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Poised for prominence

100 women who are ready to take on the role of GC in the next three years

(From left to right:) Rae Ann Dankovic, senior vice president, Nationwide Financial Legal; Sandra L. Neely, senior vice president and deputy general counsel; Patricia R. Hatler, executive vice president, chief legal and governance officer; Sandra L. Rich, senior vice president and chief compliance officer; and Linda Lu, vice president and chief litigation officer

Last year InsideCounsel introduced its first R3-100 roundup—a list of 100 women who will likely be ready in three years to become general counsel in the Fortune 500. The R3-100 program evolved from InsideCounsel's Women, Influence and Power in Law (WIPL) network, which encompasses a series of women-focused initiatives, including the Transformative Leadership Awards, which honor those committed to advancing women and minorities in the legal profession; Project 5/165, which aims to promote placement of women as Fortune 500 GCs, with the goal of raising the percentage of women in the GC role to 30 percent within five years; and, of course, the WIPL conference itself, which will be held in September in Washington, D.C.

With the help of executive recruitment firms BarkerGilmore; Major, Lindsey & Africa; Heidrick & Struggles and Evers Legal, we compiled this year's list of 100 women poised to assume the position of GC in the next three years. These women are “humble geniuses,” according to Sara Sullivan, senior director of recruiting at BarkerGilmore, meaning they possess the qualities needed to be a successful GC candidate but are often so involved in their current roles that they are not actively looking to advance themselves.

“In our experience—and this will undoubtedly sound a bit ‘Lean In-esque’—high performers, like the women on the R3-100 list, tend to be the least active in the marketplace. While ambitious, they are often heads down, consumed with performing well in their current roles,” explains Sullivan. “The personal and professional balancing acts that these women juggle on a daily basis may be so intense that little time is left over for meaningful consideration of that pivotal next step to the top legal position of a Fortune 500 company.”

While many women named to this authoritative list may think that becoming GC is a distant 10- to 15-year goal, it could be a viable achievement in three years, Sullivan says.

In fact, more than 20 percent of general counsel in the Fortune 500 are women, with five women named to the post in 2014 alone, based on data from Navigant Consulting.

The ideal GC candidate

Most of the women on the R3-100 list are direct reports to their general counsel and manage at least three to four lawyers, while others are already general counsel at smaller companies. But that's just the beginning of what qualifies them to be named to this prestigious roster. Members of the R3-100 list must also have frequent contact with the executive suite, ongoing interaction with the board and unsurpassed leadership skills.

Given the breadth of experience required in the modern profile of the GC role, it is not surprising that individuals aged 60 and older hold approximately 25 percent of these positions in the Fortune 500—but that also means greater opportunity is on the horizon for aspiring general counsel.

“Clearly, there are a finite number of Fortune 500 GC spots that will become available in the United States over the next 10 years. Listen for them,” advises Sullivan. She also offers the following pointers:

  • Be open to hearing about these high-level roles, even if they don't initially sound like the ideal industry or location.

  • Begin to network with the right people.

  • Put yourself on the radar of other top legal professionals, mentors and executive recruiters.

  • Make time. Yes, you are chronically busy, but please don't be your own worst enemy by failing to put in the necessary groundwork to ensure your ascent to the top.

  • Finally, find inspiration in envisioning yourself in that coveted GC role. When all is said and done, only you can make it happen.

“Other than making sure women are aware that gender bias still exists in the interview process, the only truly productive answer is for everyone to address the issue head-on with the people at the top who perpetuate these biases,” adds Sullivan. “Unfortunately, as we all know, this is often easier said than done in business.”

Paving the way for development

After noting that at least two women on this year's R3-100 list were from the same company—and given that five of its top in-house legal leaders are women—we went straight to the source to see what Nationwide Mutual Insurance is doing to be on the cutting edge of professional development for women in law.

In an interview with Patricia R. Hatler, executive vice president, chief legal and governance officer of Nationwide Mutual Insurance, she explains why the time is ripe for women in the legal industry to rise to the top ranks within the nation's largest law departments.

“Over the years since I started practicing, many more women have charted leadership roles in the profession than was the case a generation ago—women attorneys now serve on the nation's highest courts, in senior rain-making positions in law firms, in cabinet roles in government, in powerful political positions, in leadership positions in the legal profession, and in leadership roles in corporate in-house practice,” says Hatler.

She also says it is easier today for female attorneys to see role models and to imagine themselves in a myriad of career roles.

“I also think the historically male-dominated profession is more comfortable envisioning women in all sorts of roles that would have been unimaginable for many lawyers several decades ago. All of this should open doors to women and enable women to achieve their career goals,” Hatler adds.

In addition to the external development programs Nationwide's Office of the Chief Legal and Governance Officer (OCLO) offers, the OCLO also provides two internal executive development tracks—Insight and the OCLO Leader Forum—focused on leadership development. Of the Insight OCLO participants, 48 percent were women and 21 percent were from diverse backgrounds.

“The Nationwide Insight program has several noticeable impacts. First, it gives folks more robust self-knowledge and understanding. That alone often can improve performance and career planning,” Hatler explains. “Second, it exposes strong lawyers to the perspectives of the non-legal executives they support. Finally, it forces lawyers to think about issues of good management and people leadership—skills that certainly are not part of most legal training curriculum.”

While Hatler says she has not focused specifically on hiring women, her experience has been that a large percentage of the legal talent pool has been women.

“I have never focused particularly on hiring women. Instead, I focused on hiring really talented, able professionals,” she says. “I have found that when I bring that lens to hiring and promoting, a significant portion of the strong candidates are women. Women benefit from our development programs in the same ways that men do.”

