INTERVIEW: Turo’s Michelle Fang's Quest to Improve D&I

Contributed by
Chambers Diversity Advisory Board Michelle Fang
30 Sep 2019
Chambers Diversity Advisory Board Michelle Fang
Michelle Fang, Chief Legal Officer at Turo.

FOR someone who’s been credited with shifting the dial on law firm diversity of late, it’s interesting to discover that a legal career wasn’t really on the cards for Michelle Fang. “It never occurred to me to go to law school,” she says, “it was never my dream.” However, an undergrad class at UCLA focused on First Amendment law (“which everyone dreaded because the grades were stingy!”) changed her mind: “I loved this class and had such a good time taking it that I decided to get a job at a law firm.”

Fang went on to get some work experience at a new firm, Fairbank and Vincent, that had been set up by two former Gibson Dunn partners. “I really liked the work and it seemed like an interesting career,” she recalls, “but it was only later that I realised – because the firm had just started and didn’t have a lot of business yet – that it didn’t give me a true slice of what law firm life was like. I got a rude awakening when I wound up in my first attorney job!”

After graduating from Berkeley’s law school, Fang landed herself a position at Quinn Emmanuel, which “at the time was a small boutique that was seen as a scrappy upstart.” The firm’s small size meant that she progressed quickly – she recalls doing “three trials back to back within a period of months. I argued motions and did a lot of things in court – the kind of things that a ninth or tenth-year attorney would be doing. It was a good training ground.”

“I didn’t have a role model for a driven, successful businesswoman.”

She also notes that Quinn was “a boys’ club” but didn’t feel fazed by the male-dominated environment. “I’ve always been self-confident,” she declares, adding: “I’ve never suffered from imposter syndrome and I’ve never internalised the issues that many women – understandably – do. My natural disposition has always been ‘I can do that as well as anyone else.’ I just didn’t internalise the thought that I would be treated differently and decided that I wouldn’t.” Quinn’s Scott Kidman turned out to be an important mentor to Fang, but she also cites another important influence in her early life: the woman who she worked as a nanny for while she was at college: “Cathryn Jacobson Ramin is an incredibly accomplished journalist and writer; while working as her nanny, I helped her with research for her book too. She was very generous and took me shopping to buy a suit for my first job interview. I didn’t have any money and was paying my own way through college at the time. She did that so I could show up at the interview looking the way she thought I should look.”

Was this the person who bolstered Fang’s self-confidence? That, she feels, has been there from the start, but she does credit her college-era mentor for “raising my game and demonstrating that I should have higher standards for myself. I had never had a woman in my life like her before. Most of the women in my life were stay-at-home mums or had more traditionally gendered jobs. I didn’t have a role model for a driven, successful businesswoman. She wasn’t the type to coddle you – she’d tell you to buck up instead!”

Ms. Ramin also helped Fang obtain a college work-study job at a women’s mentorship programme for inner city girls in Los Angeles called ‘Motivating Our Students Through Experience (MOSTE)’, where Ramin volunteered as a mentor. Continuing that legacy of mentorship is important to Fang. “I really have prided myself on being a mentor, particularly for women, but not just for women and not just for women lawyers either.” She encourages lawyers out there to get involved in the various professional and community based organisations that require mentors, and also to recognise the mutual benefit that mentoring brings: “It’s an important thing to do, but from a selfish perspective you can get as much – if not more – out of mentoring as the mentee does. You can learn a lot about yourself and your own career.”

For those who feel they have nothing to give to a potential mentee, Fang is adamant that “whoever you are, you have something of value to offer people.” She recalls a period when she mentored an accomplished engineer with a PhD while working at eBay: “I thought ‘What can I offer to this person?’ But it turned out I was exactly the right person to help her. She had everything but the knowledge that she deserved opportunities. She just needed someone to tell her to ‘Go for it! You deserve this’ – she was then promoted twice in six months! As someone who’s achieved some success, I do feel responsible to give others confidence or that first opportunity.”

“Everyone can make a glossy brochure, but when you peel the onion you see the diversity isn’t there.”

At her current company Turo, Fang established an informal women’s group to help support a broader circle of colleagues. “There weren’t that many women when I first started. Some of the things we’ve done include talking about the accomplishments we want to achieve in the year ahead, so we can figure out how we can help each other and hold each other accountable next year.” Fang also describes a meeting where she asked the attendees to “talk about what they had done professionally over the past year and brag about it. That was hard for the women to do, but I made them do it! I wanted them to know that this was not something to be bashful about.”

Looking back, Fang can see that “a large part” of her career has been focused on gender equality but feels that overall she “came to the issue of diversity gradually.”

Diversity wasn’t “front and centre” on Fang’s radar early on in her career. Enjoying the work but not the all-consuming lifestyle in private practice, Fang’s primary focus was on “getting out of law firm practice” and into an in-house position. She secured a position with a “fairly diverse” team at NBC before moving on to a junior litigation role within eBay.

It was here that Fang’s awareness of issues around gender equality grew. “When I joined eBay there was a sense that if you got pregnant you could forget it – you’d never get promoted.” This sense stuck with Fang, who, when she fell pregnant with her first child, kept her pregnancy a secret for a while as she was being considered for a promotion. “I wanted to see if I got promoted first. I can’t say I know what would have happened [if she had disclosed her pregnancy], but there was that sense that being a woman of a childrearing age was a disadvantage.”

