Toya Cirica Bell, Deputy Chief Ethics Officer of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, was the featured speaker at the Texas General Counsel Forum Austin/San Antonio chapter 1st Quarter Program in Austin on March 5th. Bell discussed Austin’s Diversity and Inclusion initiative and in particular its impact in law departments and law firms.

Bell participated in a panel discussion that also included Neil Wilcox, Senior Vice President and General Counsel – Enterprise Shared Services at USAA, and Mark K. Leaverton, Partner at Rash Chapman Schreiber Leaverton & Morrison LLP. Morae Global Directors Jon Gross and John Mielitz were also in attendance and were joined by in-house and senior managing counsel as well as partners and associates from law firms.

Bell has more than 25 years of experience in advising business and public sector clients on employee relationships and ethics management, and she focused on the importance of viewing diversity through a lens that would increase empathy and understanding of exclusion.

“Bell spoke of the challenge for minority law school graduates who are often the first lawyers in their own families,” says Mielitz. “She focused on the need to balance the scales for those who don’t have the benefit of a legacy in the legal industry.”

With nearly 113,000 GCs in the U.S., findings from the 2019 General Counsel Landscape show less than 20 percent of Fortune 500 GCs are minorities, and only 30 percent are women. As legal departments and law firms across the country continue to push for diversity, Bell, Wilcox and Leaverton shared fresh perspectives on initiatives to increase these numbers.

“The panel shared their personal experiences from their own mentors and their evolving perceptions of inclusion,” says Gross. “Bell also made an interesting distinction between diversity and inclusion, commenting that, ‘Diversity is like being asked to the dance, while inclusion is being asked to actually dance.’”

Wilcox spoke about the benefits of mentorship, particularly for those who do not have a family legacy of law school graduates. “Wilcox described the opportunities he had to advance his career that would not have been possible without a mentor,” adds Mielitz. “He encouraged attendees to seek out mentees with an eye towards diversity.”

Leaverton offered the perspective of a partner who did not focus initially on the importance of diversity and inclusion. He shared several stories from his law firm, including from a hosted lunch with female associates and staff where he gained valuable insight into the challenges his female associates faced within his firm. He also shared the positive impact these new perspectives have brought in his personal life.

The Texas General Counsel Forum is a community and network of more than 650 general counsel and senior managing counsel representing more than half of the Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Texas. Since 1998, the forum has been serving and improving the lives of in-house leadership through the discovery and sharing of best legal practices.

For more information on the Texas General Counsel Forum, please visit https://www.tgcf.org/.

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