External programs work to prepare diverse lawyers for leadership positions

There may be hope yet on the horizon for diversity in legal departments

The Minority Corporate Counsel Association’s (MCCA) recent report on diversity in general counsel and chief legal officer positions revealed that things may be looking up. More women than ever served as Fortune 500 general counsel in 2011, accounting for 21 percent of the top legal positions in Fortune 500 companies (108 general counsel and chief legal officers). With respect to minorities, 2011 was the most diverse year in the survey’s history; 90 were white/Caucasian, 11 were African-American, four were Hispanic, two were Asian/Pacific Islanders and one was Middle Eastern.

Looking ahead, the critical piece of the puzzle will be sustainability, progress and the increase of these numbers—not fluctuation, stagnation or regression. In my last article ("Planning for the success of diverse attorneys"), I cited research from the Corporate Counsel Women of Color (CCWC) report that found that women of color have career aspirations to become division general counsel, chief legal officers and heads of business units. But, there are some unfortunate realities—equal access to quality work assignments, training, development, mentorship, succession planning and access to management are not readily available at corporations because of institutional barriers.

Although corporations as a whole may be slow in resolving many of these problems, what gives me hope is that external organizations are proactively stepping in to fill the gap.

Stasia Kelly, former general counsel of AIG and partner at DLA Piper, is working with InsideCounsel on Project 5/165. The goal of Project 5/165 is to increase the number of women general counsel in the Fortune 500 to 165 (from the current number of 108) within five years. Project 5/165 will achieve this goal by identifying top women leaders in legal departments and providing them with executive leadership development training.

For the first time, at its eighth annual conference in Chicago (Oct. 10-12), CCWC will launch its “General Counsel Training Boot Camp” and “MBA In-a-Day for Lawyers.” The program “How to Do an M&A Deal: From A-Z” is designed to broaden and strengthen the portfolio of knowledge for women of color. Individuals who may be slotted into one specific practice area and/or department at their companies will walk away from the program with an understanding of various practice areas including corporations, mergers and acquisitions, litigation, class actions, labor and employment, and intellectual property. Through the use of hypothetical scenarios, the program also will provide an in-depth overview of accounting and corporate finance principles. Finally, the program will feature a “C-Suite Exchange” where Fortune 500 executives including Samuel R. Allen, chairman and CEO of Deere & Co., will share C-suite perspectives.

The benefits of these two programs for diverse attorneys, who may not get such opportunities within their current companies, are plentiful. They will provide participants with access to new practice areas, give them the opportunity to interface with senior executives such as the CEO, provide understanding of the financial decision-making process and enable them to learn what really drives the business, corporation and shareholder value.

This approach of access and exposure makes so much sense, and the ultimate beneficiary will be the corporation. A wellrounded attorney, who has acquired a breadth of knowledge and business understanding, will be able to provide enhanced legal services to business clients and will be a key contributor in making the legal department an even stronger and integral player in the corporation. When diverse attorneys are afforded opportunities to be all they can be—without barriers—everyone is a winner.

Laurie N. Robinson is senior vice president and assistant general counsel at CBS Corp. and founder and CEO of Corporate Counsel Women of Color.

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Laurie Robinson

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