Companies hiring more female general counsel, report says

Firms increasingly looking for in-house experience, which favors women, according to research

New research shows more women are being appointed as top lawyers at big US companies – and professionals say a virtuous circle is developing that may strengthen the trend.

According to recruitment firm Russell Reynolds Associates, Fortune 500 companies last year filled 35 percent of their open general counsel positions with female candidates, up from 30 percent in 2015 and 24 percent in 2012.

‘The even better news?’ the authors of the report write. ‘The way women are hired for the [general counsel] role appears to be changing – a development that could accelerate the number of women leading legal departments in the years to come.’ Traditionally, they say, more women have been promoted to the general counsel job from inside a company. Since 2014, however, there has been a marked shift such that last year as many women were hired as general counsel from external sources as those who were appointed internally, according to the report.‚Äč

At the same time, the nation’s largest companies are increasingly hiring general counsel candidates with previous in-house experience, the research finds. Before 2014, 67 percent of the external candidates hired for Fortune 500 general counsel jobs had an in-house background; that figure has now risen to 83 percent.

This change to fishing more heavily for in-house counsel – both internally and externally – explains the increase in the proportion of women being hired, according to Cynthia Dow, who leads the legal officers practice at Russell Reynolds. ‘The preferred sources of general counsel appointees are now lining up with where women lawyers have tended to be successful,’ she tells Corporate Secretary.

In the past, companies focused more heavily on filling general counsel posts with senior partners at law firms, the authors of the report write. This helped shrink the pool of female candidates available, they add, citing data from The American Lawyer showing that just 20 percent of equity partners at the 200 largest US law firms are women.

‘An even smaller percentage of women work in the law firm positions that have been the most fertile hiring grounds for companies: company managers and practice group leaders in areas like [M&A] or corporate finance,’ the report notes. Since 2014, however, the number of Fortune 500 general counsel appointed from law firms has slid by nearly 50 percent.

Another factor behind the growing number of women appointed as general counsel is the dialogue about diversity in the C-suite, ‘which has raised awareness and prompted boards and CEOs to make a concerted effort to hire more women for the general counsel role,’ the authors write. ‘[O]n a subtler level, a larger number of women in the candidate pool may be helping fight unconscious biases in the hiring process that have largely favored men.’

Separately, a recent report by Blake Cassels & Graydon finds that while general counsel may still be rare members of Canadian boards, they are most likely to be women when they do have directorships (CorporateSecretary.com, 6/1). The law firm’s study notes that 35 current and former general counsel held just 44 of 2,288 board positions at the 241 publicly listed companies that comprised the S&P/TSX Composite Index last year – but that 59 percent of those general counsel were women, up from 45 percent in 2015.

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