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Sep 17, 2020

General counsel diversity progress is mixed, survey finds

Almost a third of general counsel at Fortune 1000 companies were women in 2019, compared to just 12 percent in 2004

There were record numbers of women and members of minority racial and ethnic groups among the ranks of general counsel at the largest US companies last year – but the picture of increasing diversity is not clear-cut, according to a new survey.

The Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) finds that 29 percent of general counsel at Fortune 1000 companies were women last year, compared to just 12 percent in 2004. The 2019 total is an increase of 25 women, or 9.4 percent, from 2018.

The number of African American general counsel in the group rose by 6 percent, but the total number is still just 51. The total number of Asian American general counsel increased by nine individuals, a rise of 26 percent from the previous year.

Asian American and Hispanic/Latinx American female general counsel saw the greatest percentage increase in representation between 2018 and 2019 at 46 percent and 40 percent, respectively. But that 40 percent increase in the number of Hispanic/Latinx American female general counsel represents an increase of just two individuals.

There was a decline of 3.9 percent in the number of white male general counsel from 2018 to 2019, which represents a drop of 24 individuals. Hispanic/Latinx American male and white male general counsel are the only racial and ethnic groups where the totals remained the same or reduced slightly.

In addition to looking at total numbers of general counsel from different demographic groups, the MCCA analyzes what it calls ‘opportunities to change.’ In doing so it uses the group of companies that changed general counsel from 2018 to 2019 as representing the base within which each company’s general counsel could have changed from one gender or ethnic group to another.

For example, if a white male general counsel retired in 2019 and an Asian American female was named as his successor the event qualifies as an opportunity for change for two scenarios, being a switch in gender and ethnic group.

In the past year, 784 general counsel positions in the Fortune 1000 remained the same. Among companies where there was a change in the position’s holder, women had 177 opportunities based on vacancies. Thirty-three percent of those positions were filled by women, representing 58 individuals. Minorities were presented with 197 opportunities to fill the position and in 2019 they filled 14 percent of those posts, representing 27 individuals.

In announcing the results, the MCCA says the opportunity for change rating was ‘quite low’ last year, meaning that male general counsel and white general counsel were more likely to be chosen than women and minority candidates when opportunities arose to increase diversity.

‘The data from the 2019 Fortune 1000 [general counsel] survey tells a story of positive progress but missed opportunities,’ MCCA CEO Jean Lee says in a statement. ‘In recent years, Fortune 1000 companies have worked diligently to increase representation of women and minorities at the highest levels. But we cannot rest on our laurels because there is much to be done before representative levels are achieved. We call on companies to demonstrate their corporate leadership and continue the momentum for greater change.’

The association says in the report that the pace of change will increase only if female and minority general counsel are promoted more often at the highest levels within companies. Once a female or minority candidate is picked to become general counsel, the pool from which that person’s successor is selected also becomes more diverse, the group notes.

‘As general counsel, we can be leading that momentum for change by developing a strong pipeline of leaders who are ready to take on the top positions at the largest companies in the US,’ Stu Alderoty, MCCA board chair and general counsel of Ripple, says in a statement.

Ben Maiden

Ben Maiden is the editor-at-large of Governance Intelligence, an IR Media publication, having joined the company in December 2016. He is based in New York. Ben was previously managing editor of Compliance Reporter, covering regulatory and compliance...