General Counsel Reveal What it Takes to Ascend to a Fortune 500® Law Department
Fifth Annual Survey of the General Counsel in the Fortune 500
Related articles: General Counsel Profiles
The legal profession still traditionally views its highest positions such as general counsel at a major corporation, or managing partner of a law firm, as being governed by a meritocracy—where success is the result of an individual's innate ability to perform well in such areas as law school grade point average (GPA), or law review participation.
Today, this idea leads some attorneys to view diversity as sacrificing the traditional standards that have defined success at the highest level. The experience of minorities who have achieved these positions often indicates that merit in law departments is often defined by informal networks bound by similar culture, law schools, or practice areas that tend to exclude them and that create major barriers for other attorneys of color regardless of their credentials.
By unspoken accord, the legal community has presumed its own litmus tests for judging the quality of its leading attorneys— a general counsel is someone who attended an Ivy League or top 10 law school and participated on the prestigious law review. Yet, the results from the MCCA "Survey of the General Counsel in the Fortune 500®," convey a different story. For example, only half of the survey respondents attended top 10 law schools and even fewer participated on law review or had a judicial clerkship.
For this 5th Anniversary issue of Diversity & the Bar, MCCA interviewed each of the 21 people of color who lead the law departments at Fortune 500® companies. MCCA sought to dispel the myths of what it takes to be a general counsel and to map the steps on the career ladder they followed to the door of the chief legal office. According to these 21 dynamic achievers, while one's paper credentials are perceived as more important by some, the experience gained by having the right attitude, being flexible, and being willing to take risks is what sets individuals apart from the crowd.
This summer, MCCA conducted the "Fifth Annual Survey of the General Counsel in the Fortune 500®" to develop valuable insight into viable career paths for those considering the route to general counsel. Specifically, MCCA set out to answer questions such as:
- What does the composite profile of the general counsel look like?
- How old is that individual and how many years of practice does that person have?
- What areas of legal practice and what core competencies are most prevalent among general counsel?
- Are there significant differences in the responses to any of the latter questions between men and women, or between attorneys of color and white general counsel?
The survey asked current general counsel to provide key personal information, including law school activities, legal specialties, and the core competencies that they feel are most salient to their role as general counsel.
Of our 89 respondents, 89 percent were Caucasian and 80 percent were male; a whopping 70 percent were white men— fairly telling numbers that are not far removed from the demographic breakdown of all Fortune 500® general counsel.
Fifty-three percent of MCCA's respondents attended the nation's top 10 legal institutions, which is a far-cry less than what one might expect of the country's most elite legal sector. In comparison, however, 70 percent of minority respondents attended top 10 institutions. Differences suggest that while the number of attorneys of color at the leading role in corporate law departments is growing, minority general counsel are still being held to higher standards than their white counterparts.
Law school extracurricular activities, particularly the law review, show a similar discrepancy, this time between male and female general counsel respondents, though not quite as stark. While most general counsel do not have law review experience (60 percent ), 50 percent of women who responded do have this credential.
Despite their differences, all general counsel believed that their ability to envision the big picture and competently manage all areas of law and business is what makes them invaluable to their companies. Popular legal specialties included corporate governance (54 percent), mergers and acquisitions (45 percent), securities and transactions (44 percent), litigation (34 percent), and antitrust (19 percent). The advice given in earlier issues of Diversity & the Bar, that diversification among legal fields is key for those lawyers aspiring to become general counsel, was again reiterated since most respondents counted at least two of the specialties in their experience.
Fortune 500® general counsel consistently ranked the core competencies in the following order:
- provide legal advice to chief executives;
- manage the legal affairs of the company;
- be proficient in risk management and damage control;
- comply with regulation, and
- be adept at succession planning.
Thus, roughly half of the Fortune 500® general counsel did notattend law schools ranked in the top tier by U.S. News & World Report, despite popular belief to the contrary. Additionally, most of their backgrounds did not include participation in law review and most did not complete a judicial clerkship. Thus, the route to the most coveted chief legal positions in America's largest corporations appears best navigated by individuals who recognize their legal and management skills as ultimately better determinants of their worth than the schools that they attended or legal journals they worked on.
Taken together, these results show that the role of general counsel is shifting in numerous ways, for example from being a legal technician and risk manager to include business expertise and communication with chief executives. The manner of evaluating candidates may also be changing from paper qualifications to skills and abilities' albeit less so for minorities and women.
In the past three years, the number of minority general counsel at Fortune 500® companies has almost doubled—from 11 to 21 in 2001—and these numbers will continue to rise.
The number of women who head their company's legal department is also increasing and is expected to continue to do so. As diversity becomes a reality at the top levels, MCCA will continue to study how the skill sets and experience that chief legal officers possess change over time.
Alea J. Mitchell worked for MCCA as a summer intern upon her graduation from Wesleyan. She is now employed at D'Arcy Advertising in New York City.
From the December 2001 issue of Diversity & The Bar®