MGM Resorts International's Phyllis James Uses Law & Entertainment to Push D&I

This attorney spent much of her legal career fighting for diversity in that profession. Now she's championing D&I initiatives for gaming and hospitality giant MGM.

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."

One partner was of American Indian heritage, which was not openly discussed, but the rest were white—and only two were women. In 1985, James would become the third woman, and first Black, partner.

"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.

Stop Talking About the Rooney Rule

Magical thinking will not move the needle on your diversity efforts, or your career, if your leadership is not accountable for results.


Luke Visconti is the founder and CEO of DiversityInc. Although the title of his column is meant to be humorous, the issues he addresses and the answers he gives to questions are serious — and based on his 17 years of experience publishing DiversityInc. Click here to send your own question to Luke.

Read More Show Less

'Regardless Of,' 'It Doesn't Matter' — Bigoted Phrases in Common Use

Credibility is at the core of a successful diversity management effort. Secretary Tillerson provides a teachable moment.


Luke Visconti is the founder and CEO of DiversityInc. Although the title of his column is meant to be humorous, the issues he addresses and the answers he gives to questions are serious — and based on his 17 years of experience publishing DiversityInc. Click here to send your own question to Luke.

Read More Show Less

You Can Be Fired for Being a Neo-Nazi

The First Amendment does not protect employees who engage in white supremacy activities, experts suggest.


The acts of violence at the hands of white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Va., have raised questions about the workplace: is it okay to fire employees who identify as bigots?

Read More Show Less

Who's Left on Trump's Business Councils?

Which CEOs have — and have not — responded to President Trump's handling of Charlottesville?

Doug McMillon, Walmart CEO / REUTERS

During a critical time for business leaders, CEOs and other company leaders have faced decisions. Some chose to remove themselves from White House business councils after President Donald Trump did not immediately disavow white supremacy after violent protests in Charlottesville, Va., left one counter-protester dead and many others injured.

Read More Show Less

More CEOs Condemn Trump's Response to Charlottesville

Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said that by not immediately rebuking white supremacists, President Trump "missed a critical opportunity to help bring our country together."


More executives are standing in opposition against President Donald Trump's response to violent protests in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend and his refusal to immediately condemn white supremacists.

Read More Show Less