Inroads and Challenges to Diversity Remain In Law Firms, Corporate Legal Departments

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By Susan Bokermann

March 16 — “People are able to conceptualize women as GCs” more than they used to, said Angela D. Lageson, senior vice president, general counsel and secretary at Pentair, Ltd.

Jane Sherburne, principal, Sherburne PLLC, and former senior executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of Bank of New York Mellon, agreed that “recently the role of general counsel is more easily imagined by the men who run these big institutions as one that women can fill.” However, she said that women are still “not part of the club.”

“You’re not golfing,” said Sherburne, “so you need to know how to sell yourself.”

“You’re a woman, so you’re different,” said Angela Marianna Freyre, general counsel and senior vice president, Export-Import Bank of the United States, but “I don’t feel that there are limitations other than the ones I impose on myself.”

The attorneys spoke during a March 12 panel at Georgetown Law's Corporate Counsel Institute, titled “Women’s General Counsel Forum.” The panelists discussed the challenges and opportunities presented to women seeking general counsel roles and offered advice from their own experiences. Similar themes arose during another panel at CCI, which addressed diversity initiatives at companies as well as law firms.

Different is OK

During the women's GC forum, Freyre noted that being different, or having a different management style, isn’t an asset or hindrance for women in the GC role. It just means you need to be aware of “who you are and what you want.”

“It’s about the team you pull together,” Freyre said.

She said that to succeed as general counsel, “you have to be right the overwhelming majority of the time.”

Sherburne said women can be very effective in bringing the legal department team together to work as a whole. She said women have a “tremendous capacity to be successful” in this role by utilizing their collaborative skills while “demanding excellence and rigor.”

Getting in the Door

However, it is still tough for women to find their way into GC roles, the panelists warned.

Accordingly, “it can be invaluable to have [a contact] inside the company” when trying to get an in-house job, Lageson said.

“Maintaining contacts” who can help you in the future is extremely important, agreed J. Weili Cheng, senior vice president and deputy general counsel at The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co., LLC. It is “more challenging for women” because they might not have those contacts, she said.

Many of the panelists agreed that experience working in a law firm can be helpful for obtaining a job in-house. Especially if an associate can get a secondment to an in-house department, that’s a “win-win,” Sherburne said. An associate will understand how law firms approach the work, but “you really want to cut your teeth in a business role,” she said.

In-house departments don’t want “issue-spotters,” they want “problem solvers.”

To succeed as a female general counsel, you need to “do your job, do your job well, know your industry, and remember you are not just the lawyer, you are part of the management team,” said Kimberly Heimert, vice president and general counsel, Overseas Private Investment Corp.

Better Representation

Helpfully, women are better represented in the law than other professional areas, said Verna Meyers, founder and president, Verna Myers Consulting Group, LLC. She cited engineering, architecture and science as industries where women are under-represented.

Myers spoke during a related panel at CCI titled “Diversity Initiatives.” The panel discussed the progress made and the barriers that still exist for diversity initiatives in law firms and corporate legal departments.

Unfortunately, despite some progress with gender diversity, the legal profession “still remains the least diverse of all white-collar professions,” said Joseph K. West, president and CEO, Minority Corporate Counsel Association.

Counting to Cultivating

“There needs to be a shift from counting to cultivating,” said Myers. “Representation is not the end of the story.” Myers said there is an important shift happening as companies are looking internally at the culture they are fostering.

Numbers are no longer enough. “Diversity is inviting people to the dance,” said Myers, “inclusion is asking them to dance.”

Rick Meade, vice president and chief legal officer, Prudential Financial Inc., said “the traditions that exist in a law firm run against the grain” for making improvements in diversity. While there is a “lot of good intention, and a lot of activity,” he said we need to “see that translated into real change.”

Some of these changes come from the outside. “Firms respond to client pressure,” said West, so minorities and women need to ensure that clients see the importance of their influence and are paying attention to the diversity within the law firm.

Law firms are also structured in a hierarchical way that “favors a certain way of being,” said Myers. The associates do well who are aggressive and persistent in what they want, but “we are missing great talent because we are only looking for it in one model.”

There is a lack of collaboration in law firms that restrains diversity, West said. There is a “greater premium” placed on collaboration at in-house departments and that translates into greater diversity, he said.

Work on the Gatekeepers

To enhance diversity in law firms, Myers suggested that companies need to commit to the kind of “tutelage it takes to take talented people and turn them into exceptional performers.”

The law firm partners are the “gatekeepers,” said Thomas L. Sager, partner at Ballard Spahr LLP and former general counsel at DuPont Co. He said that as gatekeepers, the partners have the power to determine “who gets in, who stays, and who leaves.”

Myers said these gatekeepers need to be able to visualize their legacy being carried on by “people who look nothing like them.” Moreover, partners should take seriously their roles as mentors and the influence they have over the opportunities presented to their mentees.

The panelists said that mentoring doesn’t end within the law firm environment. When asked how corporate counsel can play a role in furthering diversity in the legal profession, Sager said “we are woefully negligent in reaching out to students.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Susan Bokermann in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Ryan Tuck at