The Ranks of Women GCs are Growing

More and more women are being hired for the top lawyer jobs in Fortune 500 companies, and more of them are being hired via external searches instead of promoted from within, a new study has found.

In 2016, 35 percent of new Fortune 500 general counsel jobs were filled by women, whereas in 2012, women made up only 24 percent of new hires, according to an advance copy of the study provided to Big Law Business. What is more, the number of women hired as GC from external positions has jumped in the past three years. Traditionally, women have joined the GC ranks primarily through inside promotions, but in 2016, as many women GCs were hired from externally as internally.

“There is a critical mass of qualified women for external searches,” said Cynthia Dow, who leads the global legal and compliance officers practice at executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates and co-authored the paper.

Currently, about 25 percent of Fortune 500 GCs are women according to Dow. In 2014, they accounted for 21 percent.

Dow conducted her analysis in collaboration with Lloyd Johnson, founder and executive director of the Women’s In House Counsel Leadership Institute, a networking organization with the goal of increasing the percentage of women GCs in the Fortune 500 to 35 percent by 2020. Dow and Johnson have been tracking Fortune 500 GC demographics for the past five years.

The study provided to Big Law Business is expected to be published online later this week.

 

Kelly Tullier, general counsel of Visa Inc., speaks at the 2015 Big Law Business diversity and inclusion summit in New York. Photo: Jamie Watts/ Big Law Business.
Kelly Tullier, general counsel of Visa Inc., speaks at the 2015 Big Law Business diversity and inclusion summit in New York in a keynote interview with former Bloomberg Businessweek editor Ellen Pollock. Photo: Jamie Watts/ Big Law Business.

 

Prominent women in the Fortune 500 general counsel ranks include Karen Roberts of Walmart, Kim Rivera of HP Inc., Elisa Garcia of Macy’s, Nicole Jones of Cigna, and Deneen Donnley of USAA.

During the same time that the pool of women general counsel has grown, the average tenure of general counsel has dropped, meaning there is more opportunity for women to step into these roles than ever before, according to Johnson. “As it relates to the opportunities for women to become general counsel in the Fortune 500s, we are at an inflection point,” he said.

These changes ring true to Kristin Coleman, who has had various in-house positions since leaving Sidley Austin in 2003. She spent three years as the general counsel of Sears Holding Company before being appointed general counsel of US Foods in February.

“I know that an important factor in my consideration as a candidate was that I had experience in this role,” Coleman said of her hiring by US Foods. “They were looking for somebody that just knew how to do this job.”

One factor contributing to the rise of women general counsel in the Fortune 500 has been the decrease in the number of GCs hired from within law firms, where men still hold the majority of leadership positions, according to Dow. Before 2014, 33 percent of GCs were hired from law firms. Since 2014, that number has dropped to 17 percent, meaning 83 percent of candidates hired for GC jobs had an in-house background.

“Since there are so few women partners and even fewer women of color partners, the fact that you have women coming out of law firms before they hit the partner tracks makes for a bigger pool of people who can come in-house and then become GCs,” said Maria Green, general counsel of Ingersoll Rand. She was previously the top lawyer at Illinois Tool Works.

Green said the structure of corporations can be more meritocratic than law firms, where business is often passed on through relationships.

“Nobody cares who you socialize with or who you play golf with,” she said. “Because you don’t have the pressure of billing hours or bringing in work, it’s just about how well you do the work. It’s a system where it’s easier for the cream to rise to the top.”

Write to Big Law Business at biglawbusiness@bna.com.

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