Compared to their sisters in large law firms, female lawyers in corporations are making more headway. Women now hold 21 percent of the top legal positions in Fortune 500 companies, while the number of women equity partners in big law firms remains stagnant (it's been 15 percent for decades, according to the National Association of Women Lawyers).
Here's the progress report, according to the latest findings by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (the study will appear in the September/October 2012 issue of MCCA's Diversity & the Bar):
- Since 2009, 23 women have been appointed to general counsel positions at Fortune 500 companies.
- Women GC are increasingly diverse. "About 16 percent of the 2011 group identified themselves as minorities, the most diverse in the survey’s history. They included 90 whites/Caucasians, 11 African Americans, four Hispanics, two Asian/Pacific Islanders, and one of Middle Eastern origin."
- Six states are leading this trend, and the companies based there account for 50 percent of the list: California (12), New York (11), Texas (10), Illinois (eight), and New Jersey and Virginia (seven each).
“The representation of women general counsel at Fortune 500 companies has grown steadily since MCCA began tracking this information in 1999,” said Joseph West, MCCA president and CEO, in a press release.
One reason women fare better in corporations is that there's more transparency and greater pressure to increase diversity, reports Corporate Counsel magazine. Dr. Arin Reeves, a diversity consultant who advises the legal profession, told CC that public companies have to answer to consumers and shareholders about their diversity efforts. “So what are the areas of our profession that have no transparency, no accountability, and no oversight? Law firms,” Reeves told CC.
Is any of this a huge surprise? I don't think so. Compared to law firms, public companies are paradigms of progressiveness. They promoted diversity and women, and embraced work/life balance initiatives, long before most law firms.
But the cliffhanger is this: Will the estrogen spike in the top legal suites of corporate America result in a commensurate surge in the number of female equity partners in Big Law? That's the question that David Lat at Above the Law asks too. Lat doesn't sound that optimistic; he says, "That remains to be seen."
I'm actually a bit more hopeful. On the basis of my conversations with women at firms and corporations, I think having a female GC can only help push up the number of female and diverse partners at law firms. But the tougher question is when we will see more than an incremental uptick.
What's your guess?
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