In her first year as GC of Discover, Wanji Walcott set clear new expectations for the department, company, and community. She committed the department to five hours of pro bono work per lawyer and tailored new pro bono opportunities for her lawyers; extended the Mansfield Rule to the staffing of major internal projects; narrowed and focused key performance indicators (KPIs) and gave KPIs a more central role in department management; and initiated a comprehensive review of over 100 law firm relationships while instituting budgeting protocols to forecast and manage costs more effectively in all matters.
Wanji Walcott: Nine Questions
We begin with nine “fill in the blanks” with Wanji, and then turn to some of the big changes she has initiated since taking on the GC role at Discover.
1. The best thing a GC can do for a client (company executive/manager) is ___________
Just make their life easier. For my boss, or the Board of Directors, the best thing I can do is say “I’ve got this – don’t worry about it.”
2. One big change in the corporate legal sector by 2025 will be ___________
AI. We’ll be automating a lot more tasks that are currently done by humans.
3. The hardest thing I’ve ever done professionally was ___________
Shifting to supporting a business unit from serving a functional area.
4. I love it when law firm lawyers ___________
Provide me with unsolicited insights that are highly relevant to my business.
5. I really dislike it when law firm lawyers ___________
Come to me with an eye towards helping themselves rather than helping me. (Helping me will help them – a high tide floats all boats.)
6. Three little things I love about my team’s culture
My team wants to do the right things, they are very focused on succeeding and winning, and they like to have fun together.
7. One little thing I should really change about the way I work
I have to put more daylight into my schedule – it’s back-to-back-to-back. I need to find more opportunities to shift things to other people.
8. One sentence of advice for my 25-year-old self: ____________
Relationships are everything. Focus on having good relationships and nurturing those relationships.
9. The thing in life I’m most proud of.
I’m most proud of my children. They are happy and pursuing what they want to pursue.
Wanji Walcott: In Her Own Words
We sat down with Wanji Walcott to discuss her leadership as EVP and Chief Legal Officer of Discover Financial Services. (Previously, Wanji served as SVP and General Counsel of PayPal, and prior to that she was SVP and Managing Counsel at American Express.)
Here is Wanji in her own words.
On Key Performance Indicators
KPIs are so important for leading change. You can see how you’re doing: speed, quality and value. So we use that KPI data as a basis to improve our quality of work, drive efficiency, to measure how we’re doing. It shows us where we need to change.
It’s not easy. At my prior company we struggled to come up with KPIs, and at Discover we had so many. We needed a balance, so we asked, “Is this data that people are using?” If not, we eliminated it. That got the dashboard where it needed to be.
On Managing Law Firms
We’re much more disciplined and focused now in how we create those key firm relationships. We’ve done a few things.
First, we were using too many firms. We’re working with a very careful methodology to get that done – with AdvanceLaw, but of course it’s tailored to what we need at Discover. That’s getting the right resources in place.
Then we’ve really focused on matter budgets. Having more discipline by creating budgets out front helps to make sure we are getting the best results at the right costs. Now we require a budget on every matter we open. When we drive that conversation up front, we get more visibility and control over the cost of matters.
Sometimes a lawyer will tell me, “I can’t do a budget – I don’t know yet.” But I don’t want lawyers working on a matter without a plan, and a budget is a plan.
On Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
For DEI we’re asking, “How we can make Discover an employer of choice?” It’s the only way to get the very best people across the board.
We follow the Mansfield Rule for job openings, of course. But then we applied the Mansfield Rule to major internal initiatives. We’re making sure that those project teams are inclusive. Too often leaders just turn to “the usual suspects” for big projects. We’re giving more opportunity for people across the department to get into high impact, high visibility initiatives.
On Discover’s Pro Bono Work
So many people are in need of quality legal services, and we’re all fortunate to be educated and in a position to help. So I set a requirement for at least five hours of pro bono work in our department – to set a marker that it’s something we do at Discover.
Then in 2020 it got harder to do some of that pro bono work – we had to pivot to find opportunities to do that work from home, so we put a survey out to the department to see where the interests were so we could tailor to those interests.
To kick off the pro bono focus, we broke into groups of four and logged onto the ABA’s Free Legal Answers portal – it’s a question bank where qualifying people who need legal help can submit a question. Each group worked together to draft a response and include links to additional resources. That was part of a legal department retreat, and we got good feedback – it went pretty well.
Pro bono is really part of the employer of choice approach. Doing pro bono work benefits the people on the receiving end of the advice, and it benefits the people providing the advice. A grateful response from someone who couldn’t otherwise afford legal services is amazing. I’ve been doing pro bono for 25+ years and there is no greater feeling.