Just eight years out of law school, Deneen Donnley found herself in an unlikely position: general counsel for a financial services company whose assets would amass $90 billion upon her exit. “Sometimes it’s just right place, right time,” the current senior vice president and general counsel at Consolidation Edison (Con Edison) says. “It was a young team of people given a chance to do big jobs and really make things happen.”
Donnley is underselling a bit here. Straight out of law school, the attorney (and proud daughter of a single mother who worked as a corrections officer on Rikers Island) landed a foundational role at the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve. It would provide pivotal banking law experience that would stand out on any résumé.
Donnley is keenly aware of the opportunities that she has been able to take advantage of throughout her career through networking, including significant work in the DEI space, and how she can now help extend those opportunities and knowledge to others in law.
Donnley’s current role at Con Edison is in many ways a continuation of retired GC Elizabeth Moore’s “law department of the future” initiative that Modern Counsel detailed in 2019. Donnley and Moore’s strong personal and professional relationship formed the bedrock for a legal department seeking to redefine itself.
At a company known for its ability to retain its people, that strength can also provide a challenge in terms of driving change. “I have someone on staff who has been with Con Edison for over sixty years,” she says. That kind of wide departmental consistency wasn’t necessarily something Donnley had encountered before.
While serving as a divisional GC at USAA, Donnley says an annual reorganization within the law department would send employees into different parts of the company, supporting different teams and evolving roles. She’s not vying for the same shift at Con Edison, but Donnley strives to help her team sharpen its capabilities for a company that is going through its own significant transition.
“Our goal at Con Edison is not just to get our people comfortable with change but building that continuous effort of learning how to operate more efficiently and with agility,” the GC says. “This supports the broader company’s push toward clean energy and how we evolve and support Con Edison moving forward.”
The general counsel’s impact at Con Edison extends far beyond legal, as she continues to help the company engage diverse hiring and broader DEI initiatives. Donnley is on the board of Leadership Council on Legal Diversity and is active in partnering with the Minority Corporate Counsel Association as well as the Asian American Bar Association.
With insights that she has learned from those organizations, Donnley has helped stand up Con Edison’s own DEI council, a steering committee, and establish metrics that it now reports on quarterly. “We look at the diverse slate, the diversity of interview panels, and understanding how diversity pertains to promotions,” Donnley explains.
Additionally, she is examining supplier diversity as it pertains to the legal department. “With so much of our outside counsel work going to firms that are not female, minority, or veteran-owned, we are setting new expectations with our firms,” the GC says. “Those expectations are that we will have broadly diverse attorneys supporting us and our staff, and we are asking for data to support those efforts.”
The legal team has partnered with Diversity Labs for that effort, as well as working toward Mansfield Rule certification (also through Diversity Labs) that requires participants to confirm they are considering candidate pools that are at least 30 percent diverse.
Donnley says diversity is an attraction tool for talent as well as a key for retention. Con Edison is the first leadership role where she has encountered other people of color on the leadership team. Unfortunately, it’s still a differentiator that will hopefully become less so as more organizations follow suit.
Having served in executive roles for the bulk of her career, Donnley says she is always willing to sit down for a “virtual coffee” with those who reach out to her for advice. The lawyer grew up in an era where being the only person of color in the room was almost guaranteed. She’s now part of the change.
The lawyer is part of the Black General Counsel 2025 initiative that seeks to address the lack of African Americans general counsels on the Fortune 1000. The group aspires to increase the number of Black GCs from just thirty-eight in 2017 to one hundred by 2025.
Her advice is both practical and actionable: “You need to create a network for yourself, whether you have it in your own organization or not,” Donnley says. “Find a way to get plugged into broad groups that can provide support for you. For those of us with more experience: Don’t become complacent and work to understand what the data is really saying. Don’t take your eye off the ball.”
“Deneen is a dedicated leader and visionary. She leads a department, whose in-depth knowledge is exceptional. We work as partners to solve the Company’s complex employment issues and are fortunate to work with a trailblazing leader like Deneen.”
–Jeanine Conley Daves, Office Managing Shareholder
Wilder & Linneball, LLP:
“As a woman owned and woman managed boutique litigation firm, Wilder & Linneball is pleased to work with Con Edison as one of its WMBE. We are proud that most of our work on Con Edison matters is performed by outstanding women partners, associates, and paralegals.”
–Laura Linneball, Managing Partner
“Deneen’s collaborative leadership style and vision will modernize Con Edison’s legal department, taking advantage of the fourth industrial revolution. It was a privilege to be a part of her team, transforming how legal services are delivered.”
–Bryan Foster, Principle