Throughout her life, Eileen Lach has been a leader. Growing up in northeast Minneapolis, she knew at a young age she wanted to move to New York City and travel the world. Lach accomplished that and more, carving out a position on Wall Street early in her career and later serving as the first general counsel and chief compliance officer for The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). She is considered a thought leader, especially in the area of ethics and artificial intelligence (AI).
During a conversation with Lach last summer, it was hard not to be wowed by her achievements and admire her dedication to philanthropic causes. In college, she advocated for equal rights, helping to open the door for women to be eligible for Rhodes Scholarships. While continuing to advance her career, Lach remained devoted to philanthropic work, and spent seven years with Amnesty International.
With her impressive resume and strong convictions, Lach was a perfect candidate for the St. Thomas School of Law’s Board of Governors. Her friend and one of the founding board members, Bob Dwyer, recommended her in 2015. Through her leadership and enthusiasm, she adds a fresh perspective to the School of Law, said Robert Vischer, dean and Mengler Chair in Law.
“She brings a wealth of experience at the intersection of law, technology, business and ethics – a perfect combination given where we want to go as a mission-centered law school,” Vischer said.
Ethically Aligned Design
At IEEE, a global technology think tank and the world’s largest engineering organization with members in more than 160 countries, Lach’s responsibilities included work in the areas of ethics and AI. She retired from her post in 2018 but remains involved with IEEE by serving on the executive committee for the IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems. She was instrumental in the creation of the organization’s "Ethically Aligned Design: A Vision for Prioritizing Human Well-being with Autonomous and Intelligent Systems" – a document of global guidelines concerning the ethical use of automation and intelligent systems.
In an article for Bloomberg Law about principles for the trustworthy adoption of AI in legal systems, Lach and fellow IEEE member Nicolas Economou describe “Ethically Aligned Design” as follows:
“This groundbreaking, multidisciplinary effort, comprising contributions from a group of international experts in domains ranging from law, ethics and philosophy to computer science and engineering, articulates four principles for the dependable adoption of AI in legal systems”:
Two years ago, Colleen Dorsey, director of Organizational Ethics and Compliance at St. Thomas Law, asked Lach to participate in a panel about ethical considerations of AI. Lach also has been involved in the Twin Cities Artificial Intelligence Roundtable that Dorsey started. In July, Lach and Dorsey presented to Mailchimp engineers, lawyers and product developers on the ethics of AI and machine learning.
When it comes to AI and ethics, Dorsey said Lach has her finger of the pulse of what’s happening in the world of technology.
“I fully comprehend how lucky we are at the law school to have her, because technology, especially AI and machine learning, is just going to get bigger and bigger. What people do with that, what companies do with it and how it will impact the way that we all interact as a society, is only going to become more and more prevalent,” Dorsey said.
The law, ethics and AI
Five years ago, Lach, Vischer and Dwyer had dinner in New York City. Lach was impressed by Vischer’s vision for the school.
“It was one that had an ethical base and was founded on instilling a sense of integrity in the practice of law, which I had not seen in the law school I went to and, for the most part, I didn’t see in the way in which people practice law. I thought it was really needed,” she said.
“In the age that we're now going into, students coming out of St. Thomas Law will be more equipped to deal with issues, because interaction in negotiations has been and, I believe, will remain human centric,” Lach added. “Now that there is an extensive movement to put contracts together and draft contracts through AI, a lot of that back-office work will be eliminated. But when it comes to the absolute final crunch of issues, I believe that’s going to continue to be a human interface.”
Along with her continued IEEE work, Lach is also on the board of directors of The Future Society, a European-based AI policy think tank.
“In the IEEE treatise that I recently finished editing, one of the things that we strongly recommended was that in elementary schools there be additional training or re-emphasis on the establishment of empathy,” Lach said. “Even as students enter law school now, they are in a position where they have to reconnect with the empathy needed to understand the human condition. And particularly, if one wants to go into areas of social justice. I think St. Thomas is doing that very well through workshops and other types of training.”
