Currently serving as assistant general counsel, senior vice president at Bank of America, Mary Akhimien is a highly accomplished lawyer. IFLR1000 journalist Chynna Lewis had the honour and pleasure of sitting down (virtually) with her to discuss her experiences as a Black woman in the legal industry, as well as her outlook on diversity and inclusion.
Hi Mary, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me today. What obstacles have you faced during your legal career related to your gender and race?
I think the obstacle is not as important as knowing where you are going and how you overcome the obstacle to reach your destiny. My parents came to this country as immigrants, and they instilled in me and my siblings the importance of hard work, determination, and developing a strong skill set. In my experience, race and gender have not been the key differentiators, but it’s about skills and the development of those skills.
When you develop your skill sets, you can do well and adapt in any environment. Leaders have those people skills – they know how to navigate any environment and they know how to get a job done. By taking on leadership roles, I have acquired numerous skill sets such as leadership and management skills, teamwork and adaptability. These skills have been transferable from the boardroom to the courtroom.
Harnessing those skills is really what’s helped me to overcome any obstacle. At the end of the day we all face challenges and obstacles, but the obstacle is not as important as how you overcome it.
That’s a fantastic perspective. Going off that, what do you consider your biggest success in your career, and what is the most important thing you have learned so far?
That’s a great question. I worked in private practice at a law firm before coming to Bank of America, which gave me exposure to federal and state court systems, lawyers and judges in the District Court of Delaware, Delaware Court of Chancery, Superior Court and Supreme Court. Through litigation, I gained a solid grasp of how judges thought about cases, and also gained experience with crisis management and resolving complex cases successfully for my clients. That was a huge asset and transferable skill set.
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When I joined the bank, I was able to quickly spot the issues in complex matters, find holes in the other sides’ arguments, and zealously represent the bank. So, without question, joining Bank of America’s in-house legal department and working under the leadership of our CEO, Brian Moynihan, and general counsel, David Leitch, has been the biggest success and highlight of my career thus far. David, and many other leaders in our legal department, such as deputy general counsel, Amy Littman, and [associate general counsel] Mary Ulmer-Jones, taught me the importance of teamwork, staying connected, and that a collaborative culture is a true bellwether for success.
Do you have any mentors that helped you to get to where you are and, more broadly, how important is mentorship to you?
Mentorship and sponsorship are so important. I’ve had several mentors and sponsors that have had an impact on my career, too many to name. Some I’ve known personally and others I’ve admired from afar. I’m truly grateful for all of those mentors and their continued efforts to show me what’s possible.
During high school, I participated in the Delaware High School Mock Trial competition, and got first-hand experience of courtroom decorum. I won a Best Attorney gavel there, and that’s when I knew I wanted to practice law. From that experience, and with encouragement from my mentors, I decided to pursue law school.
During this time, I started a mentorship programme called Footprints. It paired law students in the Black Law Students Association with practitioners in in-house legal departments, government and at law firms. The programme was very successful, and I believe it still continues to this day.
I strongly believe that as you are being poured into, you should turn around and pour into someone else. Mentoring is so important, but so is giving back. I’m very much indebted to the Delaware High School Mock Trial programme, I was a scoring judge for that competition in February. I sign up to be a scoring judge every year, because that was a pivotal moment in my life. Continuing to be a part of that programme is very, very important to me and something that I strive to do every year.
The financial and legal industries are known to be heavily white and male dominated, and we as Black women are often 'the only one in the room'. How have you gained comfort in establishing yourself in these spaces?
It is true, but it is important that we don’t make assumptions about people. For example, if I’m in the room or a new environment and no one has reached out to me, I take the initiative by going around the room, introducing myself and making new acquaintances. I genuinely like to meet new people and find out what we have in common, if we have similar hobbies or like the same football team (the Pittsburgh Steelers, by the way).
Once I find those commonalities and interests, it gives common ground for conversation and that is how the relationship is built. Even when I don’t have something in common with someone, I like learning something new from those differences. That has always been my approach, it’s not so much being the only one in the room, but knowing how to best navigate that dynamic. That’s what leads to success.
Going back to this theme of mentorship, you’re involved with the Corporate Counsel Women of Color (CCWC) and now you sit on the advisory board. Can you tell me about your involvement with the group?
I was drawn to the organisation because I wanted to expand my network beyond Delaware and connect with people who not only looked like me, but who were at the top of their game. I wanted to know how they got to where they are, their leadership style and the lessons they learned along the way.
I first attended the annual conference in Chicago in 2012 as a junior associate. I met so many phenomenal women, including the founder Laurie Robinson Haden and many others in leading legal departments. After that one conference, I made it a point to attend every year, sponsoring myself as a personal investment. Last year I had the opportunity to speak at the boot camp.
