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In the Spotlight: 3M’s Ivan Fong Talks Career, Commitment to Pro Bono, and COVID-19

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Ivan K. Fong, senior vice president, general counsel, and secretary of the 3M Company, has been focused on helping 3M navigate its response to the novel coronavirus. He recently took a brief break from work to chat with Equal Justice Works about his accomplished legal career, including his new role as the chair of the Equal Justice Works Board of Directors.

You are trained as a chemical engineer. At what point did you realize that you wanted to pursue a career in law? Was there a particular personal experience that helped influence this decision to shift your career path? 

Photo of Ivan Fong

In my junior year of college, I took a class on the Supreme Court, serendipitously taught by a political science professor who inspired me and opened my mind to a world outside of math, science and engineering. I found myself spending more time on that course than I did on my engineering classes. I recall going to see him at the end of the semester to let him know how much I enjoyed his class. It was then that he suggested that I consider going to law or public policy school. Until that moment, I was headed toward a PhD in chemical engineering. Coming from an immigrant family, no one in my extended family is a lawyer, even to this day. So, going to law school was not really on my radar screen. Yet here was someone I admired and respected, planting the seed of an idea that would change my life and career.

I spent the following summer in Washington, D.C. as an intern in a program designed for engineering students interested in public policy. Through the internship, I was able to work with others on issues at the intersection of law, science, engineering and policy. That experience validated for me the need for people who have a technical background to work in law and policy. Even then, though, I was unsure the law was for me, so I ended up applying only to a few law schools, looking for a sign that this was the path I was being called to take. Luckily, I was admitted, ended up enjoying law school, and the rest is history.

After graduating from Stanford Law School, you clerked for the late Judge Abner J. Mikva of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor of the U.S. Supreme Court. What lessons learned from working so closely with these legal legends have you applied to your career?

I am deeply indebted to both Judge Mikva and Justice O’Connor for the many life and career lessons they taught me. As a former Congressman, Judge Mikva was gregarious, a raconteur and always remembered details about the people he met. He exemplified the old saying, “People may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” And every month, Justice O’Connor would round up her law clerks to go on an outing. We went to museums, we went to the movies, we had a picnic lunch amidst the cherry blossoms and we even went camping and hiking with her. As crazy busy as we all were, she reminded us through her actions that we all need to make time to “stop and smell the roses,” create memories and have fun. It sounds corny, but it worked.

As a member of the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity, you have been a longtime advocate of building a more open and diverse legal profession. Can you share with us how 3M is working to improve the pipeline of diverse legal talent at the company?  

Photo of David Stern (left) and Ivan Fong (right)

3M’s legal department is focused on D&I throughout the process of recruiting, developing and retaining our talent. In the area of recruitment, we want to make sure we build an attractive employment brand, cast a wide net and bring forward diverse candidate slates. During the selection process, we endeavor to minimize implicit biases by employing structured panel interviews, in which three or four people jointly interview candidates by asking them the same, competency-based questions, to avoid the human tendency to rate candidates by how much you “like” the person. Focusing on experiential questions helps ensure that the interview focuses on identifying the skills and capabilities needed to fill the role.

As we build and work toward a more inclusive law department, I am committed to developing and retaining our talent. We have an active D&I Committee that does everything from measuring our D&I maturity to hosting lunches about D&I topics to publishing an annual D&I report. This year’s report focuses on how members of our legal department feel about belonging, being listened to and welcomed for who they are. I regularly review our D&I metrics and talk about why a diverse and inclusive legal department is important to me and to our company. We also sponsor numerous leadership development programs every year, and we encourage participation in and leadership of 3M’s employee resource network groups. Last year and this year, we are paying special attention in our legal department to issues relating to mental health, wellness and well-being.

In a 2019 interview with Minnesota Lawyer, you spoke about your commitment to pro bono work, calling it “one of the most rewarding things I’ve done as a lawyer.” Under your watch, the pro bono program at 3M has been highly active—in 2018, 3M attorneys and support personnel logged more than 2,500 volunteer hours. Why is pro bono work important to you and what advice do you have for a company that wants to provide more pro bono service opportunities for employees?