This has “changed over time,” Fang feels, describing the different experience she had when pregnant with her second child at eBay. “At the time I was doing a three-hour commute, and the General Counsel said to me very explicitly, ‘You’ll have to find a way to work from home more because I don’t want to lose you.’ He became so supportive and sensitive to me being a working mother – he had a revolution.”

While Fang is pleased to see some level of progress being made with regards to women in the legal profession, she emphasises her growing knowledge of other areas where the industry is not doing well: “I’ve come to understand how unequal legal practice is in relation to racial diversity. It hasn’t been on my radar as much – I’m not proud of that, but I have been educated. It’s not an excuse but an explanation.”

Part of the reason for this, Fang explains, is that the presence of diversity initiatives and programmes within firms gave an impression that the situation was being improved. “When I was at a firm there were no D&I committees, internships, officers etc… Those things just didn’t exist. They only emerged when I was mid-way through my career, and when I saw their emergence I thought – wrongly – that things had changed. I didn’t appreciate how not far things had come. It was only after the open letter came out that I realised how disparate the levels of representation were. For example, the number of African American male partners has actually decreased over the last couple of years.”

“Our US letter was aimed at law firms, but it’s not all rosy in-house either.”

Like many businesses out there, Fang highlights that law firms “like to tout how good they are, but when you really look at the numbers they aren’t great. Everyone can make a glossy brochure, but when you peel the onion you see the diversity isn’t there. Are firms reporting higher diversity stats because they are counting their offices in Latin America or Africa? How are the numbers when it comes to the equity partnership v. non-equity partnership for diverse attorneys?”

Speaking of the open letter – which emerged in January 2019 and now has over 240 GC signatories – Fang is glad that it has had an impact on the experience of diverse lawyers and diversity professionals within law firms: “There are a number of diverse attorneys who feel that the letter has helped them to have a stronger dialogue internally about diversity. So many people have reached out to say that they don’t feel empowered to talk about this issue but they are glad someone is speaking up. Those committed to D&I at law firms can now say, ‘It’s not just me that cares about this – our customers care about it too.’ That has also helped diversity officers to get additional support and grounds for the funding they need for initiatives.”

When can we expect to see the shift in demographics that the letter calls for? Fang is clear that we’re “unlikely to see an impact in the short-term – I can’t imagine that we’ll see the stats change that much in the first year, especially because people are already in the partnership tracks.” The important thing for Fang is that the letter has got firms “taking a hard look at their partnership slate and talking about it. If they have a slate of white male candidates, is there not someone else who’s equally qualified but has been subject to disparate impact in their career and wasn’t on our radar whom we should be considering?”

Fang’s hope is that we’ll see change in the medium to long-term. In partnership with Diversity Lab, in May 2019, Fang released a Strategies and Tactics document that in-house lawyers can use when working with outside counsel to influence law firm diversity. Fang describes these tactics as a “menu of items” that in-house departments can choose from depending on their resources. “It’s not meant to be intimidating. I wasn’t envisioning that any one company would do all of them. The idea is that they pick the ones they have capacity for. There are easy things that companies can do today and bigger, longer-term things that, if a company has large operational teams, they’ll be able to do.”

There are two tactics in particular that Fang believes will have the most impact. The first involves “hiring diverse outside counsel as the lead attorney. If those diverse partners get origination credit then that impacts the power dynamic. It means that they get economic power within law firms, so they will have more sway and influence over programming, recruiting, retention, and promotion.” The second tactic calls for in-house departments to look at hiring outside counsel from NAMWOLF-certified firms (the National Association of Minority & Women Owned Law Firms) or those with other minority or women owned certifications. “I’m pushing people to focus on those things,” says Fang, highlighting how she has done so herself when hiring for Turo’s last five engagements: “For the last few there wasn’t an existing law firm relationship. I really made a point of hiring a diverse lead partner to receive origination credit or a lawyer from a minority or women owned firm.”

“You can do a letter in a week – just don’t do a letter for the sake of doing a letter.”

While no data measuring the impact of the letter has been collected so far, Fang is in the process of putting together a survey to analyse – among things – which of the tactics are being used most by in-house teams and the extent to which companies are turning away business from law firms that do not meet the necessary diversity standards.

Has the letter had an impact beyond the US? In March 2019 a group of 65 GCs in Europe signed a similar open letter, and Fang believes the US original did have an influence. After its release in January, Fang recalls that she had “a number of lawyers in the UK, France and Australia ask if they could do something similar.” Her response? “I said absolutely! Take it! Copy and paste it! There’s no pride of ownership.” At the same time, Fang points out that the letter she orchestrated was never meant to just be confined to US companies – she makes it clear that any company around the world can sign it and that there are currently signatories from overseas.

What advice does Fang have for in-house lawyers in other jurisdictions who are thinking about launching their own open letters calling for change? “It is really easy to do,” she says, correcting any misconceptions about how time-intensive it might be. “It wasn’t a highly coordinated thing. I drafted it on Google docs, I shared it with people I knew, they edited it, signed it and we sent it out. It was extremely organic. You can do a letter in a week – just don’t do a letter for the sake of doing a letter.”

Here’s the point to really consider: “It’s easy enough to do, but it’s much more difficult to deliver against it. Don’t do it if you aren’t willing to put your money where your mouth is and drive change.” Fang highlights how upon the launch of her letter “there were sceptics who said, ‘Oh, this is just a publicity stunt.’” The other crucial point is that “you look at your own house as well. Our US letter was aimed at law firms, but it’s not all rosy in-house either. I didn’t intend to say that all law firms are doing badly and all in-house departments are doing great. The same is equally true for in-house departments, which are not nearly as diverse as they should be at the senior levels especially.”