HOUSTON — Four Texas-based general counsel — Justin Johnson of Jacobs, Monica Karuturi of CenterPoint Energy, Aparna Dave of the Texas Dow Employees Credit Union and Clay Allen of the Houston Rockets — kicked off the 31st Annual Texas Minority Counsel Program conference discussing the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion to them personally and how it comes into strategic play at their organizations.
Dave, who joined TDECU last month as its chief legal officer and general counsel, advised outside lawyers to be upfront about how their firm approaches DEI because “if you know me, you know I’m going to ask for it.”
“I ask every counsel I engage with [if you’re proactive about DEI] because it is important to me,” she said.
Karuturi said DEI is close to her heart and a priority for CenterPoint as an organization because it is critical that the utility company’s diverse customer base is represented by its employees and because it fosters belonging within the company itself. When there’s belonging, Karuturi said, employees are more engaged, which means the company is able to get “the best of them” at work and have a greater ability “to keep them long-term.”
As a company with 9,000 employees, Karuturi said, there are inevitably “lots of different views” about DEI at CenterPoint, so focusing on the belonging aspect of DEI becomes all the more important because it helps people remember the “why” of DEI.
Because “there is so much noise” out there on the topic, “the why for us is especially important,” she said.
As someone who is openly gay, Johnson said it is “critical” to him that every underrepresented group has representation by someone at a leadership level with power and authority. It is also important to him that he can be out with every outside firm he works with, particularly since he has witnessed the power of being out.
He said that he received many positive calls after a public announcement about Johnson revealed that he lives in Dallas with his husband and two dogs.
Johnson said his legal department also requires firms to provide their DEI numbers. He said he has noticed pushback at times from some larger firms. When that occurs, he said, “we send a letter declining” to work with them.
Allen, who is also gay, also places an importance on being out at work, particularly because “there are so few athletes in team sports who are out” and there has never been a player in the NBA who has come out during their career.
“It’s important to me to be out and inspire them [and demonstrate that] it’s OK to be out,” he said.
During the one-hour discussion, which was moderated by Shell Managing Counsel of U.S. Litigation Travis Torrence, the GCs also provided outside counsel tips for business development practices that resonate with each of them the most, pet peeves and how to remain top of mind when new matters arise.
Torrence volunteered a pet peeve before asking the others to chime in, revealing that he is asked about five times a year by firms to play golf.
“I don’t want to,” he said.
Allen, a nondrinker, expressed his frustration with the ubiquitous nature of alcohol in lawyer business development. He said he is mostly never going to be interested in joining a firm for a happy hour, but even when he does just to be nice, he doesn’t appreciate being asked why he is not drinking.
The easiest ways for outside counsel to connect with him include over lunch or dinner (everyone has to eat, he quipped), or to invite him to say hi at a Rockets game since he is usually already there for his job. He also enjoys it when significant others are included in the activity of choice because it makes everything feel more casual.
Karuturi said that the quickest way to her heart is when outside firms invite her to partner on a pro bono project.
“At the core of what we do [at CenterPoint] is being involved in our communities,” she said.
Dave said it’s important that firms get to know her, and, because she is new in her job and is constantly diving into new and unfamiliar areas of the law, she appreciates outside lawyers who take the time to walk her through legal issues.
Johnson does not appreciate being cornered at bars by lawyers.
“Maybe that lawyer was not trying to sell you legal services,” Torrence responded.