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Fortune 500 companies putting women in in-house legal positions, private practice less so

Posted by: Laurence Simons 14/08/12

Mixed state of affairs following two annual surveys.

Women now hold the top in-house counsel jobs at 21 per cent of the US's Fortune 500 companies, according to Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) figures released this week.

The Association - set to publish its annual report in full in the September/October issue of Diversity & the Bar - has released various titbits on women in corporate and in-house power ahead of time, based on its analysis of Fortune 500 and 100 companies made this year.

In the main, women in general counsel positions were on the rise in 2011, with 108 women serving in gilded in-house legal positions. It marks an accelerated increase on 2009 figures, which revealed just 85 women held high-power legal positions at various big-swinging corporations.

Despite Fortune 500 companies being dotted around the country, six states contributed 50 per cent of the list, with half of the women on general counsels working out of California (12), New York (11), Texas (ten), Illinois (eight) and New Jersey and Virginia (seven apiece).

"The representation of women general counsel at Fortune 500 companies has grown steadily since MCCA began tracking this information in 1999," boo-yahed Joseph West, MCCA president and chief, while looking back over his shoulder nervously.

But you're thinking, you are wondering. "Why is this notable in 2012?" you're going. "Why all the to-do, fuss and hoo-hah?" Well here's why all the to-do, fuss and hoo-hah: because despite the strides being made in Fortune 500 recruitment, Biglaw companies are still idling somewhere behind.

As National Law Journal data shows, partnership data tracing back to 2003 shows an increased headcount on women making partner at the top 250 firms, but it's at a glacial pace: equity and non-equity partners make up 18.8 per cent of the workforce, up just a couple of notches from 2003's 16 per cent rate. Yo Biglaw, what up with that?

Well according to a Corporate Counsel report, consumer and shareholder pressure is what up with that. Diversity consultant Dr Arin Reeves told the magazine that while publically traded companies promote diversity awareness and progressive hiring policies under challenges from those who have a stake in the group, private practice is under less scrutiny to do so. "So what are the areas of our profession that have no transparency, no accountability, and no oversight?" says the legal profession adviser. "Law firms."

But there's some hope. According to Careerist's Vivia Chen, more women in top level and partner positions will encourage those further down the pecking order to act up, meaning the slowly progressive figures should start to accelerate as the industry evolves. Turn that glacial into a snowball.