Laurie Robinson Haden was fortunate to grow up in Prince George’s County, Maryland—one of the most affluent African American communities in the United States.
“I grew up in a strong community that consisted of successful doctors, lawyers, engineers, and educators,” she says. “Those in our community had pride and were people to look up to and aspire to become.”
She certainly followed their example, and then some. Now, as senior vice president and assistant general counsel for CBS Corporation, Robinson Haden helps guide legal strategy for the company’s litigation cases. She also works to improve opportunities for people of color through the networking organization Corporate Counsel Women of Color (CCWC), which she launched twelve years ago. “Women of color attorneys like me desired a network of individuals with similar experiences who we could connect and collaborate with and lift one another up as we progressed through our careers,” she says.
Robinson Haden follows in the footsteps of her father, a labor and employment lawyer, who was the only African American in his law school class in the 1960s. “My father engaged me in the practice of law at an early age,” Robinson Haden recalls. “He would let me earn an allowance—three dollars—by helping type some of his case documents.”
He passed away during her first semester in law school, but not before he could give her some powerful inspiration. “My father always told me that I had a sharp legal mind and that I would be a successful lawyer,” she says. “No matter what the test, I always remember his words and use them to encourage me at all times.”
Robinson Haden graduated from North Carolina Central University, where she was also named Miss North Carolina Central University. “I was able to serve the community, serve as the university’s ambassador, and develop my leadership skills,” she says. “I remember they would tell us that being on time is being late. To this day, I arrive fifteen minutes early before an appointment so I don’t miss anything.”
She then received her law degree from Indiana University School of Law. During a summer internship working at the National Football League, Robinson Haden made a series of cold calls to various lawyers, including Susan K. Anderson at CBS. “She took time to meet with me, and even after I graduated, we stayed in touch,” Robinson Haden says. After working at two New York City law firms, Robinson Haden received a call from Anderson about a job opening at CBS. She applied and has now been at CBS for fourteen years.
Robinson Haden started in the CBS Labor and Employment Group, where she conducted training on anti-discrimination and anti-harassment. Then, she worked for the chief legal officer, overseeing the legal department’s administration and operations. In 2010, she helped to launch CBS Corporation’s Records Retention program. Another project she championed is the Pro Bono and Community Outreach program. “We were able to help victims of domestic violence, students in the inner city at area public schools, and the Special Olympics,” she says. “And we helped create a public service announcement with CBS stars to bring awareness to depression and college student suicides.”
Perhaps Robinson Haden is proudest of her role in helping to launch several diversity and inclusion initiatives in the law department, including the Diversity Summer Internship program. “I feel so proud when I see a student who came through our program now working at the nation’s biggest law firms,” she says. “We created an opportunity and opened a door that may not have been otherwise available to these students.”
Robinson Haden’s passion for diversity led to her to create CCWC in 2004. “My goal then was simply to connect women of color and provide them with a telephone directory resource, where they could pick up the phone or e-mail each other and stay connected,” she says. CCWC has grown from thirty members to more than 3,500 today, and from an old-school phone directory to so much more, including an annual career strategies conference.
“The annual conference provides such hope and inspiration to us all, and I am proud to see so many of our members advance to prominent roles within business and the legal professions,” she says. CCWC also offers a program for aspiring lawyers in high school and college and the My Life as a Lawyer scholarship, which has awarded close to $200,000 to date.
Robinson Haden says that CBS is a leader in diversity efforts, which she thinks is more than just the right thing to do. “Profitable companies understand the importance of selling their goods and services to diverse consumers across multiple platforms,” she says. “Diversity at the highest levels of decision making can create a business that is more relevant, competitive, and satisfying to the customers.”
Unfortunately, such diversity has not advanced as much as she would hope in corporate America as a whole. “The numbers for women of color ascending to the upper echelons of the corporate infrastructure, including corporate boards, remain steady but have not significantly increased,” she says.
In order to improve, diversity must be part of the overall company culture, she explains. “For diversity to really work in a meaningful and sustainable way, the board, senior leaders, and managers must be engaged,” she advises. “As the nation continues to become more diverse, companies interested in maximizing profits will need to step up to the plate, be counted, and require accountability.”
Robinson Haden includes herself in that directive. “It is best to be a hands-on leader,” she says. “I understand that to get the best result it will not happen through laissez-faire leadership. I want to empower people.”