Valyncia Saunders Advocates for Diversity in Law

As assistant general counsel and senior director at Altria, Valyncia Saunders believes in welcoming anyone and everyone to take a seat at the table

Perhaps now more than ever, the sobering reminders of where the law profession stands in terms of diversity and representation has resulted in a doubling down by recruiters, firms, and corporations to rectify a glaring industry flaw.

In June, the American Bar Association Journal reported that 70 percent of female minority lawyers have left or have considered leaving the legal profession due to issues they’ve faced in the workplace as well as an inability to find mentorship from people with similar life experiences to them.

Valyncia Saunders, Assistant General Counsel and Senior Director, Altria Client Services Photo by Rhonisha Franklin

The report serves, in many ways, to reinforce the US Bureau of Labor Statistics findings that law is one of the least racially diverse professions in the nation—as high as 86 percent white in 2020. It’s a well-known issue that law departments and firms have been attempting to address for years with varying amounts of success. But today, in one of the most racially divided times since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, it helps to know that there are lawyers like Valyncia Saunders.

The assistant general counsel and senior director at Altria is a student of the present, the past, and what the future should be. Saunders, who had just finished Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America before speaking to Modern Counsel, may be just one lawyer, but her advocacy both in and outside of the office is making a real and definable difference.

Part of a Team

Saunders says that being on the wrong end of what she politely calls a “lack of inclusion” hasn’t drained her compassion—it’s helped that compassion blossom. “There have been instances where colleagues of mine were sitting on the perimeter of, and not at, the table,” Saunders remembers. “Maybe because they had smaller roles or simply felt like they didn’t belong. I’ve literally asked people to take a seat at the table.”

The AGC says that a welcoming atmosphere can be infectious. “If you are made to feel comfortable, you are more likely to speak your mind and share your perspective,” Saunders explains. “This should be about bringing people together.”

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An avid soccer player since the age of ten, Saunders knows a thing or two about rallying support. “An additional part of that is making sure that you are in tune with what your people’s needs are,” the senior director explains. “Feedback is a two-way street, and you need to find out what your team’s strengths are and how you can allow them to play to those.”

While Saunders says that her knees have forced her to relinquish her sweeper duties, the lessons she learned from the soccer field continue to translate to law practice. “Playing sweeper meant I had to be strategic—I’m the last person before the goalie,” the AGC says. “It’s always been in my nature to be strategic, and I’ve always brought that mindset to my practice.”

Discovering New Voices

Saunders believes it shouldn’t require player-like strategy to take a monumental step toward better representation in law. “When I worked in Washington, DC, I always used to hear people say that they couldn’t find a qualified black lawyer,” Saunders recalls. “I thought, ‘I could go outside and throw a stone and hit multiple qualified black lawyers.’ It’s just a matter of doing a little bit of research and figuring out where to post jobs that would attract Black and brown people and others on the diversity spectrum.”

The lawyer argues if hiring teams keep coming up empty with candidates by continuing to look in the same places, it’s not exactly rocket science as to what needs to change. “Having a diverse panel of interviewers that actually meet with the candidates is so important,” Saunders adds.

As far as her own journey, Saunders says that as a person of color it was imperative for her to build her own network to share in her experience. “I always tell people that you need to develop your own personal board of directors,” she explains. “I have a group of black female lawyers whom I talk about career issues with on a regular basis. And when I’m the only woman or black woman in the room, I carry them with me,” she says, referring to a group of women outside of her company. “They give me the strength to recognize that I’ve been advised well on how to navigate these spaces and that there are so many people who have fought so hard for me to even have a seat at this table.”

Saunders has assumed the battle for others. Both in 2016 and in 2020, she dedicated personal time to protecting voting rights. As a volunteer for the nonpartisan Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law’s Election Protection Program, Saunders helps voters resolve voting issues of all kinds. “It doesn’t matter what their party affiliation is or who they’re voting for; it’s about protecting their right to vote,” Saunders says. “It’s just another way I’m trying to pass on the help I’ve been given in my life.”

Back to School

In helping grow her legal team’s business acumen, Valyncia Saunders brought in an outside consultant to help the Altria law department get friendlier with the business of business. “We walked through how to analyze financial statements and, more importantly, how that impacts our clients so we can act as better counselors to them.” Saunders has extensive marketing, sales, and compliance experience along with a decade of IP expertise and says helping lawyers think in a more business-minded way is always a good idea.

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Eversheds Sutherland (US) LLP:

“In addition to being a delight to work with, Valyncia is incredibly thoughtful, practical, strategic, and creative. Her vision and insight when approaching complex problems make her an incredible asset to Altria.”

Meghana Shah, Partner   

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Ray Quinney & Nebeker:

“Valyncia reflects the finest of qualities within the Altria legal team. She is talented, dedicated, collaborative, and visionary. It is professionally rewarding and satisfying to work with her on the sophisticated issues the company regularly addresses.”

–John Wunderli, Partner

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Shook, Hardy & Bacon LLP:

“Valyncia is smart, hardworking, and well versed in several areas of the law. She has a depth of experience and a can-do attitude that creates a productive working environment.”

–John Lewis Jr., Partner