Survey finds general counsel diversity stalled in 2020

REUTERS/Tingshu Wang
  • The number of minority GCs declined slightly last year, according to the Minority Corporate Counsel Association

(Reuters) - The general counsel ranks at Fortune 1000 companies included 115 racial and ethnic minorities in 2020, a decline of about 2% from the year before, according to a report released Monday.

The Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) surveyed 999 Fortune 1000 companies and found that despite being a period marked with renewed calls for racial equity, there was little progress on diversifying corporate America's top lawyer ranks last year.

With fewer openings in a year roiled by the pandemic, the report said opportunities for minority candidates to land GC roles was limited. The MCCA tracked just 139 open positions in 2020, down more than 35% from 2019. Racially and ethnically underrepresented individuals filled 11.5% of Fortune 1000 general counsel seats, a 1.71% decline.

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There was a net loss of three positions for Black male GCs in 2020, but the number of Black women GCs stayed steady. The number of Hispanic and Latino GCs grew by one net position. Of the 999 GC roles analyzed, 24 could not be fully identified.

The survey noted that given the time it takes to attain a general counsel position, demographic changes can't happen overnight. Hiring diverse candidates for lower-level legal department roles can ensure an intact pipeline, the report said.

The MCCA quoted Victoria Reese, managing partner of executive recruiting firm Heidrick & Struggles' global practice, who said companies have been turning to second-in-commands to fill open GC positions instead of hiring laterally. That trend could put more racial and ethnic minorities in line for the top spot.

“If over the course of the next five years, organizations spend more time developing their number twos, then those people will be hopefully in the next five years in a better position to be promoted within their organization or get a general counsel position in another organization," Sonya Olds Som, another partner at Heidrick & Struggles, said in the report.

The MCCA, which promotes the hiring and retention of diverse lawyers through research and networking, has been collecting demographic data about Fortune 1000 companies’ general counsels since 1999. The industry has made "substantial strides" in that time, Monday's report said, noting that the number of racially and ethnically underrepresented GC has nearly tripled since 2004.

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Chinekwu Osakwe covers legal industry news with a focus on midsize law firms. Reach her at