It's time to raise the bar on diversity issues

General counsel must give men and women equal potential for career development.

In the legal profession overall, true gender diversity appears to be moving on the fast track. Slightly more than three out of 10 attorneys are women, and almost half of law students today are women. In time, our country’s attorneys will collectively reflect the gender demographics of the U.S. population. In the corporate setting, a somewhat different picture emerges.

Less than one in five major corporations has selected a woman as general counsel. Even fewer opportunities for top legal positions are provided to women at smaller corporations.

The industry in which a corporation transacts business or the nature of a company’s ownership may explain why fewer women hold top legal positions.

A number of industries have traditionally been male-dominated, both at the highest levels as well as among the rank and file. For a variety of reasons, the alcoholic beverage field in which I have practiced for the past 30 years has been one such industry. But over time, women have joined the industry in key positions, including the legal department.

U.S. subsidiaries of foreign corporations may face similar limitations. Women may not have the same prospects as men in the corporate setting in the country in which the parent’s headquarters are located. While female attorneys may be employed in the legal department of the foreign headquarters, they may not be able to progress beyond a certain point in the organization. That attitude of male domination tends to bleed into the subsidiary’s corporate structure.

So, to the extent that these external forces are at play in a corporation, they need to be recognized and not be permitted to operate as boundaries or excuses for lack of improvement. General counsel must make a commitment to cultivat ewomen within the legal department and provide them with the same potential for career development as their male counterparts.That undertaking must be clearly articulated to the legal team and the business team that it represents.

This will require buy-in at the highest level—the executive team of the corporation. The general counsel should be an advocate of the benefits of diversity and feel comfortable being the vanguard of those dedicated to gender diversity.

This commitment extends beyond the general counsel. All male and female in-house attorneys should assume responsibility to raise the bar on diversity issues.

The general counsel must be prepared to handle doubts about the capability of the female attorneys on staff. Those doubts are sometimes a subliminal way of a businessman expressing his preference to work with a male attorney. Ask yourself: If the same legal advice were given by a male member of the legal department, would it be second-guessed or questioned? If the answer is no, then coaching and intervention will be necessary on both sides. It is best to be candid with everyone as to why there is some resistance from some business team members when it comes to accepting advice from female attorneys.

In working with outside counsel, the solo general counsel should seek out firms in which female attorneys will be given the occasion to interact with the businesspeople. This will season the business team to become more receptive to accepting legal advice from a female attorney.

The ultimate goal should be that the person selecting the general counsel or the attorneys who occupy in-house positions is gender-blind. The best candidate—irrespective of his or her sex—should be able to assume the top positions in any legal department. However, until this utopia of gender blindness arrives, the ranks of the legal department must be seeded with the right attorneys—male and female—who can function as leaders in diversity and role models to their business partners.

Thomas Lalla

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