• Stephanie Nweke

9 Black Lawyers You Didn’t Know Led Fortune 500 Companies

I am in my final semester of law school and I’ve reflected significantly on my experience so far. I recently learned that Black people have legally been allowed to enroll in law schools for only 70 years. The United States is 244 years old, which would make me part of the third generation of Black lawyers in the U.S.

When my Dean explained this fact to my colleagues and I during a conference presentation, a light bulb went off in my head. It made sense why some Black lawyers I interacted with wanted to do everything to help me, while others seemed standoffish and made me feel like I had to prove myself worthy of their assistance. Every Black person in law has had a unique journey characterized by the simple fact that they are the minority in a profession that has done much to exclude them.

I’ve had my own negative encounters with prejudice and discrimination throughout law school, but I can only imagine what this second generation of lawyers had to deal with in school and in their careers.

I have read many articles about the first generation of Black lawyers who paved the way. Charlotte E. Ray. Charles Houston. Thurgood Marshall. Constance Baker Motley. These distinguished women and men were some of the first Black lawyers and judges in our country. I would not be in law school without them.

In this article I wanted to celebrate and recognize some Black lawyers in the U.S. today. Most, if not all, of these men and women are still the “firsts” and are writing history as we speak.

1. Tony West, SVP and Chief Legal Officer at Uber (2017).

Tony went to Harvard for undergrad and graduated from Stanford Law. He has spent time working in government—both in California and under the Clinton Administration. He has also worked in BigLaw and is now in Big Tech.

What you may not know is that he also happens to be Kamala Harris’ brother-in-law!

2. Bradley M. Gayton, SVP and General Counsel at Coca-Cola (2020).

One of the first things Bradley did as General Counsel was create a policy that holds law firms accountable for their [lack of] diversity. It’s one of the boldest policies I’ve ever seen from a corporation.

This action shows me that everyone has a role to play in making the legal profession more diverse and inclusive—schools, students, firms, government offices and clients.

3. Wanji Walcott, EVP and Chief Legal Office & General Counsel for Discover Financial Services (2019).

Wanji was formerly General Counsel and SVP at PayPal. She is a graduate of Howard University and is an absolute boss!

It is really encouraging for me to see Black women wearing their natural hair, especially in their headshots. It’s sad that this wasn’t acceptable 10-15 years ago, maybe even less than that.

4. Harvey Anderson, Chief Legal Officer at HP (2019).

I met Harvey last year during a summer program and I thought he was really funny and down to earth. He also kept it real about some of the challenges he’s faced as a Black man in his profession and how he overcame them.

5. Halimah DeLaine Prado, General Counsel at Google (2020).

Although Halimah has been with Google’s legal team for over a decade, this role comes with a new set of responsibilities and challenges to resolve. She joins the small group of Black female lawyers leading large companies.

6. Teresa Roseborough, EVP and General Counsel at Home Depot (2011).

Before joining Home Depot, Teresa worked in the government and in private practice for several years. In 2009, she was named as one of the 25 Influential Black Women from The Network Journal.

7. Deirdre Stanley, EVP and General Counsel at Estée Lauder (2019).

Deirdre works at a global level to strategically advise the company and lead on matters of compliance, governance, and a variety of transactions. Before joining Estée Lauder she was the General Counsel at Thomson Reuters.

8. Rosalind “Roz” Brewer, CEO at Walgreens (2020).

Roz was formerly in the C-suite of Starbucks and Sam’s Club. She’s the only Black female CEO of a Fortune 500 company and hopefully there will be more after her. Although she’s not in a strictly legal position, she did graduate from Stanford Law and I’m sure that experience remains relevant today.

9. Brandon Nelson, General Counsel at JetBlue (2018).

Brandon has been with JetBlue since 2005 and diligently worked his way up the corporate legal ladder. He is also an alum of Howard University!

I don’t know the stories of all these men and women and how they got to where they are today. What I do know is that it took a lot of courage, sacrifice, mentorship, and hard work in the face of racism, discrimination, sexism and probably being a token or “the only one.”

5% of attorneys in the U.S. are Black, and there are only 38 Black lawyers leading Fortune 500 companies. I’m grateful not just for these individuals but also for all of the Black lawyers working as in-house counsel, professors, entrepreneurs, public defenders, judges, solo practitioners, authors, and more. They too are paving the way for my generation of lawyers.

If you want to support future Black lawyers, you can visit Black Bar Applicant Fund or National Pre-Law Diversity Initiatives, Inc. You can create diversity scholarships at your organization or in partnership with your alma mater.

You can also support the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA), Corporate Counsel Women of Color (CCWC), Executive Leadership Council (ELC), any HBCU or other organizations dedicated to supporting minorities in the law.

As this second generation of lawyers have continued to pave the way, I’m confident that my generation will carry the torch to create more job opportunities, increase access to capital, and sharpen corporate accountability.