Xerox General Counsel Don Liu believes in cause-based corporations
Don Liu attended Columbia University School of Law with the intent of becoming a civil rights lawyer to help the underrepresented and underprivileged, particularly those in the Asian-American community. Upon graduating, rather than becoming a public interest lawyer, he went to work for a Wall Street corporate law firm so that he could pay off his law school debt.
Liu intended for his corporate stint to be temporary, but after getting married and having children, he realized that it was no longer financially feasible to transition into a role as a public interest lawyer. Undaunted, Liu found ways on the corporate road to keep his passion and action for civil rights alive.
Advancing Diversity on Multiple Fronts
After law school, Liu joined Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett, a New York City law firm specializing in mergers and acquisitions. Liu was attracted to the corporate group partly because of its training program, but more so because it had a tradition of partners who served in public office, including former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance.
In his third year as an associate with the firm, he was asked to be on the board of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF). The experience “woke me up,” Liu said. He learned that there were things he could do as a private practice lawyer that benefitted Asian Americans, such as pro bono services and fundraising for AALDEF. When Liu later mentioned to the organization’s Executive Director that he was considering going into public interest law, the director urged him to “stay exactly where you are,” advising that as a corporate lawyer Liu had more power to attract awareness and financial support around the AALDEF mission.
Since “waking up,” Liu has served with many organizations, such as the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, to promote civil rights and diversity in the practice of law.
Liu currently is focused on professional development programs for Asian-American lawyers. He believes that Asian Americans are often inaccurately viewed as the “model minority” because they have succeeded at lower-level positions in many professions; in reality, though, they have had “very little success at the top and rarely hold C-Suite roles,” according to Liu. The stereotypical attributes of Asian Americans—smart, hardworking and focused—are not the qualities most valued for leadership positions, such as risk-taking, creativity, and boldness, said Liu, who mentors Asian Americans to help them develop the latter skills.
An Entrepreneurial Mindset in the Legal Realm
Liu worked at two law firms before being recruited in house, ultimately as the Deputy Chief Legal Officer at Aetna U.S. Healthcare. He later moved to General Counsel positions at IKON Office Solutions and then Toll Brothers. At each step, he “grew incrementally,” culminating in his job as Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary at Xerox. He credited his experience in different industries and having a “broad set of legal issues” under his belt as preparing him the Xerox role.
Liu was Xerox’s first General Counsel hired directly from outside the company. He was attracted to the organization because it was responsible for some of the most advanced technological developments in corporate America and because it has one of the most diverse management groups in the country. Many of Xerox’s top executives were born outside of the U.S., Furthermore, Xerox was the first company to have a female-to-female CEO succession and the first black female CEO in Fortune 500 history.
What Liu brings to Xerox is an entrepreneurial mindset and a reputation as a balanced risk-taker. When Liu was growing up, he helped his father run several businesses, including a grocery store, restaurant, gift shop and beer distributor. Although he did not realize it until years later, his early experiences taught him business fundamentals, including focusing on the bottom line, controlling costs, making decisions quickly and knowing how to grow markets. These same skills proved to be useful when he worked for larger companies.
“In running a legal department, it is not just technical legal skills that are needed,” Liu said, “but the ability to manage business issues.”
As an example, Liu said that he and one of his attorneys were meeting with a client who asked for advice on a business matter. The attorney declined to give his opinion, believing that lawyers should never cross over into business lines. After the meeting, Liu talked to the attorney and explained the value of an entrepreneurial approach in which clients and lawyers are partners in helping make business decisions—and that offering a business opinion builds that relationship.
Liu’s reputation as a balanced risk-taker is based on recognizing that law can be practiced in conservative, middle-of-the-road or aggressive ways and that no way is right or wrong—just different. Rather than never taking action in the face of risk, Liu promotes the idea that “in the face of ambiguity, you can choose to move forward, even though there is some legal risk in doing so.”
Welcoming the Unexpected
Although Liu started his career wanting to be a public interest lawyer, he ended up on a notably different path. He said that in the beginning of his career, he did not have an awareness that corporate in-house legal jobs even existed.
“Very little of what I wound up doing was planned,” Liu said.
Liu advises people to keep their passion alive, but also to be receptive to unexpected paths that open before them. “Just because back when you were 18 you wanted to do XYZ, you’re not required to stick to the format,” Liu said. “Evolve. Open up doors that you didn’t know existed.”
Liu kept his civil rights flame alive even while moving deep into corporate law territory. He was inspired by his father, who showed Liu that life should be lived with guts and passion or not at all.
To see other featured executives from Xerox, check out our archive.
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