meadows’ model is flexible enough to support the pursuit of those goals, as well. In any event, our model works without regard to race, color, religion, sex, gender identity or national origin. We beat the U.S. Supreme Court to the interpretation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as extending to LGBT individuals without regard to sexual orientation or gender identity — something Culhane Meadows recognized quite literally from our inception.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

The biggest reason for any organization to have a diverse executive team is that society is diverse, which means that each company’s customer base is likely diverse. I am not aware of any company that has the luxury of ignoring a significant percentage of the population. Avoiding diversity within each level of the organization (all the way up to and including the management team) ignores the unrepresented or under-represented segment of the population. It means a company will not have the full perspective of what that segment (including prospective clients and referral sources) needs or wants. Nor will it have the decision-making commitment to drive the organization to meet those needs and wants.

Another reason to field a diverse executive team is for increased creativity and innovation. Similar to the first point, a strong organization is going to want to consider as many perspectives as possible in developing and deploying new products and pursuing new corporate opportunities. If you have an executive team composed of individuals sharing the same gender and race, who all went to the same schools and had similar backgrounds, the organization will stagnate. It is more likely to see only the same issues it encountered in the past, and solve them with the same solutions always deployed in the past. In other words, the company fails to get better. It may survive in good times but won’t thrive. And, it may not survive in bad times when it lacks the flexibility to see new problems it may not have encountered before, nor to solve them with actions it may not have considered previously. While it may be more “comfortable” to surround yourself with people like you, running a business successfully is not about being comfortable. It is “mostly” about maximizing returns. Although I don’t know to whom to attribute the quote (despite a quick Google search), I recall once hearing a business leader say that, “If it isn’t broken, you still better fix it, or your competitor will.” Progress doesn’t happen without change, and change doesn’t happen without a diversity of inputs.

The points that I listed above focus on benefits to the bottom line, the relatively near-term horizon. I said “mostly” about maximizing returns because there is also the concept of “corporate social responsibility.” While this may sound altruistic, I prefer to think that this is just a longer-term perspective of the same goal…maximizing returns. Companies demonstrating good corporate values tend to have a good business reputation, which leads to greater brand recognition and customer loyalty, which ultimately leads to better financial performance. Corporate social responsibility also provides recruiting and retention benefits. There is a reason that Fortune publishes a “Best Companies to Work For” list.

Although there are, unfortunately, too few examples, another important reason for a company to have a diverse executive team is the positive effect on the diversity of the organization as a whole. Organizations with diverse executive teams (which more clearly see the benefits of diversity and inclusion, and which have decision making authority) tend to experience a flow-down benefit and have diversity at all levels. The same cannot be said about a bottom-up strategy. Hiring women and minorities at lower levels will not magically result in a diverse executive team. Lower-level employees do not make organizational decisions, so change does not occur at the top.

Turning the question on its head, I cannot think of a single reason why having a diverse executive team would be bad for business.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society.” Kindly share a story or example for each.

One way of interpreting this question is that it asks what we must do collectively to create such a society, as in what sort of laws need to be passed and/or actions that need to be taken by individual organizations or groups. In my view, group actions cannot happen until the members of that group determine they must act. Regardless of whether we are talking about a small group or voters in national elections, the points I offer below start with the building blocks necessary to achieve real and lasting change.

1. Personal Reflection. This is almost a prerequisite before even beginning the steps which follow, as it involves a commitment to be a better person (and not just for diversity and inclusion purposes) and a recognition of the problem. Each person must look inward and ask themselves (individually — not what another individual or group suggests or expects) what is right and wrong, and do what is right. While there will be some who will not be convinced to accept the challenge, or with whom we will not agree, I truly believe that “they” will be in the minority. If we can learn to reject hate, resist those who would instill hatred seeking to divide us as peoples, society will benefit, and we will accomplish inclusion.

