YourABA December 2011 Masthead

Panel of wisdom: Women corporate lawyers share strategy, insight for success

A panel of women corporate lawyers told a standing-room-only audience of women lawyers at the ABA Midyear Meeting program, “Visible Invisibility,” to be visible, bold and present, in order to excel in positions of leadership.

Although the panelists of the Feb. 3 program said tremendous advancements have been made in the corporate world for women and minorities, there is a great deal of work yet to be done.

"... the preliminary findings reveal that though women of color are hired, they are often hired at a non-senior or executive level and they are less likely to have a mentor."

"In a sense, when I started, it was a scene out of ‘Mad Men,’" said Denise F. Keane, executive vice president and general counsel of Altria Group Inc.

Keane said that lawyers like to be challenged and that’s why her organization has developed a rotational system that gives women lawyers substantive opportunities to grow.

The ABA program was held to view the preliminary findings in the Women of Color Research Initiative’s final report on the career experiences of women of color in Fortune 500 companies. The report is based on a survey of 1,000 in-house attorneys in four demographic groups: women of color, white women, men of color and white men.

The report will be issued in August at the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago.

Nine years ago, the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession created its Women of Color Research Initiative to bring attention to the inequities women of color contend with in the profession.

The first phase of this initiative explored the career experiences of women of color in law firms.  The current phase of the initiative focuses on those women in corporate law departments during four aspects of their careers: recruitment, hiring, retention and advancement.

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Lorelie S. Masters, partner at Jenner & Block’s Insurance Litigation and Counseling Practice Group and a member of the Commission on Women in Profession, said some in the survey credited their race and gender as an advantage; however that advantage soon disappeared once they started working.

So far, the preliminary findings reveal that though women of color are hired, they are often hired at a non-senior or executive level and they are less likely to have a mentor.

As to retention, they are less likely to have desirable assignments and once they have children, barriers arise. As for compensation, they earn less from day one and the survey finds that there is a larger gap in compensation in larger corporations.

Ruthe Catolico Ashley, the moderator for the panel and founder and president of Diversity Matters, branded the corporate panel of lawyers as the “Panel of Wisdom,” because of the inspiring leadership advice that was shared.

“Visibility is vital,” said Dominique Bright-Wheeler, director and assistant general counsel of Capital One Financial Services Corporation. “When you want to move into leadership, you want to be visible.”

Keane encouraged the audience to, “be bold.” She said that lawyers who have the confidence to communicate have opportunities to advance.”

Isabella Fu, associate general counsel for Microsoft Corp., said the way to overcome complacency is by always looking for the next project. “You have to take risks…your sense of accomplishment will propel you.”

Gloria Santona, the chief legal officer at McDonald’s Corp., advised women to ask for assignments. “Don’t wait for opportunity to land on your lap,” she admonished.

Michele Coleman Mayes, executive vice president and general counsel for Allstate Insurance, said it is a “big mistake” to stop networking when you join a company. “People have come to me and said they want to be a general counsel and I said, that’s a high hurdle, but I didn’t say you couldn’t train to clear it. When you have the understanding of how you are perceived, you can deal with it.”

Audience members marveled at some of the programs that are in place at the corporate level to strengthen women in leadership, but wondered if those same strategies would work at law firms.

Ideas for enriching women’s leadership included:

  • Women’s networking lunches;
  • Mentor networks;
  • Incentives for outside counsel;
  • Development plans;
  • Diversity CLE;
  • Affinity groups;
  • Diversity “scorecards” for outside counsel;
  • Project assignment/temporary assignments (to develop broader skill sets);
  • Job sharing;
  • Long-term incentives for equity; and
  • Transparency.

“Visible Invisibility: Breaking Down Barriers to Women’s Leadership” was sponsored by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession.

View the related video "Top Women Corporate Counsel Advise on Breaking Down Barriers to Leadership."

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