The Chicago legal community braved the rain and wind yesterday evening to attend an enlightening and entertaining event celebrating the launch of “Courageous Counsel: Conversations with Women General Counsel in the Fortune 500,” by Michele Coleman Mayes, executive vice president and general counsel of Allstate Insurance Co., and SNR Denton Partner Kara Baysinger.
Attendees convened at Rhapsody, a restaurant in Chicago’s Loop, and were greeted with complimentary copies of Mayes’ and Baysinger’s book, which details the experiences and achievements of dozens of women general counsel in the Fortune 500.
“The book was a project that was a great idea that snowballed,” Baysinger explained. “We interviewed 50 current or former women GCs in the Fortune 500 and asked them what it took to get there and what opportunities they found along the way.”
After a cocktail reception, Mayes and Baysinger led a panel discussion with three of the book’s featured women: Susan Lichtenstein, chief legal officer and senior vice president of corporate affairs at Hill-Rom Services Inc.; Fran Edwardson, the CEO of the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago; and Mary Ann Hynes, senior vice president, GC, corporate secretary and chief compliance officer at Corn Products International Inc.
Although the women of “Courageous Counsel” are celebrating the book’s launch nationwide, the Chicago event was particularly meaningful.
“The greatest number of women GCs in the country are in the Midwest, including Mary Ann Hynes, the first woman GC of a Fortune 500 company,” Mayes said. Hynes became GC of Commerce Clearinghouse in 1979 when she was 32 years old, Mayes noted.
To begin, the panelists discussed their unique paths to becoming GCs. They emphasized the fact that while all their paths were different, their success largely depended on courage, risk-taking and advice from mentors, for whom the panelists noted women lawyers should always be on the lookout.
“When looking for mentors, don’t always look for people who are higher than you,” noted Mayes. “You don’t have to be over me to be able to help me.”
Hynes said that when she was first starting out in her career, she made a point to attend as many events as possible to network with possible mentors. “Make sure you go the extra mile,” she said. “You don’t know who you’ll connect with.”
Lichtenstein, who refers to her path as a “career spaghetti bowl,” advised attendees not to worry about their meandering paths to success. “Take your best shot as it comes along at every step of the way,” she said.
During a Q&A session after the panel discussion, an attendee asked the panelists for advice on fitting into boardrooms. The panelists agreed that women GCs should make the most of the fact that they stand out in the largely male-dominated law profession. “But don’t necessarily give them what they expect,” noted Edwardson.