Volume 18, Number 1
January/February 2001

Women as Corporate Counsel

The ACCA survey confirms that an increasing number of women are working in-house. In the departments surveyed, the proportion of women was 37 percent, up from 24 percent in 1993. This matches what many studies have said about private practice. Young lawyers, and women in particular, are leaving private practice in record numbers. The ABA Commission on Women in the Profession’s 1997 report, Fair Measure: Toward Effective Attorney Evaluations, indicates that law firms lose female associates in record numbers before they reach partner, and addresses performance criteria, gender bias, and diversity.

A 1998 report by the ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession, Miles to Go, indicates that 12.1 percent of minority women leave their firms within the first year of practice, and more than 85 percent leave by the seventh year. And with good reason. A study of the Harvard Law School class of 1974 indicated that, after 10 years, less than 25 percent of the women who entered private practice had obtained partnership status, while more than 50 percent of the men had. In fact, by 1982, 73 percent of the men had obtained partnership. (Abramson and Franklin, Where They Are Now: The Story of the Women of Harvard Law 1974 (1986); "Harvard Law ’74: Are Women Catching Up? How They’re Doing," American Lawyer, May 1983, at 79, 80).

These issues have not left us yet. An ABA Journal poll conducted this year indicates that women still face significant hurdles in private practice (see "Challenges Achieved, Challenges Ahead," ABA Journal, September 2000). Only 56 percent of the women lawyers polled say women are treated the same as men in their organization; the glass ceiling is still a significant barrier to advancement. Nearly 57 percent of women say they have to work harder than men to get the same results.

Working in-house does not avoid all issues of gender discrimination. The ACCA survey indicates that although there is an increase in the proportion of female and minority in-house counsel, the typical in-house counsel is a white male. Diversity in corporations, however, is probably subject to broader variations than in law firms. At Dell, there are 44 lawyers in the United States, 19 of whom are women. Appearances indicate that there are also more women in higher positions in-house; this is true at Dell as well. Worldwide, there are eight vice presidents in the legal department, and five of them are women.

A lawyer considering an in-house position should also look at the corporation as a whole. In many cases, there are women in power throughout the company, so that a woman lawyer within the corporation has more opportunity for mentoring, has more role models, and is less likely to feel the isolation that many women feel in private practice.

— J.B.W.

Back to Top