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Spotlight - Paulette Dodson, Chief Counsel, North America Operations, Sara Lee

Posted on Thursday, August 05, 2010

Spotlight -  Paulette Dodson, Chief Counsel, North America Operations, Sara Lee
To view this spotlight in PDF format, please click here.

Interview conducted by Christine T. Phan

Judging by her schedule on a random Tuesday morning, Paulette Dodson, Chief Counsel, North America Operations at Sara Lee, leads a very busy life. Paulette was kind enough to sit for an interview with Catherine Colinvaux and me for a Zealous Women profile.

Paulette greeted us with a welcoming smile. As she walked toward us she smiled and waved to another Sara Lee employee. We grabbed a quick bite in the Sara Lee cafeteria - generously provided by Paulette - and I decided to let Paulette and Catherine eat their lunches before beginning the formal part of the interview. However, as we sat down, Catherine and Paulette launched immediately into a discussion of diversity in the legal field. I knew immediately that Paulette's Zealous Women interview would be the perfect opportunity for me to pick her brain about a number of professional issues.

The Relationship Between In-House and Outside Counsel

Paulette has worked in-house with a number of large corporations, including the Chicago Tribune and now Sara Lee. In her duties as Chief Counsel at Sara Lee, Paulette "motivates a team of lawyers to provide sound business advice, provide creative thinking around business issues, [and] build systems or infrastructures to eliminate or minimize legal risk."¯ She views her tea's ultimate goal as being business partners with Sara Lee's executives to ensure that the company reaches its business goals.

Paulette identified limited resources as the most challenging aspect of her job. Because Paulette knows that part of her job is to maximize company's resources, she has, on occasion, requested alternative billing methods from outside counsel. Paulette had general advice for outside firms looking to forge productive and valuable partnerships with corporations. "Traditional large law firms might miss the boat because being fabulously expert or prestigious is only useful in a few cases and being absolutely thorough is only useful up to a point. What we are looking for in most run of the mill cases is efficiency and value at getting the job done and not necessarily using every resource. One of the biggest learning experiences for any associate from a large law firm is understanding that perfection is not critical to success, excellence is the key. If you are aiming for perfection, you are potentially wasting time and money."

Paulette views retaining outside counsel as an opportunity to build true partnership, where the law firm understands the business and goals of the corporation, provides an opportunity for the corporation to save costs, and also acts a tool for the company to identify systemic problems by providing an outside perspective. In order to cultivate such a relationship with outside counsel, both sides must be willing to "have difficult conversations"¯ about what is working and whaisn't in terms of strategies and the financial realities of both parties.

Diversity in the Legal Field

In the same vein, diversity is another type of "difficult conversation"¯ that Paulette is willing to discuss with outside counsel. "When you are talking about [diversity in] law firms across the nation, you can't just look at numbers. While numbers are important, you have to look the whole picture. [Diversity] is really important to Sara Lee.¯"

Paulette had many thoughts on developing and retaining diversity in the legal field, the simplest of which is starting an open dialogue about diversity issues and keeping the lines of communication open. She suggested convening small groups where individuals would feel safe discussing diversity issues. In addition, Paulette is an advocate of pipeline programs - programs that allow minority students to experience the legal field before entering law school, allowing them to consider entering the legal profession equipped with that practical knowledge and the commensurate resources. Paulette is on the Board of Directors of the Chicago Committee on Minorities in Large Law Firms which is a not-for-profit organization that facilitates pipeline programs for lawyers of color.

"With the economic downturn, I am worried that we are kind of back where we started ten years ago. Have we gotten anywhere? If the first thing that goes [after an economic downturn] is pipeline programming, then we have not learned anything. Last month the Committee did a pipeline conference at Northwestern University and I facilitated a panel of different professions. The medical, accounting, and engineering professions - they are so much ahead of us! The legal profession hasn't been committed to pipeline programming for as long or as seriously. For example, the engineers have been doing it for 50 years. They start identifying smart kids when they are in eighth grade and provide opportunities for exposure to the profession. Lawyers are in the fledgling process of doing that. We have not persuaded ourselves that it is good business. I have been a lawyer for 22 years, and 22 years ago there was an inference of incompetence when it came to lawyers of color and new lawyers say that they continue to face this inference. To some extent engineers and medical professions [and] accounting, they have the same cultural biases, but they have held themselves accountable in a way that we have not. [For example], law firms do not compensate our partners on whether they retain and develop their minority associates."

Work-Life Balance

As Chief Counsel at Sara Lee, a working mother to teenagers, and an attorney active in a number of community projects, Paulette takes a practical approach to balancing the professional and personal aspects of her life. Paulette abides by the philosophy that she must bring her whole self to her work life as well as her family life. "I love being a mother and a lawyer. I believe that there are sensibilities that I bring to my work that come from being a parent. The experiences I have with these young people, the fact that I have to compromise, that I have to manage them in a way that makes them feel empowered. Those are all skills I bring to work and I think make me effective at work. What I'm hoping for is that the work place opens up enough to grade you on things like that as opposed to face time. I'm hoping that advances in technology will soon lessen the pressure for people to have face time. If there is no face time pressure than you can do [work] anywhere."

In addition, Paulette faces her responsibilities - whether personal or professional -unapologetically. My generation of women feels like we have to do everything perfectly. I think men [face] a lot of the same issues we do. To some extent we still feel as if we need to get permission, we are always making excuses for why we can't be there. It appears to me on the other hand that men, somehow, just do it, they don't make excuses or apologize. We of course have to be responsible, but learn not to apologize. I don't apologize to my children for working. I's what I do, it's how we live, and I am a better mom because I am working. On the other hand, I very much appreciate the many really smart, talented women who stay home, because they are the ones on the school boards and making those things work. This is one of the points [Sara Lee CEO Brenda Barnes] likes to make.

Interestingly, Paulette noted that there is clearly a support network of female and minority attorneys in Chicago - not unlike that which Zealous Women aspires to be- that helps her strike a work-life balance. "It's funny, you go to any one event and there is GC of so-and-so company and we check in with each other in a way that is really supportive. The reason to sit on some of these community organization boards is to have the chance to work with these women who give you support and strength to deal with the demands of your work-life. In Chicago there is a powerful overlap between the community of women and minority community. That kind of support is critical. And sometimes it is good for you to have a mirror. Women can be so hard on themselves. [So it is important] for you to have people in your life who are willing to say you're really good - or - here's what you should think about. - It's good for you to have colleagues who are willing to give that kind of feedback and not feel like they are taking anything away from themselves."¯ Paulette noted that the women who are part of the support network are the same women she looks to for professional advice and perspective.

Throughout the interview, Paulette greeted and was greeted by a number of her colleagues at Sara Lee. It was clear that Paulette has carved out a significant place for herself in the large company by thinking deeply and practically about her role in the company, appreciating the resources and contacts that have helped her get there, and thinking forward about what she could do to increase the diversity of legal community at large. After an hour and a half of discussing a number of topics ranging from outside counsel, alternative billing methods, diversity in the legal profession, and the challenges of striking a work-life balance, we concluded the interview to let Paulette get back to her busy day. As we got up to leave, she laughed and admitted that she had wondered why we contacted her for an interview but then she smiled and said, "I didn't think I was Zealous, but yes I'm Zealous, I suppose!"

We agree.