Meeting so many different women and attorneys who are at the top of the house – c-suite, chief legal officers and general counsels – has been phenomenal. I’ve been able to connect with them on so many different levels, both within and outside of that environment. I actually met the predecessor for my current role through CCWC. When she left the bank, she told me about the opening at Bank of America, and, after the interview process, I was hired.
I love how driven and initiative-taking you are. What advice would you give to young Black women looking to start a career in law? What is something you wish you knew earlier in your career?
I would say never give up. No matter how hard things get or the obstacles that come your way, just don’t give up. I heard this great quote recently, “tough times never last, but tough people always do.”
Young lawyers have everything they need to not just survive, but to thrive in this industry and they shouldn’t limit themselves. The sky is not the limit, it is the baseline. They should continue to dream big and do everything they can to reach their dreams.
The one thing I wish I knew earlier in my career is to never be afraid to take chances.
Shifting to corporate law more generally, how do you think the legal environment has changed from when you started to now, in terms of race and gender?
When I first started practising in 2009, diversity and inclusion was a nice buzzword in the legal profession. Very few firms were tracking whether diverse attorneys were being staffed on legal matters, where origination credits were going, and how bonuses, compensation and advancement was impacted by the presence or absence of diverse attorneys.
That dynamic has now changed and firms and corporations have become very granular about tracking that information and ensuring that women and minorities are not only staffed on matters, but that they’re being compensated for it and receive the origination credits and career advancement.
What diversity and inclusion initiatives can firms implement?
These initiatives have to come from and you have to get buy in from the top. Without early support from the c-suite, it’s very hard to make progress or to make an impact. Strong mentorship and sponsorship programmes are also crucial. Everyone has a role to play in this ecosystem and mentors and sponsors are certainly key players, those who invest their social and political capital in mentees really make the difference in the protégée’s advancement. By that same token, diverse attorneys have to be receptive to coaching and sponsorship and do their part in engaging with their mentors and recognising the value of that exchange.
How can firms increase diversity, especially in the upper/senior management level?
Firms should be intentional about building out diverse pipelines and teams, casting a wide net and looking for diverse talent in non-traditional ways. This might mean going to schools they haven’t traditionally gone to and recruiting from those talent pools, connecting with diverse student leaders to help build talent pipelines and grooming them for positions of leadership.
In addition, firms need to be intentional about their lateral hires. Some of that talent may already be within their organisation and it’s up to recruiters and hiring managers to pay attention and keep their pulse on what is going on in their own organisation, ask tough questions and make appropriate changes wherever they see gaps.
What initiatives has your firm implemented to promote diversity and inclusion (D&I)?
The Bank of America legal department has a sustained commitment to D&I. We have diverse in-house legal teams and leaders, and are intentional about working with diverse outside counsel teams and minority and women-owned firms. We also have firm-wide employee affinity networks.
Within the legal department, we have several resources available, such as the Employee Engagement Council, of which I am a member. It invests in the growth and development of teammates and provides forums for attorneys to connect globally.
We also have another resource called MINI networking sessions, which are like coffee break meetings, where we meet in small groups with other attorneys in the department.I have met colleagues in EMEA, APAC, and in our London and Latin American offices through the MINI programme.
We have a pro bono committee, which I’m also a part of, that lets us work on different projects that are important to the organisation and the communities where we live and work. Finally, we have our Diversity and Inclusion Business Council, which fosters an equitable and inclusive environment where employees really feel respected, valued and culturally enriched.
Ed Note: Bank of America also pledged $1 billion spread out over four years to advance racial equality and economic opportunity through various investments.
As you’ve mentioned before, you’ve worked both in private practice and in-house. Do you think there is a difference in how each group has developed and implemented corporate governance initiatives?
There is somewhat of a difference. I think corporations have been the driver of those routines. Many corporate firms have made it a business imperative for talent within the company to reflect and mirror the communities they serve, and they made the business case for their outside counsel to reflect that same diversity.
Corporate legal departments built the model, set the trend, figured out how to track and measure success and worked out how and what those governance routines needed to look like. Law firms have followed suit.
In 2020, we saw racial justice protests stemming from the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, among numerous other Black Americans. This became a huge catalyst for systemic change throughout the country. Do you think this event will continue to change the legal profession in the US?
Each of those tragedies reawakened our country to the need for change. Creating an inclusive and equitable environment is not a black issue or a white issue – it is a heart issue. Out of that tragedy, we saw firms release statements, and become more transparent about what they were going to do to address the issue in their communities and within their own organisations.
We are going to see that momentum continue, and we’ll see greater strides made at every level of the organisation, certainly greater transparency, educational sessions and more inclusion initiatives. Organisations have to continue to track and measure, and make sure leaders are held accountable to what they committed to.
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