Posted: February 11th, 2010 | By: Liss Snedeker
Before he became one of the top law professionals in the country, before he had a distinguished award established in his name, before he became the top legal counsel for a global company, Thomas L. Sager (’76) washed dishes.
During his second year at Wake Forest School of Law, he lived in a house owned by another law student, Dan Taylor. Fellow classmate Bob Slaughter lived there, too. They had a weekly rotation of chores: one person would be the cook and make the grocery list, one would buy the groceries, and the other would be responsible for cleaning up. It was a reliable system that kept the hard-working trio satiated and clean while they plowed through the challenging school year.
In those humble housing arrangements, a legal star was born. Sager now serves as the senior vice president and general counsel for DuPont, overseeing all legal matters for a $27 billion company that requires counsel from Delaware to Hong Kong. In November, he received the International Institute for Conflict Prevention and Resolution’s 2009 Corporate Leadership Award at a banquet in New York. Several Wake Forest alumni and faculty members were in attendance, including Taylor, his old landlord/roommate and a current partner at Kilpatrick Stockton, LLP in Winston-Salem.
“Yeah, I rented Tom Sager a room for a year,” Taylor says now, laughing. “(Law school) was hard. We studied real hard. And we were scared to death half the time.”
During his professional ascent, Sager’s major efforts at DuPont have been both noteworthy and noble. He has made DuPont a leader in introducing sound business practices into law, and established the company as a model for diversity.
In 1997, Sager helped found the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA), an organization that advocates hiring, retaining and promoting minorities in the law field. In 2001, the MCCA established the Thomas L. Sager Award, to be given each year to corporate law departments and firms for their commitment to diversity.
Sager’s dedication to diversity stems not only from his own core beliefs, but also from DuPont’s core values. He was driven to ensure DuPont Legal projected the company as a diverse workplace.
“It was important for legal to lead, because we interact daily with the outside world,” Sager said. “We want to mirror society at large. When you have to make your case, you want to put your best foot forward. You want to make sure you’re on message and credible, and you’re connecting with your audience.”
Sager is viewed in law circles as a visionary in convergence, which is a movement by large companies to use fewer law firms in an effort to increase their own efficiency. He also helped develop DuPont’s Convergence and Law Firm Partnering program, which he continues to oversee. As part of that, DuPont engages in alternative dispute resolution programs, which reduce legal costs for the company.
“For every $1 spent on litigation, that’s $1 less for research, product development and growth,” Sager said.
Sager’s reputation as a business-minded, diversity-driven leader drew Omari Simmons to DuPont in 2003. Simmons, now an associate professor at Wake Forest School of Law, worked on DuPont’s in-house legal team in a subsidiary office (DuPont Textiles and Interiors) for more than two years. Sager’s influence on Simmons is still obvious, considering Simmons frequently incorporates Sager into career conversations with Wake Forest law students.
“When you meet Tom, it is obvious that you are in the presence of a genuine, sincere and kind person,” Simmons said. “He is a consummate professional with great ideas, judgment, enthusiasm and the ability to deliver results. When students inquire about in-house legal careers, I often use Tom Sager as an example.”
As Sager has climbed at DuPont, he’s had to become more accustomed to a slower pace and more focused on the bigger picture. DuPont’s 196 attorneys throughout the world handle nearly 4,000 cases a year. He became senior vice president and general counsel in July 2008 after more than 10 years as vice president and assistant general counsel, and chief litigation counsel.
“I used to oversee litigation for the better part of a decade. That’s fast-paced and creative,” Sager said. “There’s a lot more governance in my current job (senior vice president and general counsel).”
Sager, who grew up in Rhode Island and earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, seemed destined to do big things at DuPont. His father was an executive with the company.
So after law school in 1976, he started as an attorney in the labor and securities group at DuPont. And he never left.
“I was really interested in labor law after a few classes at Wake,” Sager said. “That led me to DuPont. I’ve enjoyed having a captive client, and not having to worry about client and revenue generation.”