2. Understanding (Empathy). The next step is to genuinely attempt to truly understand the other person because, without this perspective, one cannot progress on any of the other steps. It is easy to understand or seek to validate your own perspective, but entirely different to allow yourself to be challenged by someone else’s viewpoint. I have been negotiating complex commercial agreements for nearly 35 years. I can say with certainty that almost everyone with whom I have negotiated a deal understands their own (or their client’s) needs and wants. The most successful negotiators, on the other hand, understand the other side’s needs and wants so as to construct agreements in which both sides realize beneficial results. You don’t win a negotiation without considering other people’s perspective (or if you do, you risk losing the deal). However, when it comes to diversity and inclusion, our future is at stake.

To develop the level of understanding required to create an inclusive, representative and equitable society, we must each commit to listen and put forth a good faith effort to learn from what we hear about what another individual thinks, what they have experienced, and what they want and need. We must participate, immersing ourselves in that other person’s experience. This can encompass any number of things — from inviting that person into your home to joining with them and their families and friends in social activities, to working side by side, or offering to provide mentorship.

In addition to the commitment to listen and learn, the information must be available to all. This means improving the instruction — both in content and in teaching methods — provided in our educational systems, from pre-kindergarten (itself Euro-centric terminology) through university and higher education. As I mentioned earlier, I feel my children are better positioned to grapple with the challenges of creating an inclusive society because of their experiences in diverse schools and communities, but (A) not all school systems afford the opportunity to experience diversity, and (B) even if the school has a diverse student population, the teaching materials may not provide the proper perspective on the past (as well as current conditions).

Finally, information must be conveyed to the masses who are beyond the reach of educational systems. This is where the challenge lies.

3. Discomfort. To accomplish real and permanent change, one must be willing to be uncomfortable. When we are comfortable, we may still have views and even voice them to our relevant community. We may also write a check to an organization that supports our beliefs. But all too often, we simply slip back into our comfort zone. When you look back at productive periods in our history, you will see that they often follow periods of discomfort, like the Great Depression, World Wars, etc.

Discomfort also applies to the steps taken. It is learning the difference between not being racist and being anti-racist. Most people likely consider themselves not racist and would identify the “racist” label as one they would never want assigned to them. Conversely, many of those same people also would not go out of their way to speak out against racial injustice. They might never invite a minority neighbor or work colleague to dinner or other social activities. They might never mentor a minority colleague to improve that individual’s work skills or business acumen (e.g., in my field, as a law firm partner, this influences someone’s ability to generate business/client development), etc. In the latter area, mentorship can be uncomfortable because the mentor may view that it could lead to the mentee receiving opportunities that might otherwise have found their way to the mentor.

With limited exceptions (like with Culhane Meadows — which has eliminated the glass ceiling by eliminating the ceiling altogether), law firm equity partnership is generally the goal of most attorneys in private practice. In the traditional law firm model, roughly one-third of revenues pay attorney compensation, one-third goes to overhead, and the final third is split among the equity partners at the end of the year. It is that equity pie that everyone wants a piece of — you can cut as many slices of the pie as you want, but at the end of the day, there is still only one pie. In large law firms, a low-level equity partner might receive as little as a 0.1% share, and the top-earning partner might only receive a 1% share, but if the numbers are large enough, both will be quite happy. Now, because there is only one pie, equity partners want their objective numbers to look as good as possible, and their subjective contributions to be recognized, to secure a higher equity share (referred to as “points”). But for one attorney to move up the point sheets, another partner must move down or off the points sheet. This has presented a real challenge to the concept of mentorship within law firms. That challenge is heightened when minority mentorship is added to the equation. With more companies advocating for women and minority participation, the concern is that the mentor will lose ground with the clients and prospects. Only those who see the bigger picture — that mentoring the next generation will lead to a larger pie — are the most successful mentors. In the current, short-term world, such foresight is in short supply. Law firm partners need to step out of their comfort zones and join the battle.

Clients don’t get off the hook either. Most companies these days have a policy in favor of diversity and inclusion, and many already have diversity committees and coordinators within their procurement departments mandated to improve the diversity of the supplier base. In the legal space, some are members of NAMWOLF. They commit a percentage of their outside counsel spend to the hiring of women- and minority-owned law firms. However, all too often following bid solicitations or RFP releases, in-house counsel falls back on hiring partners with the same law firms that have supported them for years. The argument is, “But they understand our business.”, or “They bring more years of experience to the table.”, making them “better lawyers” for the particular engagement. It is time for these companies and in-house counsel to move outside their comfort zones. Although not limited to the legal department, Pamela Newkirk’s Diversity, Inc. is a good read on this topic.

