AbbVie’s Jennifer Lagunas on Working Toward Legal Justice and the Integrity of Our System

Originally published on LinkedIn. Jennifer Lagunas is AbbVie’s Vice President, Corporate Legal, Governance, Operations and Assistant Corporate Secretary. AbbVie ranked No. 19 on The Fair360, formerly DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2020.


More than two decades ago, before I entered law school, I briefly worked at a civil rights law firm in Missouri where I learned two very important lessons.

  1. First and foremost, advocacy is fundamental to the integrity of our nation’s legal system. Fairness can be elusive, and a lack of skilled legal representation can cause devastating results.
  2. Second, advocacy work is taxing. It is difficult, exhausting and emotional. So those performing such critical advocacy deserve to be commended.

For these reasons, I was thrilled to welcome Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) to meet with the AbbVie team and share his thoughts on the legal justice system, the historical underpinnings of how people of color are treated, and how both individuals and institutions can enact change.

Bryan is the founder and Executive Director of EJI, a human rights organization based in Montgomery, Alabama, that works to end mass incarceration, excessive punishment and racial inequality. He is a renowned public interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned. Under Bryan’s leadership, EJI has fought for and won significant legal challenges, including:

  • Reversals, relief or release from prison for more than 135 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row;
  • Arguing and winning multiple cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, including a 2019 ruling protecting condemned prisoners who suffer from dementia; and
  • Winning a landmark ruling that banned mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children.
  • Bryan has more than 40 honorary doctorates and authored “Just Mercy,” a New York Times bestseller that was recently made into a motion picture.

After listening to Bryan and reflecting on a long history of legal events in the U.S., it is clear that our nation’s legal justice system is not immune from the harmful impact of human bias. According to an NAACP 2019 study on police relations, a Black individual is five times more likely to be stopped by a police officer without just cause than a white individual. The same study further indicates:

  • 84% of Black adults believe the police treat white people better than they treat Black people, and 63% of white adults agree.
  • 87% of Black adults say the U.S. criminal justice system is more unjust towards Black people, and 61% of white adults agree.

For every nine people executed, one person on death row has been exonerated, according to EJI. Moreover, human bias disproportionately affects people of color. Innocent African Americans are about seven times more likely than innocent white individuals to be convicted of murder, according to a 2017 study from the National Registry of Exonerations. The same study also found that:

  • African Americans who are convicted of murder are about 50% more likely to be innocent than non-Black people convicted of murder.
  • African Americans make up 47% of exonerations, when mistakes are corrected, even though they are only 13% of the population.

More than half of wrongful convictions can be traced back to witnesses who have lied in court or made false accusations, according to National Registry of Exonerations studies. Other contributing factors include mistaken eyewitness identifications, false or misleading forensic science, jailhouse informants and inadequate legal representation, undermining the credibility of our justice system and devastating lives.

Only 1.5% of prosecutors’ offices in the U.S. have conviction integrity units (CIUs) as of 2018, which is a section of the prosecutor’s office with a dedicated staff that seeks to prevent, identify and remedy false convictions. Furthermore, just four CIUs account for 85% of all CIU exonerations. One would expect a just system to commit to addressing such a high rate of failure.

How do we personally address the urgent need to bridge this divide and create a more fair and equitable legal justice system for all Americans, regardless of skin color?

Commit to learn and reflect on the narrative of fear

In Bryan’s words, we’ve been governed by fear and anger – which means we tolerate things we should not tolerate, and we fear things we should not fear.

He suggests that “it’s time for all of us to begin to reckon with where we are and how we got here” and “fear has been an essential ingredient in oppression.” Fear – and a sustained narrative of fear – incite people to act in ways that they may not otherwise rationally choose. Addressing those presumptions and biases would result in healthier behaviors, fairer treatment and more just outcomes. In other words, deconstructing the historical role of racial fear and the lingering biased presumptions of danger/guilt would be the first necessary step to protect our legal system’s underpinning of “innocent until proven guilty.”

Be part of the solution

Next, while it may not be “my” or “your” fault specifically that racial injustices exist, if we are silent, we are all complicit. As a community, we each have personal accountability to not just do what is comfortable and convenient. That means to understand that the legal system is our system; it exists for us and by us. Unfettered power without accountability is exceptionally problematic. We must stand up whenever and wherever we see injustice. We deserve and should insist on better. Complacency maintains the status quo.

Speak up for others

“Proximity makes it impossible to stay silent,” said Bryan, recounting his experience with a child being mistreated in prison. If we are close to the under-represented/excluded, listen and have basic human compassion, there is no choice but to stand up in the case of injustice. If someone is hurting, it can be messy and we may feel ill-equipped. Yet, Bryan posited that being connected is the core of healthy businesses, relationships and change. By getting closer to the under-represented/excluded, we have the privilege and responsibility to speak up and advocate for those who are marginalized.

Some are hesitant to get closer in trying circumstances because they believe they don’t have the answers for those who are suffering; yet, having the answers is NOT a requirement. In the process of “getting proximate” to those who are suffering, we will be guided toward answers. And, in doing so, we will affirm their humanity and dignity, and crucially, be motivated to act. Like many other circumstances in life, ignoring an issue out of discomfort is the worst option.

Reflecting on 2020, we will not forget the tragic deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among many others, and the Black Lives Matter movement fighting for equality and equity for underrepresented communities. In 2021, we as a nation need to continue to harness this momentum and recognize that the advocacy work and reform of our system have only just begun. To foster a healthier legal system, we need to understand human behaviors, the real impact of fear and bias, and address inequities our marginalized groups endure.

I am exceptionally proud of the racial justice work underway here at AbbVie. We decided to be part of the solution and stood up publicly against inequities while taking meaningful action to propel racial justice forward. We supported Bryan’s incredible work through a $2.5 million grant to EJI in 2020 and have committed an additional $50 million to racial justice initiatives. In addition, our Legal team will continue partnering with organizations such as the Criminal Justice Innocence Project and the Illinois Torture Review Commission for claims evaluation, as well as with projects related to asylum and protester claims of excessive force.

Change does not come easily, but it’s the responsibility of each of us to take a stand, find ways to connect with others and learn how we can work together to ensure the integrity of our just and equitable legal system for all.