Fighting the men-only rule
Lach calls her life an “absolute Horatio Alger story.” While her family didn’t have much money as she was growing up, her mother, Adeline, instilled in her children the importance of education. It was the way to escape poverty, she told them. Lach took that message to heart and ran with it.
With a strong curiosity about the planet and human condition, Lach attended the University of Minnesota, majoring in international relations, which gave her an opportunity to travel to Latin America and India. (Lach is fluent in Spanish and Hindi.) As an undergraduate in the early 70s, she wanted to study with an Oxford professor who focused on social justice. She was hoping to earn a Rhodes Scholarship, even though she was explicitly told she wasn’t eligible because she was a woman.
“I didn’t think that was right, so I applied for the scholarship and received the support of the University of Minnesota in trying to open it to women,” she said.
Dr. Gordon Kepner, a member of the school’s Rhodes Scholar Nominating Committee in 1972, supported Lach in her quest. The committee chose to ignore the men-only stipulation and submitted her candidacy to the next level, where her application then was denied. Kepner believes Lach would have won a Rhodes Scholarship if she had been allowed to compete.
Lach’s attempt at the scholarship generated media attention and brought awareness to what Kepner calls the injustice of the men-only rule.
“Her story is so compelling because, in spite of the fact that the odds of her getting the scholarship were against her, she nonetheless went through with this effort and brought attention to the issue. It was a spark. Within four years it changed, and women could compete for a Rhodes Scholarship,” Kepner said.
“It’s also indicative of the fact that she followed through with this attitude for the rest of her life,” he continued. “It wasn’t a one shot. She said, ‘I’m going to keep struggling and fighting for things I feel are important.’”
Lach pursued her graduate education by applying to Columbia, Princeton and Yale universities and was accepted to all three. She chose to combine the pursuits of law, international diplomacy and development economics through a master’s degree in public affairs at Princeton, where she was in one of the first groups of women to be admitted to the school’s graduate program, and a law degree at New York University School of Law because of its more progressive attitude toward women.
Wall Street and social justice
With an interest in international and private law, she joined a law firm on Wall Street. But a position at a prestigious firm alone wasn’t satisfying. During graduate school, she had worked for Amnesty International in London. Now with law degree in hand, she joined the organization’s U.S. branch pro bono as general counsel for seven years while continuing to advance her career on Wall Street.
Lach’s corporate law ladder climb included being a partner at the national firm Drinker Biddle and Reath and later the first female vice president, corporate secretary and associate general counsel at Wyeth Pfizer. She often was the only woman in a room full of powerful men and not shy about cracking the glass ceiling.
“When I started out, there really were no women in these corporate negotiations,” she said. “They would think I was a secretary. I remember going into a room and having the partner on the other side say, ‘Honey, could you get me a cup of coffee?’ And I'd say, ‘Sweetie, I'll show you where the pot is.’ It was humor with an edge. It worked for me.
“I think it also worked for me because I'm tall – I’m 5’8” and I always wore 6-inch heels, putting me over 6 feet. I think when you have to look up to someone, it puts you in a subservient position.”
Along with her current work with AI and ethics at IEEE, Lach is also on the legal advisory council for Sanctuary for Families, a New York City-based nonprofit dedicated to aiding victims and their children of international trafficking and domestic violence. Through the organization, she helps coach women who are making their way back into the workforce after leaving their abusers. She’s also an arbitrator in the city civil courts where she makes judgments in matters with a maximum dollar amount of $5,000.
“I haven’t really retired,” Lach said.
But when she does have some free time, she enjoys all New York City has to offer, referring to it as her “playground.” She also enjoys organic herbal and flower gardening and fly fishing.
Asked what she’d like people to say about her when her name comes up in a conversation, she took a moment before answering.
“I would like them to say, ‘I really like her; she’s funny.’ It would also be nice if somebody would say ‘I remember her; she really helped me,’” she said.
Lach has touched more lives than she’ll ever know. Through her legal and pro bono work, she continues to serve as an inspiration to countless others who want to affect change in the world.