4. Political Will. Both of the major political parties push agendas advocating justice and equality. With such a “consensus,” why is there not bipartisan support for legislation to create the inclusive, representative, and equitable society that we all purport to want? The answer is in the question; our leaders have different priorities and, in the end, are diametrically opposed to each other. Even on the basic tenets of the problem and what needs to be done — there is no consensus. There is no effort to cross the aisle (as was so successful in the decades following World War II) to work together for meaningful change. Each party is caught up in its own rhetoric, playing to its constituents.

Personally, I would like to see a cabinet-level appointment (and its equivalent at a state level) focused on diversity and inclusion. There are positions focused on diversity ranging from labor (EEOC) and housing to Civil Rights enforcement (through the Justice Department). But the initiatives are uncoordinated, and other pressing priorities often force diversity and inclusion to the background. Our government needs to step up its game. If measures have been effective, they should continue; if they have proven ineffective, they need to be revised or replaced.

Existing laws must be enforced and enforced fairly. New laws must be put in place to eliminate barriers preventing or disadvantaging individuals because of their race, color, religion, sex, gender identity or national origin. Areas requiring attention include situations where one person infringes upon another individual’s civil rights. This includes not calling the police based upon the mere presence of a person of color (the recent Central Park case is one example), police practices disproportionately targeting people of color, etc. Beyond crime, other areas include extending the quest for equality beyond education, housing, and employment — e.g., equal access to loans and capital supporting women and minority-owned businesses.

5. Resolve. Finally, the movement needs a groundswell of support to finally and fully address the issues on the table and create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society. It is more than setting “targets” to strive for in the next decade or so. Corporations need to take a look at the boards of directors and executive management teams and ask whether they are representative of the population demographics (and if not, why not?). Shareholders need to demand change. You might think by reading my comments that I am in favor of affirmative action, but I am not. I am in favor of the most qualified person getting the job. But if that process does not result in representation matching demographics, then perhaps we should question the job descriptions/requirements themselves and whether they genuinely seek out the most qualified person (versus perpetuating the status quo). If management does not have the perspective of a large percentage of the population, perhaps the job description needs to target someone with that perspective.

Each election (national, state, and local) involves consideration of a wide range of issues, including the economy, response to the current pandemic, the environment, to name but a few. When we vote, we each tend to vote for the candidate who best reflects our views on the issues that are most important to us, and often overlook lesser issues where we might not agree with the candidate. As voters, now is the time to put the creation of an inclusive, representative, and equitable society on each person’s Top 5 list. It doesn’t have to be first, but it also shouldn’t be relegated to the periphery.

And as consumers, we also need to vote with our wallets and only support organizations that support equality — and minority businesses themselves. Money talks, and when we resolve to provide financial support only to such businesses, other companies will get the message that to survive, they too need to adapt.

Finally, resolve means moving beyond not being racist and being “open” to steps leading to equality. It means inclusion, which requires affirmative steps, and it means being anti-racist (i.e., speaking up against hate and divisiveness).

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

Absolutely, and in many respects, it is because of the period that we are going through that I think that the pace of change may actually accelerate. In easy times, people can say the right things or write a check to support a cause, but it is too easy to revert to their comfort zones. In difficult times, people develop a certain edge, seeking change. Although the change they seek mostly focuses on themselves, their families, and their immediate communities, it is the receptiveness to change that is important. I think that is why we are seeing a groundswell of support from the white community, indicating that now is the time to finally and fully address racial injustice and inequality.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Arianna Huffington!

How can our readers follow you online?

I don’t have a specific online channel, but readers can see regular posts relating to topics addressing diversity and inclusion by following my law firm on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/company/culhane-meadows-pllc/). And if you are a woman or minority attorney in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC, or Texas, with eight or more years of private practice experience in an AmLaw 200 setting, and are interested in a non-traditional opportunity to work with a sophisticated law firm with no glass (or other) ceilings, shoot me an email.

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