The First Annual MCCA/Winston & Strawn Survey of Women in Corporate Law Departments
For a lawyer dedicated to a career in the corporate arena, there is no more prized role than that of corporate general counsel of a major company. Today, there are 44 women who have reached this pinnacle and serve as general counsel in the Fortune 500.
While the number of women in the highest-ranking corporate legal position has yet to rise to the level of their representation in the general population, momentum is clearly building. Among the current group of 44, only one was appointed in the early 1980s. Six more were appointed between 1986 and 1990. Between 1991 and 1995, another 16 women were appointed general counsel and since 1996, 22 have been appointed to their current roles. If the recent trend of companies appointing women to this role continues, the number may double again in the coming few years as it has since 1996.
The number of males appointed general counsel still far outpaces females and bias against women still exists. However, the trend suggests that greater opportunities will open for women who have successful leadership experience to become general counsel in major companies.
But for those women and minorities who are willing to go for the brass ring, what career lessons can be learned from the accomplished women who have made it so far up the corporate ladder?
This question motivated the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) and the Winston & Strawn law firm to jointly conduct a survey among women general counsel. The goal: to develop practical insights about career strategies women and minorities can apply to improve their own opportunities for professional advancement in the corporate legal function.
Women hold the general counsel role in several industries, including financial services, food, pharmaceuticals, retail, utilities, farm equipment, airlines, computers, construction engineering, and insurance. Because the total number of women general counsel in the Fortune 500 is still very small, it is too early to say for certain whether there are some industries that will prove to be more open to having women as general counsel. However, in the Fortune 500 there does appear to be a general linkage between the importance of women as a customer group to a company and its commitment to expand the number of women in executive management. The same general trend is apparent among companies appointing women general counsel.
More than half of the women general counsel run departments with up to 25 attorneys. About 18 percent head departments with 26 to 50 attorneys; 16 percent manage departments of 51 to 100 lawyers and three women serve as general counsel in companies having more than 100 attorneys. (To put this in perspective, there are about 60 Fortune 500 companies that have more than 100 attorneys and another 90 companies that have 51 to 100 attorneys, so representation by women in the very largest law departments still lags very far behind men.)
As some progressive companies have sought to recruit women to the general counsel role, it is no surprise that many have been found among the ranks of the most successful law firm partners. The growing number of women at higher levels in law firms expanded the pool of experienced candidates and helped to begin breaking down the old biases. The majority of the women appointed general counsel advanced through the ranks as partners of law firms in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In addition, these women gained valuable legal expertise as well as practical experience in dealing with the previously male-dominated culture. This expanding group of women with the right legal experience and exposure to clients finds itself in the right place at the right time.
Many of these women worked at law firms for several years, moved in-house to corporate law departments in senior positions and then were selected to be general counsel. Some gained key management experience working in senior level positions in the public sector, and then moved to senior corporate legal roles, and finally to general counsel. A third group of women made such a positive impression as outside counsel managing a company’s legal affairs, that the CEO extended an offer to take a senior in-house role or become general counsel.
Keys to Success
What were the key factors that enabled these women to be chosen over other candidates?
According to our survey, the overriding factor was demonstrated success as a leader. Leadership in the legal profession translates into successful experience in managing people and complex projects both in law firms and in the corporate legal function. For most women, this has meant not only consistently long hours but also a great deal of seasoning in highly pressurized situations, where one’s intellect, endurance and decision-making skills are all refined by dealing with one difficult challenge after another.
According to the women in the survey, moving up to the position of general counsel required sophisticated people skills. Their success hinged on their ability to find common ground when building relationships with their male colleagues, both in and outside the law department. They were also required to clearly and confidently articulate goals and describe how those goals would be accomplished. Once in-house, winning the confidence of both executive officers and subordinates is an essential prerequisite to being given the top job.
A key building block of success for these women was their ability to adjust their thinking. Corporations require big-picture, outside-the-box thinking to solve problems, which is different than analyzing strategic and tactical issues of a particular matter. A broader business-based approach is needed to make it in the corporate setting. The key quality is the ability to think and act like a “business lawyer,” keeping legal risk under control while still achieving business objectives.
Another major characteristic these general counsel share was their insistence on building expertise in several areas of law. Most reported that they resisted pressure from their law firms to specialize in one area.
To run a corporate law department, expertise in a wide variety of corporate legal issues is considered indispensable. The general counsel must be able to address the wide range of legal issues shaping the company’s environment even though subordinates can be relied upon for in-depth expertise when needed.
Some women in the survey suggested that it is also valuable to get experience managing younger associates at a law firm or taking on the leadership of a non-profit organization.
Challenges Facing Women
Career progress for the 45 women general counsel has not been without problems. The survey respondents identified several issues that constrain more women from reaching the general counsel role. Primary among them was the tendency of some men to promote male candidates to make office interaction “more comfortable,” and the reluctance of some male supervisors to give women tough developmental assignments out of fear they would fail. Another significant challenge for them was gaining acceptance in male-dominated environments — a problem foreign to most men. Respondents also reported that often there were just not enough real opportunities to gain management experience. Such experience is critical to qualify as a serious general counsel candidate.
One widely held opinion is that the company CEO is key in getting women promoted to general counsel. The CEO has the power to invite women into his “circle of power” — or to “send a message” excluding women and minorities. Thus, respondents felt that an essential step in creating more general counsel opportunities for women is for the CEO to insist that the search process identify female candidates who meet all the requirements.
To overcome the lack of adequate management training opportunities, these women also suggested implementing effective mentoring and career development programs for promising lawyers, as well as in-depth management training. They believe that companies must make a commitment to search diligently for qualified minority and women candidates when in-house positions become available. With these programs in place, minority and female candidates with the required skills and experience will be in the pipeline when a general counsel position becomes open.
Another key step, according to some successful women, is for companies to provide greater visibility for top performing women and minority lawyers. This helps by breaking down negative stereotypes and positioning women as key contributors who are welcome members of the senior management team. Too often, women and minorities are not given the recognition they deserve to build their reputations as effective leaders and problem solvers.
Looking to the Future
As public and customer pressure grows in support of diversity at all levels of corporate management, a growing number of companies that are sensitive to the consumer marketplace will be looking for talented women and minority leaders to join the executive team. With the enrollment of women in law schools now nearly outpacing men, in years to come there will be more women attorneys climbing the corporate ladder. How quickly these women will gain the management and leadership roles they need to qualify to be general counsel will depend on their perseverance and creativity.
It will still be very difficult for women and minorities to win the top job. Many companies still tolerate an employment environment that is hostile to diversity candidates. A key asset for women attorneys, however, is the expanding g roup of distinguished women who have already gained the general counsel role. They are using their insights and clout to advocate for the changes necessary for an even larger group of women to follow in their footsteps.
Will you be ready? We hope so!
The First Annual MCCA/ Winston & Strawn Survey of Women in Corporate Law Departments was conducted by staff members of the MCCA and Winston & Strawn under the supervision of Jane Pigott, Partner, Winston & Strawn. Stephen E. Nowlan is Chairman of Agincourt, a consulting firm focusing on law departments, and a member of MCCA’s Board of Directors.
From the August 1999 issue of Diversity & The Bar®