Women General Counsel: Universal Issues, Unique Achievements: Part II

Tuesday, February 14, 2012 - 09:28

The Editor interviews Michele Coleman Mayes, General Counsel, Allstate Insurance Co., and Kara Sophia Baysinger, Partner, SNR Denton. Ms. Mayes and Ms. Baysinger are co-authors of Courageous Counsel: Conversations with Women General Counsel in the Fortune 500. Part I of this interview appeared in the February, 2012 issue of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel (http://www.metrocorpcounsel.com/articles/17551/women-general-counsel-universal-issues-unique-achievements-part-i).

Editor: How can corporations and outside law firms nurture one another’s diversity initiatives? Does community outreach play a role?

Baysinger: Consistently, our clients communicate that they expect our teams to be diverse, and this expectation works in both directions. We maintain an open dialogue about how to achieve our primary, common goal – achieving excellent substantive results by assembling teams that offer a broad base of perspectives.

Courageous Counsel is a great example of a joint effort by a law firm and a company to expand our core relationship and to serve the greater community. Other joint efforts might involve CLE events, such as a recent panel discussion in which I participated with Michelle Banks, general counsel from GAP, Inc. Here, we presented a series of best practices in diversity and inclusion programs derived from our discussions about Michelle’s specific experience and my own in representing a varied corporate client base. That said, there is always much more to do.

Mayes: All organizations should take a pulse check to determine where they are on the continuum, and no one should feel ready to celebrate. Organizations that claim to have conquered this issue suffer from hubris. Invariably, they will fall behind if they do not sustain diversity efforts or simply fail to stay in tune with what the world is demanding.

While no one has the final answer, corporations continue to lead the way. Traditionally, the law firm models focused on lock-step advancement – that is, progressing with your entering class in terms of salary and bonus. In contrast, companies have always been forced to make distinctions among staff members and ideally, they offer more opportunities to the best performers. Also, companies have very different structures, with a single general counsel versus many partners in a law firm. At firms, revenue largely determines advancement, which is not the case in legal departments.

Communication is the key building block in developing collaborative diversity efforts with our outside law firms. For example, one of our premier firms asked us to rate their diversity initiatives and identify specific criteria on which we would like them to focus. The firm had developed a tool to do this. We took that tool and canvassed other law firms to create the first “dual diversity scorecard,” which we rolled out in June. We asked difficult, probing questions and made it clear that this was no check-the-box exercise. Once we all had the completed scorecards, the next step was for my lawyers and each participating firm to create an action plan. Everyone then has clear expectations.

For example, we want to see a diverse team, so show it to us. Further, we have no objection to diversity-friendly policies, such as reduced hours, because we understand that flexibility enables women to stay in the workforce with confidence that their commitment is not questioned. I am not concerned if a woman works from home as long as she is accessible. Next, we want to see more women reach equity partnership and hold key decision-making positions in firms. We work best when our law firms work best, and, in truth, I can’t do my job without them.

On community initiatives, we involve both our in-house and outside attorneys. For example, we have more Street Law sites than any other company in the country. When I spoke with lawyers at our outside law firms, they were anxious to get involved, so we expanded the program.

These efforts bring rewards that reach beyond the obvious benefits to the community. Partnering with law firms enables us to get to know one another in a different setting, working substantively side-by-side. It also can demonstrate a mutual commitment to underlying values, such as diversity. Working together on domestic violence or immigration matters is good professional development, but also fosters deeper relationships with our outside firms.

Editor: Based on your research and interviews for Courageous Counsel, are certain industries particularly supportive of women’s advancement in corporate legal departments?

Baysinger: Many believe that a company’s support of women is generally reflected in the number or proportion of women that sit on its board of directors; however, I don’t see such a direct link, though it certainly is a factor. It is natural to assume that traditionally male-dominated businesses, like insurance or oil and gas, offer fewer opportunities to women, but, in fact, some of the strongest women general counsels work in these industries.

Among big companies (we looked at the Fortune 500 in our book), there is not as much industry skewing as might be expected. Technology companies are probably farther ahead because they are newer and simply started out with a diverse workforce, though not necessarily gender-diverse. Thus, these companies are not battling a 200-year legacy of having an all-white or all-male C-suite.

Editor: What are the most common barriers for women in seeking professional advancement? How can these barriers be overcome?

Mayes: A major hurdle is what I call unexamined bias, which includes stereotypes of women. Can women lead? I say, “Of course they can.” I eschew the notion that there are only born leaders. Even the most gifted athlete needs a coach because winning the race depends upon much more than the ability to run fast.

We must resist eliminating women based on stereotypes. For example, no one should assume a woman with children cannot travel. Managers must consciously think about this kind of bias and ask, “Did I eliminate that person by assuming she couldn’t travel because she has young children?” They might be surprised to learn that some women welcome these opportunities to get away.

Another myth we addressed in Courageous Counsel involves the fact that many women we interviewed have children and are married. In fact, these women comprise about 50 percent of our interviewees. The point is that you are well-advised to seriously question stereotypes.

Women can overcome barriers by enlisting support from mentors and informal networks. Beyond mentorship is sponsorship, which involves a direct, personal effort to deliver advancement to someone the sponsor believes in. In seeking help, women should trust that no sponsor is going to step in without having confidence in them. The key for women is to take risks and to ask for what they want – a mentor, a sponsor, meaningful work, an introduction to a client, etc.

Sometimes, barriers can be overcome, but only if tough conversations take place. I recently counseled a woman who was questioning her future at a major law firm because she has young children. Her reasoning was not without basis, as many women take on the primary childcare role in a marriage. However, I challenged this idea and asked her to consider the broader consequences. After all, what is the motivation for firms to develop a diverse team if women leave once they achieve positions of power and authority? We agreed she should seek out a sponsor within the firm and talk things out. I plan to follow up with her to find out what happened.

Editor: Is the number of women GCs increasing?

Baysinger: It is, absolutely. In fact, while we were writing the book, women general counsels in the Fortune 500 increased from 18 percent to 20 percent. It is difficult to predict the future because the history of women in these roles has not played out in a dependable straight line; however, progress is certain and there remains a lot of opportunity. For example, I hear from recruiters that their clients now specifically require a diverse slate of candidates for every general counsel search performed. 

The key to maintaining forward progress is to ensure that qualified women are using their network, doing outreach, doing the personal and professional work to develop necessary skills – and then raising their hands and saying: “I want to be considered for that job.”

Mayes: I am extremely optimistic and can point to a number of successful efforts to keep up this forward momentum. For example, I’ve been on the board of the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity (LCLD) since its inception. The LCLD’s mission is to increase diversity in our profession. We have an impressive membership comprised of only general counsels and managing partners. Rick Palmore is now LCLD’s chair.

When I consider the substantive topics under discussion and – even more – the current atmosphere that encourages straight talk, it gives me confidence that there are enough of us willing to support and push for sustainable progress. This process is all about talent. When you strip away the varnish, everybody wants the best talent. Indeed, developing and leveraging talent can be a major contributor to raising the U.S. out of its economic malaise.

Talking about talent, I don’t think the number of women GCs is a fluke or a matter of luck – but there are very deliberate things we can and should do to keep up the momentum. Our book wasn’t written to say that women are better GCs than men. Instead, bottom line, if you exclude our talent from the pool, you disadvantage women, companies and our country.