For Damon P. Hart, employment law has always been about the people it impacts.
At Liberty Mutual Insurance, he’s responsible for about 45,000 such people across all 50 states and in some 30 countries. That means an almost limitless variety to the work he handles as senior vice president and deputy general counsel for the insurer, overseeing employment and benefits matters that affect its employees all over the world.
But that can be a “double-edged sword,” Hart says, noting that along with the variety comes unpredictability, which makes the job both rewarding and challenging.
Hart joined Liberty Mutual in 2016 after nearly 15 years practicing employment law at Boston firms. And though he liked working in the law firm setting, he says he feels most at home “embedded with the client,” where he is able to bring his leadership and strategic thinking ability to bear in a business context.
Hart balances his full plate at Liberty Mutual with his passion for coaching youth basketball on weekends and his work with the National Bar Association and the Home for Little Wanderers.
He recently sat down with New England In-House’s Matthew Cove.
Q. How has your experience as an employment lawyer at firms informed your work here?
A. At a firm, when an issue comes up, I have a pretty good sense of how a court’s going to view it, what the settlement value of a case might be, which ones to push forward. Having that firsthand knowledge, having been on the field, informs making the call now that I’m more like a coach, calling the plays instead of executing them. It’s impossible to know all the changes in all of the laws across every jurisdiction. It’s helpful that our outside counsel, when there’s a change in the law, send us updates.
We keep some pretty sophisticated metrics about what issues keep coming up. So if we see that we’re having ADA issues come up in a certain jurisdiction time and time again, we can meet with our employee relations group and dispense training so we make sure that nothing becomes a systemic issue. Sometimes people just don’t understand the policy, and maybe we need to reinforce it.
Q. What are the most challenging regulatory issues that Liberty Mutual has faced since you arrived?
A. We haven’t seen a lot of issues yet about this, but employers are struggling with what to do with marijuana. It’s become legal in a number of states, so what does that look like in the workplace? Obviously, you can’t come in impaired, but determining whether somebody is impaired is difficult. I’ve talked to a number of employment lawyers and colleagues, and we’re all struggling from a policy perspective with what that looks like.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention #MeToo. The law hasn’t changed on sexual harassment; what’s changed is people are being believed, and people have the courage to come forward. That’s an issue that you have to constantly monitor.
And a close cousin is bullying. Almost any serious racial, sexual or sexual orientation harassment case has some element of bullying. Really, it’s about creating the kind of environment where you would want to work and making sure everybody that works for us experiences the same positive environment.
Q. More than 170 GCs and corporate legal officers recently signed an open letter saying they would direct their outside legal spending to firms that commit to diversity and inclusion. Has Liberty Mutual been involved in similar efforts?
A. We signed on to ABA Resolution 113, and we actually were ahead of the curve because that involves sending a survey to your firms and gathering data. We had already been collecting this type of data on usage on our matters for quite a while. It’s very important to us and it’s something that we stress.
We have a number of initiatives aimed at increasing the diversity of our outside counsel. Liberty has measured usage of women and people of color for quite a while, so we have metrics to see who’s doing well and who’s not. I think the whole industry is struggling, and the benefit of this is to see trends and also to send a very clear signal to our outside counsel that this is important to us.
Q. Do you think measures like the open letter are effective in addressing the problem?
A. Unfortunately, the problem is really bad. I’ve been practicing for about 20 years, and over those 20 years, the diversity numbers have not moved much. The percentage of African American partners has gone from something like 1.1 percent to 1.9 percent. No one would accept that as a business result. No one would accept that rate of profit growth over 20 years.
We need to deploy a number of strategies. Last year, we brought in women and diverse attorneys and held a Liberty boot camp to train people so that when we get the retort, “We don’t have anyone who’s prepared to do your work,” we can say, “Well, these people are ready.” I think it’s going to take all of these things, just like solving any significant business problem — hiring, mentoring, reaching down, getting kids just thinking about law school.
Q. How would you assess Boston’s progress in terms of diversity?
A. I’ll be totally honest: I think Boston thinks of itself as being more progressive than it actually is. I don’t think it actually is all that progressive, especially as it relates to race. Boston still has a reputation for being a hard place to practice.
I think part of it is that Boston is a very intellectualized place, with a lot of institutions of higher learning. When you think about what we sell as lawyers and about all of the stereotypes about certain groups of people, it doesn’t surprise you that we haven’t made our way out of a place where Boston is a tough place for people of color.
There’s a lot to overcome, and when you think about the history, it’s recent history. When I talk to my son about busing, I say, “These people in these pictures, they’re still alive, and the people that were throwing rocks, they’re still alive, they’re still here.” There’s a will there to be better, but we’re just not there yet.
Q. In college, you were a forward on the men’s basketball team at Holy Cross, reaching the NCAA Tournament in 1993. What lessons did you learn playing basketball that have helped you as a lawyer?
A. ’93 was my freshman year, and we went to the tournament and got a ring, and it was beautiful. My very last game was also in the Patriot League championship, and we lost. The sun came up the next day both times. When I went to the tournament, I had to come back to school and go back to class. Life went on. Same thing my senior year, standing on the court watching the time tick down on my career. Life went on. There’s almost always another chance.
I also like that sports is not war. It’s not combat. You can have friends that you compete against, and I think the law’s the same way. I had a contentious case that went on for multiple years when I was in a firm. I lived in Brookline and I was taking the Green Line. The lawyer on the other side lived in Newton and was about five stops after me. We would fight in court — we went all the way to the SJC — and then ride the train home and talk about our kids and our lives, and that was just beautiful.