More Than a Trend: Expert Advice for Women General Counsel

businesspeople talking in meeting room and woman smilingBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

According to a new survey by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, there were more female general counsel at Fortune 500 companies last year than ever before, holding 21% of the roles.

Not only that, but the number of general counsel is rising faster than previously, with 23 women nabbing the top legal seat in the Fortune 500 since 2009. Additionally, the study showed that diversity amongst female legal officers is also increasing, with 16% describing themselves as minorities.

Michele Coleman Mayes, General Counsel of the New York Public Library, and Former GC of Allstate Corp, welcomed the news, saying, “I hope to see more and more women in this position.”

But, she continued, she wasn’t all that surprised by the study. In doing research for her book, Courageous Counsel: Conversations with Women General Counsel in the Fortune 500, which she co-authored with Kara Sophia Baysinger last year, she recognized the increasing presence of women general counsel in the Fortune 500. “I want people to recognize that this isn’t a trend, it’s the norm.”

She also shared her advice on how ambitious women lawyers can better position themselves for the General Counsel role at their company.

Building Momentum

Mayes says she wasn’t surprised by the study. “I don’t think it’s rocket science. We’ve been building up momentum and critical mass for a long time, ever since women started coming into these positions in noticeable numbers in the 1990s.”

She continued, “When people saw the first group of women performed well, the view that this was a ‘male’ job or that women didn’t want the position or that women weren’t good leaders – all of these biases or assumptions were challenged.”

In particular, she said, large companies began to take women more seriously after Title VII was passed. “The consequence of doing things because they were compelled to eventually led to more gender diversity. More often than not, they also realized they were seeing positive results, not to mention, on occasion, pressure from customers and other constituencies. As more and more women came well prepared to take on professional roles, companies put more effort into setting goals and metrics around attracting, retaining and promoting women.”

She continued, “When you see something out of the norm actually work and realize the world didn’t come to an end, it’s hard to return to the status quo. This reminds me of the story Eleanor Roosevlet told of two officials who had begged President Truman not to appoint her as the first female delegate to the United Nations. After a session in London, those same officials came over to her to say how good it had been to work with her.”

While work toward gender diversity in the corporate space benefited women in legal departments at large companies, she continued, law firms didn’t often face the same pressure, which could be why the percentage of women in the top job at Fortune 500 companies is greater than the percentage of women partners (and in particular equity partners) at law firms.

Advice for Women in Legal Departments

Mayes says that one of the ways lawyers can distinguish themselves at work is by improving their business acumen. “Figure out how the company makes money,” she said. “It will go a long way toward understanding how your advice fits into the big picture.”

This means finding out what the company’s pressure points are – risks, market share, competitors, regulatory climate, etc., and “where mischief is most likely to occur.” She continued, “Learn how employees are compensated and what behavior is rewarded.”

She explained that by learning how the company works, you’ll earn the respect and attention of your business colleagues. “You’re not there to brag about being a lawyer. You’re there to serve the company. This will demonstrate you know how business gets done.”

This led to another piece of advice: focus on improving your communication skills. “You’ve got to be able to communicate with someone. You can’t hide behind a law degree. Translate arcane or impenetrable legal terms into words that are digestible. You can’t just say, ‘listen to me because I’m smart, and do listen carefully.’” She continued, “Of course, at the same time, you must never lose sight of your values and how critical it is to be known as a person of integrity no matter how difficult the situation being addressed is. This is non-negotiable.“

What Senior Women Can Do

Mayes said that senior women in these departments can help pull more junior lawyers through the ranks if they want to be there. “Not everyone aspires to be general counsel,” she advised. “When you give people the opportunity, access, and accountability, they frequently surprise themselves as to what they can accomplish.” She remarked this also means giving them enough rope to fail, learn, and move on with those lessons in hand.

Helping women step out of their comfort zone can be helpful, too. After all, she remarked, “Growth and comfort are incompatible.”

This might mean encouraging junior staff to take on roles or assignments they aren’t knowledgeable about. “Be willing to help people visualize the possibilities from exploring the unknown. Someone who’s only eaten hamburgers might say she doesn’t like oysters. But when she tries them, she discovers they’re not half bad,” she said with a laugh. “But if you’re not willing to try, how would you ever know?”

2 Responses

  1. While I agree with Mayes that more women GCs is not a trend, I don’t agree that it was just common sense, she’s modest. Women like Mayes and organizations like MCCA have worked tirelessly and with sound business strategy to advance women in corporations for well over a decade. And CXOs in companies like DuPont and Allstate have taken risks to make changes in their leadership and outside counsel. I’ve been a coach to many of these champions and unsung heroes who we should thank and emulate. Let’s keep the momentum going!