Practicing what they preach

An example of Hatler's hiring approach can be found in her appointment of Linda Lu, vice president and chief litigation officer at Nationwide Insurance, who started with the company in March 2013 as one of four new direct reports to Hatler. Lu's team has 55 attorneys and staff members who are responsible for managing all corporate litigation.

After Hatler formed the new senior executive legal team last year, she developed a year-long integration plan aimed at supporting individual development as well as teamwide integration, which is evidenced by the women's abilities to take a step back and see what it takes to get the job done, she says.

“As more women reach top-level positions, we can support each other's success. Also, as more men are raised by (and married to) working mothers, and more leaders have daughters who want to have careers, men learn to appreciate the strength of women and our ability to multitask and succeed in many environments,” comments Lu. “They begin to understand the value we bring to all successes, including the success of men.”

Lu, who was part of the inaugural R3-100 list, says that business and political acumen, good judgment and the ability to have difficult conversations calmly are the traits of any successful GC. But for women, the quest to attain the top legal spot can be filled with greater pressures when it comes to juggling work/life responsibilities.

“Women still put undue pressure on themselves to be ‘superwomen.’ Women feel guilty taking a business call during a child's soccer game, while men give themselves credit just for showing up at the game,” Lu says. “And, by the way, so do the other moms and dads at the game—they judge us the same way. Another difference is that fewer women have supporting spouses or partners who have the quiet confidence to be the primary caregiver and house manager.”

Taking a page from the approach she applied to advance her own career, Lu advises that women lawyers aspiring to develop their careers find, nurture and grow mentors and understand corporate culture and politics.

“I actively engage in several initiatives to grow the legal pipeline to the next generation of legal leaders for both women and minorities,” explains Lu. “For example, I actively participate in national boards or committees, as well as speaking panels, for the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association and Minority Corporate Counsel Association. I am also a fellow for the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity. I am on the R3-100 and participated in WIPL and Project 5/165. When I joined Nationwide a year ago, I was assigned a buddy in the legal department and a mentor on the senior leadership team. Understanding and appreciating the corporate culture and politics are important to one's success.”

Lateral growth

Rae Ann Dankovic, senior vice president, Nationwide Financial Legal, and a member of this year's R3-100 list, says that she has taken a holistic approach to advancing her career, from participating in formal training programs to accepting lateral career moves when she saw a long-term benefit.

“In addition to embracing a variety of formal leadership development opportunities over the years, I have also accepted a few internal moves in my career that were not initially comfortable, but definitely positively impacted my career. I learned early on that a title was not as important as the experience a role could provide, and lateral moves are important to gain perspective,” she says. “I have accepted lateral moves and transplant moves that have helped me grow as an attorney and a leader.”

Noting a recent Forbes article that looked at some of the hurdles women face that their male counterparts do not, Dankovic says the theme that struck her was that corporate culture is still evolving.

“On the whole, women have a different style and approach than men, and those differences are not yet embraced and embedded in the culture. The article explained that oftentimes, women's priorities and styles may clash with the dominant culture, especially if traits like connection, empathy and consensus-building are misconstrued as a ‘less-than’ leadership style,” says Dankovic. “That is why I am proud that Pat (Hatler) has made diversity training a high priority for our office. In addition to hosting regular learning events, our Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) Council also sponsors an annual Diversity Coaching Program in which pairs of leaders and associates work together to explore a D&I topic. We are seeing the results: growth in embracing differences and understanding that it is diversity and difference that makes us stronger.”

Relationships matter

As the duality of the general counsel role of both legal adviser and business partner continues to expand, there are several important qualities aspiring GCs need to make sure they have, according to Sandra L. Rich, senior vice president and chief compliance officer of Nationwide Insurance.

“First and foremost, an aspiring general counsel needs to have strong leadership skills. At the general counsel level, it's about getting work done primarily through others. Identifying top talent and nurturing and developing that talent is critical,” explains Rich.

“It's also important to really understand the businesses you support. To be truly effective, a general counsel needs to help her business partners accomplish their business goals while at the same time managing legal and regulatory risk. It can't just be about pointing out these risks to the business. Our job is to help the business get things done.”

While the statistics show slow (but steady) growth for women in the legal industry—and in senior executive positions in general—Rich says the fact that there are more women in the legal profession today than when she first started practicing necessitates that more women will advance in their careers.

“My first job out of law school was with a large firm. It was not at all unusual for me to be the only woman in a meeting or working on a project. Today, it's rare if I’m the only woman in a room. But the improved environment for women is not just about the numbers,” explains Rich. “More organizations today truly understand the value of diversity in the workplace. Getting a variety of perspectives from a diverse group of people, whether that diversity is based on gender, race, thinking styles, etc., leads to broader and better ideas. The desire for a more diverse workplace leads to greater opportunities for everyone, including women.”

Drive for the job

Besides having the talent, experience and legal skills to become a general counsel, aspring GCs also need to have a drive for the job, explains Sandra L. Neely, senior vice president and deputy general counsel of Nationwide.

“You need that drive because often it takes sacrifices over and above the ones that every in-house lawyer has to make. It may mean moving across the country for a new job, or taking on new assignments with your current employer that are risky and challenging. You can't just stay in your current role, do a good job and expect to be elevated,” says Neely. “Finally, you need to be a good people person; to develop relationships with clients, peers and subordinates but also be able to make tough decisions and act on them.”

2014 R3-100

Editor in Chief

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Erin E. Harrison

Erin E. Harrison is the Editor in Chief of InsideCounsel magazine. Harrison’s professional background includes extensive expertise in both print and online media, highlighted by...

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