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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

November 23, 2020

Q&A with Irene Liu, SVP & General Counsel – Checkr

Julie Q. Brush

A big thank you to my next guest on The Lawyer Whisperer Q&A series Irene Liu, Senior Vice President & General Counsel of Checkr, a startup that provides either online access or an API that returns compliant background checks – quickly and reliably. Irene’s legal journey has been an impressive one. After a stint at Citigroup as a Financial Analyst, Irene headed to the DOJ after earning her JD from UC Berkeley School of Law. From there, it was the FTC where Irene worked as an attorney for the Bureau of Consumer Protection. After several years in government, she navigated her career towards a corporate inhouse role at BlackBerry and then as AGC & Assistant Corporate Secretary at Lookout before elevating to SVP & GC at Checkr where she has served as the top level executive for four years. Irene is an intellectually curious and engaged professional whose contributions to our community have been thought-provoking and valuable.

I appreciate the time and thought Irene dedicated to answering a variety of important questions related to these unprecedented times. I know you will enjoy what she has to say. Thank you Irene!

What advice would you give young lawyers who are starting their legal careers in these unprecedented times?

Remote work presents new challenges for lawyers starting their legal careers because they may not have coworkers they can turn to for quick answers or the ability to build connections through conversations in the hallway or during lunch. That’s why it’s more  important than ever to find and build rapport with members outside your team and across the company and firm.

Building these trusted relationships early on in your career will help you find your “tribe”—the people you can call for help with any “stupid questions” you feel uncomfortable asking to a broader group. You can begin building these relationships by hosting virtual coffees or happy hours with your manager and team members.

Once you’ve found your internal “tribe,” you should invest the necessary time to build your external network. Now that events are virtual, you have more opportunities to attend continuing legal education events and conferences where you can learn new content and meet new people across geographies. Try to attend the virtual happy hours with breakout sessions or smaller group activities so you can meet a few people on a deeper level.

At networking events, I prefer to get to know a few people really well rather than spend time introducing myself to many people at a cursory level. I recommend following up with the people you enjoyed meeting at these conferences through virtual coffees and happy hours. That’s how you’ll build a network of peers, advisors and friends in the industry. This group will be equally important as you start your legal career.

                        Irene Liu

How do you think Covid-19 will change the legal profession?  

Although there are major impacts on our day-to-day functioning, I don’t believe the COVID-19 pandemic will change the legal profession in a profound way.

The General Counsel (GC) is still a key adviser for most leadership teams, but the pandemic has pushed GCs to be more flexible in their work and to make a point of observing larger trends. Specifically, a GC now needs to be more attuned to workplace and HR-related issues, including answering questions about mental health needs, remote-working locations and care leaves. Our understanding of legal requirements and how they impact the new challenges organizations are facing will be invaluable as we begin to understand how the world is changing.

Black Lives Matter is a movement that has impacted the world more meaningfully than ever. How is Checkr “walking the talk’ and making a difference? 

The Black Lives Matter movement has brought to the forefront some of the most pressing racial challenges we must tackle in this country. As an organization, Checkr has been a leader in making a difference for the fair chance community since our founding.

In many ways, traditional background checks are a barrier for millions of people seeking gainful employment. One in three working-age Americans have a criminal record, yet over 40,000 job-related regulations limit hiring opportunities for those with criminal histories. For formerly incarcerated people, especially those who are black women and men, the challenges, barriers and bias they face are even more severe. For example, black people who are incarcerated face unemployment almost twice as much as white people who are incarcerated.

The unfortunate cycle of recidivism hurts underrepresented communities the most, especially as protests against unfair policing practices against people of color are prominent in the national discourse. In fact, 83% of state prisoners are rearrested within nine years of their release. The number one influence on preventing recidivism is employment and if more employers adopted fair chance hiring initiatives they could provide stability and safety to families and communities.

Checkr has created a background check model committed to building a more diverse and inclusive workplace. Five percent of our employees are fair chance, and we retain those employees at an industry-leading level. We’ve partnered with organizations such as Defy to empower people in the prison system with career readiness and entrepreneurship programs. We’ve also created educational resources like www.fair.checkr.com to help people understand the importance of seeing past biases against people with records, especially when those offenses are not relevant to the position for which that candidate is being considered.

The best way we are going to overcome institutionalized racism and inherent bias is by actively combating them in our lives and our workplaces. Helping people in underrepresented communities become financially stable through gainful employment is one of the most powerful and direct steps any organization can take toward true equity for all.

The legal profession is one of the least diverse. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, what is your advice to the legal community and its leaders on how it can approach diversity and inclusion to effect real, positive change for people of color?

General Counsels have much more power than we often realize in effecting change on behalf of diversity, equity and inclusion in the legal community.

One of the ways we foster diversity is by directly asking our legal partners about their diversity practices. I know this is not a particularly novel concept, but it works since legal departments and GCs for corporations hold the purse strings to law firms. If we really want to institute change, we need to insist on it. We need to be the ones that call diverse law firm partners for their business and ask our current partners about their diversity practices. Then, we need to ask those partners to staff diverse attorneys on our business matters.

This is particularly helpful as diverse attorneys are not historically given the opportunities to be recognized, especially in litigation, which requires a lot of courtroom practice. Often, even the law firms that claim diversity will keep diverse attorneys busy in the background writing briefs and away from those golden moments. That is one very clear way that we as in-house counsels and lawyers can influence change.

At Checkr, we identify and hire female and diverse partners whenever possible for our book of business. Roughly 85% of the law firm partners we work with are women and people of diverse backgrounds, and we are very proud of that statistic.

The next step for us is asking about and looking at the associates underneath our trusted partners to see if they are likewise staffing people of diverse backgrounds. If we use the power and influence we have at our disposal, we can help drastically improve diversity and representation in the legal profession.

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