Women GCs Leading Fortune 500 Companies on the Rise

By Gabriella Khorasanee, JD on March 26, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In 1979, Mary Ann Hynes became GC at CCH Inc., the first woman general counsel of a Fortune 500 company, according to Corporate Counsel. Since then, women's ranks of general counsel at Fortune 500 compaines has grown. In 2014 the figure rose to 106, with women leading 21% of Fortune 500 company legal departments, says Corporate Counsel.

Invariably, findings like this bring up questions and comments. Some praise the growth, while others think the "growth" is moving too slowly. Here are some takeaways from the study about women leading law departments.

Is the Glass a Quarter Full?

Last month we wrote about new general counsel starting at 10% of large organizations in 2014, so when you consider that figure, is the 21% of women GCs at Fortune 500 companies that impressive? For some, the answer is no, especially in light of the percentage of women GCs in the Fortune 501 to 1000 hovering at 17%, according to Corporate Counsel. Still, the President of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association stated, "The increase has been steady, and the trend is very positive, very strong."

General Counsel v. Law Firm Partners

If you were to compare the figures for women GCs in the Fortune 500 to the number of partners at BigLaw, the general counsel win this match. While the percentage of female GCs is at just over 21%, and has been growing, the number of partners at BigLaw is at about 17%, according to the National Association of Women Lawyers.

Different Industries and Corporate Culture

One of the reasons women are faring better as general counsel is that they are not in BigLaw -- that is, many law firms have similar (entrenched) corporate cultures. On the flip side, legal departments function across industries -- even some seen as traditionally "hard hat." Senior Vice President and General Counsel of Honeywell International Inc., Katherine Adams, stated, "I find the atmosphere very results-oriented, just get the job done ... In that way, big industrial companies with that clarity of purpose may actually be easier [for women]," reports Corporate Counsel.

Diversity in the "C" Suite

Finally, differing corporate culture also plays into diversity considerations. Some companies make diversity a priority and one professor noted the "quest for diversity can push a company to seek a woman GC," while a managing partner at an executive search firm added that bringing on a woman GC "is an opportunity to inject some diversity into the C-suite," according to Corporate Counsel.

Often, one wants to fight the constant view of percentages as a "glass empty" situation. We should take great pride in the advancements women are making in the field. The more women that lead within the industry, the more role models for younger female attorneys. But, we should never be content. It's with a continued need to move forward that we will continue to grow our presence as leaders in the industry.

Do you think it's easier to rise through the ranks in a law department, than in a law firm? Let us know on Facebook for FindLaw for Legal Professionals.

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