One year when our kids were young, Halloween fell on a day that I had to be out of town for a pro bono case, one in which we were representing an inmate named David on death row. I had to decide between going trick-or-treating with our children or working on David’s case. I ended up going to Mississippi to meet with David and to attend a hearing on his behalf.

Some time after that hearing, after we negotiated an agreement with the prosecutor that resulted in a life sentence for our client, I received a note from David, saying something like, “I know, Ivan, how much you wanted to be with your children on Halloween, and I just wanted to let you know how much it meant to me that you were there for me to help with my case. I just wanted to let you know that you made a difference for me.”

Photo of David Stern, Ivan Fong, and former Equal Justice Works Board Chair Randy Milch at the 2019 Annual Dinner

I always remember that letter when I think of why I value pro bono work. As lawyers, we have a professional responsibility to improve how justice is administered, and we can do that by doing legal work for those who cannot afford a lawyer. It is extremely difficult for most lay people to navigate the legal system without legal assistance. To me, there is no shortage of work that can and should be done.

My advice for a legal department is to start where you are and keep building. Set up a pro bono committee, develop some simple policies, partner with local civil legal aid associations and visibly support those who are doing pro bono work. At 3M, we encourage people to spend up to 15% of their time on projects that do not require a manager’s approval. And we publish a report every year that recognizes and celebrates the terrific pro bono legal work we do.

3M has cosponsored three Equal Justice Works Fellows based in Minnesota. What motivated the company to support these public service leaders and how have their projects aligned with the company’s public interest goals?

We have been extremely fortunate to have had several exceptional Equal Justice Works Fellows — Colleen Kelly, Kerry McGuire, and Timothy Sanders. Their work has been aligned with the company’s goals to serve veterans, to work with our medical community and to serve our immigrant population. And within our legal department, the Fellows inspire our lawyers and legal professionals to do more pro bono. It’s been an unqualified success, and we look forward to bringing more Fellows onboard in the future.

You’ve had such an impressive career both in the public and private sectors. How do you distinguish yourself in order to be selected for these roles of increasing responsibility? What are skills you have developed from working in both the public and the private sectors?

 I’ve had the privilege and great fortune to have been in private practice, in government and now in-house. None of it was planned. Rather, I found myself attracted to opportunities to do interesting work with outstanding people. I like to learn and try new things, while staying true to my values. As the son of immigrants, I was drawn to public service as a way to give back to the country that has been so good to me and my family. Those experiences have enriched my life and career in ways seen and unseen.

Now here at 3M, I could not be more proud of the work we are doing to supply critical protective equipment and other medical supplies to our front-line doctors, nurses and emergency workers who are responding to the coronavirus pandemic. I love being part of a company and legal department that is purpose-driven, agile, resilient, innovative, collaborative and a great place to work!

Lastly, you were appointed as the chair of the Equal Justice Works Board of Directors this year. Why did you initially decide to become involved with Equal Justice Works, and what do you hope to accomplish during your tenure as chair?

I became involved with Equal Justice Works for a very simple reason: I am deeply committed to the mission of creating opportunities for lawyers to transform their passion for equal justice into a lifelong commitment to public service. It can be difficult for recent graduates to find their first public interest job straight out of law school. I believe that Equal Justice Works Fellowships offer that opportunity for those who are dedicated to public interest law to jumpstart their careers and stay in public interest. As board chair, I hope to help strengthen Equal Justice Work’s mission and highlight the importance and continued relevance of that mission — today and into the future. Now, more than ever, we as a legal community must support public interest law and lawyers. The COVID-19 pandemic has and will continue to produce a multitude of legal issues, and we have a responsibility to ensure that there are creative, passionate and skilled lawyers answering the needs of their communities.

Now, more than ever, we as a legal community must support public interest law and lawyers.

Ivan Fong /
Senior Vice President, General Counsel, and Secretary
The 3M Company

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow