At the Creating Pathways to Diversity Conference, sponsored by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA), there was a great lunchtime discussion called “Her Stories: The Evolving Role of Women in Business and Law.” It featured a panel of heavy hitters: two women currently serving as general counsel to Fortune 500 companies, and a third who previously served as GC to no fewer than four Fortune 500 companies over her career.
What does their rise say about the changing role of women in the corporate legal world? How did they get to their lofty perches? And what advice would they offer to lawyers aspiring to such successful careers?
Here’s the panel description:
Serving as general counsel of a major corporation is perhaps the apex of achievement for any lawyer in America. Although the U.S. has thousands of qualified lawyers, only a select 500 can hold this position for the largest public companies in the country — the Fortune 500. The impressive narrative of the journey of women ascending to these positions in waves over the last 30 years has been recorded in a new book about women general counsel. Our panel will feature a review of this new work, as well as a chance for you to hear directly from some of the dynamic women who have personally traveled this road. This is a rare insider presentation not to be missed!
The new book, by the way, is called Courageous Counsel: Conversations with Women General Counsel in the Fortune 500 (affiliate link).
The distinguished panelists:
- Linda Madrid (moderator), Senior Client Partner, Korn/Ferry International
- Anastasia Kelly, Partner, DLA Piper US
- Kim K.W. Rucker, Senior Vice President, General Counsel, Corporate Secretary & Chief Compliance Officer, Avon Products, Inc.
- Amy W. Schulman, Executive Vice President and General Counsel, Pfizer, Inc.
Kelly immediately won over the audience with her self-deprecating humor. When moderator Linda Madrid mentioned Kelly’s work for AIG during the introductions, Kelly interjected, “That’s why I look so old!” Later on in the panel, Kelly, who has left corporate America for DLA Piper, joked that people tell her, “If you ever take another GC job, please tell us where you’re going so we can short the stock!”
(Over the years, Anastasia Kelly has served as general counsel to such troubled companies as AIG, MCI/WorldCom, Sears Roebuck, and Fannie Mae. In fairness to Kelly, she joined some of these companies after they were already in trouble, coming on board as part of the rescue team.)
Madrid kicked off the discussion with an encouraging fact. In 1972, only 3 percent of all lawyers were women. Today, almost 40 years later, over 20 percent of Fortune 500 general counsel are women (110 out of 500 GCs).
Kelly picked up on this theme, noting that this evolution in the role of women in law has come at the same time as the evolution in role of general counsel. Over the years, the GC job has grown in importance, with general counsel “invited into the room and asked to participate in the discussion.” According to Kelly, some of this expansion in the GC’s role can be attributed to the early 2000s scandals in corporate America and the resulting desire of companies to protect themselves from legal and regulatory risk.
Of course, increased responsibilities for general counsel involve increased risk for holders of the job. As Kelly put it, “Sometimes GCs are on the table rather than at the table.”
Kim Rucker of Avon noted that risk isn’t necessarily a bad thing. She urged the audience to think strategically about risk-taking in their professional lives — when to take risks, and which risks to take.
An amusing sidebar about the ruthlessness of Amy Schulman’s and Kim Rucker’s sons when playing Monopoly led to the topic of motherhood. Madrid asked the three panelists, all of whom have children, whether motherhood has affected their legal careers, and if so, how.
Kelly stressed the positive, noting that being a mother to twin boys has taught her patience and the ability to look beyond herself. But Schulman, a mother of three sons, issued a warning: don’t get pigeonholed into the role of “mommy-nurturer” at your company or law firm by virtue of your status as an actual mother.
Balancing motherhood and job responsibilities led into the subject of prioritizing. This can be especially challenging for in-house counsel, according to Anastasia Kelly. When you’re outside counsel, clients are careful about sending you reading materials or asking you questions, because they know that they’ll be charged accordingly. But when you’re in-house, the client essentially has your time captured — and wants you to read everything, know everything, and be on top of everything.
As a result, you must learn how to make quick decisions based on limited information. “It’s a very different life compared to outside counsel,” Kelly said.
In dealing with career challenges, it’s important to have mentors. Kim Rucker of Avon described mentoring as “a mosaic,” noting that you’ll have different mentors at different points in your career, and that the concept of mentorship should not be overformalized. (Our in-house columnist here at Above the Law, Mark Herrmann, seems to agree.)
When she was a young associate at Sidley Austin, Rucker received mentorship from two very different sources: a cab driver named Ali, who would inform her about world politics (and take her for late-night food) when driving her home after long nights in the office, and an intimidating partner nicknamed “The Bear.”
Sometimes The Bear would say inappropriate things to Rucker. But instead of complaining about his remarks to firm management, she decided to deal with them on her own — and learn all she could from this difficult partner. “I wanted to learn how to draft an indenture,” Rucker said, “and I knew he could teach me.”
Rucker did note that the importance of drawing lines with superiors like The Bear. They were working late in his office one night, and Rucker, practically faint with hunger, needed dinner. She informed him that she had to grab something to eat. He reacted incredulously and indignantly to the idea of her interrupting work, but she just stood up and left. After a quick dinner, Rucker returned to his office and resumed work. Everything was fine — and after that incident, The Bear had greater respect for her in future interactions.
The discussion closed with insights and advice from the panelists about professional development. Amy Schulman observed that women tend to hoard their political capital instead of spending it. She urged the audience members not to be afraid to spend their political capital, especially on other people. Using your political capital to help the career advancement of others is commendable and rewarding.
Kim Rucker had advice about how to deal with fear: “Define the fear you’re afraid of. Name it, and claim it.” Once you’ve done this, addressing that fear will be so much easier.
Finally, Anastasia Kelly noted that women can sometimes be more reluctant to leverage personal connections for business development purposes. Some women see this as an inappropriate imposition on friendship, when in reality there’s nothing wrong with it (and men do it all the time). Let’s say you’re a partner at a law firm, and you’ve struck up a personal friendship with a general counsel. There’s nothing wrong with saying to that GC, “Hey, could we sit down sometime and think about ways in which we might be able to work together?”
In sum, it’s important to speak up. Doing so isn’t always easy — but it’s a crucial factor behind the continuing success and growing prominence of women in the legal world.