Empathy in Action: James Potter
If you ask James Potter, general counsel and secretary of Del Monte Foods, what has been key to his success, he probably would point to his ability to understand and empathize with people.
“I think I bring patience and empathy to my practice. Lawyers in general need to be balanced in order to be effective counsel for clients facing difficult circumstances.”
The oldest child of a librarian, Potter grew up in Richmond, Indiana, both with an intellectual bent, loving language and logic, and a counselor’s disposition as the big brother. Interested in studying human behavior, Potter majored in philosophy and psychology at the University of Chicago, and turned his attention to business when he entered Harvard Law School, where he focused on finance, corporate tax, contract, and commercial law.
“Law school brought me over the threshold from theory into the work-a-day world.”
Mr. Potter quickly moved up the professional ladder, first as an associate with Keck, Mahin & Cate, practicing corporate and securities law, and then with Morgan Lewis and Bockius in its business and finance practice. From 1989 through 1997, he served as the chief legal officer of Prudential Bank and Trust, Prudential Savings Bank and several other subsidiaries of Prudential Insurance, providing legal support in the areas of banking, corporate, finance, and securities law, as well as managing the law departments of the Prudential subsidiaries. Potter then served three years as executive vice president, general counsel and secretary of Provident Mutual Life Insurance Company, one of the nation’s largest variable life insurance companies, managing its law, compliance, human resources and corporate secretary departments as well as being counsel to the board of directors. He accepted his post at Del Monte in 2001.
Mr. Potter’s ability to understand others has enabled him to take a compassionate view of problems regarding race and diversity.
“Much of America still operates with stereotypical views, and people of color are still undervalued in corporate settings. I think it’s a product of the way we’re socialized in the U.S. If we don’t have a personal connection, then we tend to operate on societal views and stereotypes.”
He sees his greatest contribution to achieving diversity in the workplace as working hard and serving as a model to challenge stereotypes. He also believes that attorneys have greater obligations to achieve diversity.
“We as lawyers have a greater professional obligation to make equality of opportunity a reality, because we have the skills to make it happen. In addition, general counsel can foster diversity by not hiring in our own image. Said affirmatively, when we hire attorneys both internally and externally, we can and should include people with different approaches, experiences and perspectives.”
Mr. Potter’s altruistic nature is also reflected in his own view of his accomplishments.
“I take satisfaction in the success of the businesses I’ve been a part of, the departments I’ve built, and the people I’ve seen grow and rise in the organization.”
As for the future: “I continue to work to achieve the state-of-the-art law department. With each new position I learn and grow and I expect to make Del Monte’s law department an exceptional one.”
Tom Calarco is a freelance writer from Schenectady, N.Y. His book, The Outpost to Freedom, a History of the Underground Railroad in Upstate New York, is set for publication this year.
From the May/June 2003 issue of Diversity & The Bar®