Courageous Counsel Panel Calls On Women To Chart Their Own Path

Tuesday, December 20, 2011 - 12:40

On Wednesday, November 30, Gibbons P.C. Women’s Initiative and the ACC New Jersey (NJCCA) Women’s Networking Committee co-hosted a women’s networking program entitled A conversation with Michele Coleman Mayes and Kara Sophia Baysinger, co-authors of Courageous Counsel: Conversations with Women General Counsel in the Fortune 500.

The panel included Ms. Mayes, general counsel, Allstate Insurance Co.; Ms. Baysinger, partner, SNR Denton; Susan L. Blount, senior vice president and general counsel, Prudential Insurance Company of America; and  Deborah A. Bello, vice president and chief legal officer, Insurance, Prudential Insurance Company of America.

Evaleon Hill, leader of NJCCA’s Women’s Networking Committee (WNC), gave welcoming remarks and introduced Joseph M. Aronds, president of the NJCCA. Mr. Aronds recognized Ms. Hill’s leadership over the past seven years in making the NJCCA the most active chapter for women ACC members. According to Ms. Hill, the WNC became a bond-making group of women, inspiring expanded law firm initiatives for women, such as sponsorship for the event by Gibbons P.C.

A strong corporate women's initiative can promote women’s professional advancement both within and outside an organization. For example, through its groundbreaking, award-winning Women’s Initiative, Gibbons provides for its new and senior women attorneys, along with their women business colleagues and clients, platforms and policies that improve knowledge, foster teamwork, encourage leadership, embrace flexibility, and support networking and mentoring. The Initiative has grown into a highly respected organization, with more than 60 Gibbons women attorneys involved and more than 2,000 women participants invited to its many programs. The dual internal/external focus of Gibbons Women's Initiative enables specific synergies between the firm’s women attorneys and the women among their client and prospective client bases: the mentoring and internal professional development programs improve the skills and strengthen the practices of Gibbons women attorneys; the educational and networking programs, like the "Courageous Counsel" event, provide these same attorneys critical outreach opportunities to use their new skills for business and client relationship development—while also expanding the professional development options of numerous women corporate counsel and other women clients throughout the broader business community.

The success of the Women’s Initiative has led Gibbons to hold a consistent ranking among the top 50 firms nationwide for working women by Working Mother magazine; the top 100 firms in the nation for diversity by MultiCultural Law magazine; and one of the best places to work in America by Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) and the Great Place to Work Institute, as well as in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania by NJBIZ, Crain’s New York Business, Philadelphia Business Journal, and Central Penn Business Journal. Gibbons was also among the 2009 winners of the prestigious international Catalyst Award, which honors major corporations with leading women’s initiatives and programs, and in 2011 was one of only 32 law firms nationwide to earn the Women in Law Empowerment Forum’s (WILEF) Gold Standard Certification.

Courageous Counsel features interviews with Fortune 500 women general counsel about their careers, and, during the event, the panelists spoke with conviction, real-life perspective and humor. They discussed the traditional impulse for women to “toil in obscurity” and simply hope to be rewarded, and panelists encouraged women to “raise their hands” and engage in substantive discussion of their professional accomplishments.

Ms. Baysinger spoke about the evolution of Courageous Counsel, from its original goal to determine if there is a “recipe” for success for women in-house lawyers to the emerging realization of broader issues pertaining to leadership across genders and professions. She initiated a discussion of the importance of mentors and sponsors for career development.

Ms. Mayes stated that mentors “have their hands extended in both directions,” and she spoke with empathy regarding the often painful process of constructive criticism in the mentor relationship. Sponsors rise to a different level, “putting their skin into the game” and staking their own reputations to deliver professional advancement for someone they believe in.

Ms. Blount talked about the need for women to take an active role and speak up for their own professional advancement, adding that “courage does not stay put; you have to find it every time.” She recounted her experience in asking to be promoted to the GC role and noted that this kind of internal advancement is “very validating for a law department.”

Ms. Bello spoke about nontraditional career paths, recounting her own experience as a third-year law student in moving directly into the in-house role, working her way through a satellite business unit and earning the opportunity to join the principal law department.

The panel encouraged women to use established networking activities but also to forge new opportunities on their own terms. While traditional venues, such as the golf course, can be respected and utilized to great effect, other personal interests, such as books or travel, can be leveraged with surprising results from colleagues of both genders.

Ms. Mayes described some of the complexities of the GC role, such as managing the board and enterprise-wide leadership responsibilities, and Ms. Blount likened doing her job to being given a box of indiscriminate “junk” with which she is expected to build a pristine, complex machine. Notwithstanding such colorful language, the real message was clear: It’s a great job, and if you want to be a GC, then you have to find the courage to “raise your hand.”