Many law students regard working at a large corporate firm as the ultimate career goal, according to Phyllis James. “That’s where I always wanted to be. That was my focus,” says MGM Resorts International’s executive vice president, special counsel for litigation and chief diversity officer.
These aspirations, however, were well outside the scope of a typical Black law student at the time. James recalls: “When I was going to school, people always focused on Legal Aid or the public defender’s office. Not knocking that, but why go to Harvard for public-interest work? Why should Blacks settle, limit ourselves to a niche?”
Leveraging Litigation for Diversity
James was named chief diversity officer of MGM in 2009, after having worked in the company’s legal department for seven years and getting footing as counsel to the diversity committee to the board of directors. Now she is responsible for driving MGM’s philanthropy, diversity and community-engagement messages throughout the organization.
Her latest project is Inspiring Our World. The 90-minute musical program showcases MGM’s corporate-responsibility platform through song and dance. Written, produced and performed by MGM employees, the show will go live Dec. 16–18 before audiences of 5,000 frontline MGM employees per show.
While her diversity work rarely crosses over into her litigation responsibilities—most EEO cases and other legal complaints stem from conflicts with management and as such are not directly related to diversity, she says—James says communication and the ability to persuade are two valuable skills that a legal background affords her.
“To be effective as CDO, you have to have the ability to speak to a lot of different types of audiences, be able to converse at the board-of-directors level,” says James, noting that she regularly reports to and has a constant interface with MGM Chairman and CEO James Murren. “I need to be able to advocate the case for diversity, that it is our corporation’s best interest—it’s like making an argument, albeit a friendly argument, to a jury.
There Were Few Like Me
Following her graduation from Harvard Law School in 1977 and a clerkship for Theodore R. Newman Jr. (then Chief Judge of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals), James was hired by San Francisco–based Pillsbury, Madison, and Sutro (now Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman), where she says “you could count on one hand the number of Black associates who ever worked at my 300-person firm.”
“I was very conscious about the fact that no Black lawyer had been considered for partnership,” says James. “I always wanted to make sure I was excelling. I was a rarity—and wanted to make sure I set a good precedent that opened doors for others.”
Once promoted, James became heavily involved with the San Francisco Bar Association and became active in the American Bar Association’s Conference of Minority Partners in Majority Corporate Law Firms, where she led initiatives to improve the retention of nonwhite lawyers at big firms.
Advocating the Retention of Black Lawyers
All the major elite firms were predominantly white, and all had a problem with retaining Black associates, according to James. “It was a revolving door. Blacks were usually out by year four,” she recalls. “We wanted to help law firms understand what the cultural-isolation issues were.”
One of her key projects was a collaboration with a diversity specialist named Harry Jacob to create a video and accompanying manual that raised awareness of the negative experiences that nonwhite lawyers frequently encountered. The project, which received an award of merit from the ABA, focused on themes such as building an inclusive culture for Blacks, Latinos, Asians and American Indians, and best practices to ensure that all associates, regardless of race, received the same amount and same quality of mentoring from firm partners.
Creating Diversity Through Public Service
When Dennis Archer, a Michigan Supreme Court justice who knew James through the ABA, became mayor of Detroit in 1994, James left her firm to accept a public-service position as corporate general counsel and law director for the city.
“I took a huge pay cut and the work in some ways was harder, but it was a great opportunity. It gave me the opportunity to do work that helped to develop a primarily Black city,” says James.
While working on a casino authorization project in 1997, James met with representatives from MGM Resorts International, one of DiversityInc’s 25 Noteworthy Companies. They recruited her in 2002 to help drive the company’s diversity strategy. “Never in my wildest dreams had I thought I’d wind up working at a gaming and hospitality company,” she says.