Women made up 49% of Fortune 500 general counsel appointments in 2021
Drive by major US corporates to boost diversity bearing fruit as the remit of GCs also broadens, research finds
The gender balance of general counsel appointments at US Fortune 500 companies reached near parity for the first time last year when 49% of the 59 new GCs unveiled were women.
That near 50/50 balance compared to 42% of the 2020 appointments being female, up from just 28% in 2019, according to the Annual Fortune 500 General Counsel Report by leadership advisory and search firm Russell Reynolds.
The study also highlighted increased churn among top GCs – caused in part by Covid-19 generated pressures – as well as a broadening of their remits with risk management and ESG among additional responsibilities being placed on their shoulders.
The ethnic diversity of the GCs has also increased significantly over the last three years, the report's analysis shows, accounting for 34% of the 2021 appointments, compared to a figure of 24% for all appointments made from 2019 onwards.
‘There is little doubt that this is the result of renewed energy and pressure for progress towards social justice, but also efforts by organisations to use every GC succession as an opportunity to search for a diverse slate of legal talent,’ the report states.
It predicted the trend would increase over the next year thanks to the ‘current cultural moment as well as a strong pipeline of seasoned female in-house legal executives built over many years’.
The growing diversity of the Fortune 500 GCs looks set to increase pressure on their legal advisers to keep pace, helped by initiatives like the Diversity Lab’s Midsize Mansfield Rule Certification programme, which recently announced that 26 law firms had completed an 18-month pilot.
Meanwhile, the total number of new GC appointments also increased to 59 – up from 52 in 2020 – with the report's authors putting the churn down to ‘evolving business models and new demands on leaders’ accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
‘Between this business transformation, the ever-evolving regulatory environment and executives taking stock of work and life priorities, many GCs left their positions,’ the report states.
The report also highlights an expansion of the remit of general counsel as companies sought to retain their best lawyers. It placed corporate secretary, compliance and privacy in the usually included list of additional responsibilities, with regulatory and government affairs, employee health & safety, corporate and public affairs, risk management and sustainability in the often included category.
“As the war for talent continues and the market becomes increasingly competitive, companies looking to attract and retain best in class GCs are expanding the role’s remit to include regulatory and government affairs, risk management, ESG and other areas of responsibility,” the report said.
The findings chimed with the 2022 Chief Legal Officers Survey, published by the Association of Corporate Counsel in partnership with Exterro in February, which found that CLOs are being tasked with the oversight of more functional areas of the business in 2022 than in 2020, including ESG (plus 9%), public and corporate affairs (plus 5%), compliance (plus 4%) and risk (plus 4%).