Top Women Lawyers in the Fortune 500

Top Women Lawyers in the Fortune 500 Jordan Hollender Katherine Adams, chief legal counsel of Honeywell International

Browse our interactive chart of women who lead the legal departments at Fortune 500 companies.

Note: The chart listing the top women lawyers in the Fortune 500 failed to include Audrey Stauss, chief legal officer of Alcoa Inc., and incorrectly included (Mr.) Kim Brunner from State Farm. The total number of top legal officers the article reports, however, is still accurate.

Aerospace products, automation and high technology, transportation systems—can a woman be a successful general counsel at such a “hard-hat” company? Katherine “Kate” Adams, senior vice president and GC at Honeywell International Inc., is living proof that one can.

At 49, Adams is atop a rising wave of women who are becoming the top lawyers at Fortune 500 companies. She joined Honeywell in 2003, working her way up from deputy general counsel for litigation to three years as general counsel of one of Honeywell’s major business divisions, performance materials and technologies. And then she was promoted to general counsel in late 2008.

She makes it all sound so easy. Her previous practice—in environmental law at Sidley Austin Brown & Wood—gave her experience working with oil companies and other traditionally male-dominated industries. So, she says, Honeywell was a comfortable fit. “It didn’t feel alien to me,” Adams recalls. “And these traditionally heavily engineering companies have a more diverse perspective, and are more open to promoting women.”

Decades ago, women lawyers faced tougher prospects. When CCH Inc., an information service provider, promoted Mary Ann Hynes to general counsel in 1979, the company probably didn’t realize it was kicking off a major trend in hiring. Hynes was the first woman to serve as GC at a Fortune 500 company, but dozens more soon joined her. By 1999, the Fortune 500 touted 44 female GCs, according to the first annual survey of women in the job by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA).

As more women entered law schools once barred to them—the last gender barrier dropped in 1970—the GC numbers kept rising. By 2004, MCCA listed 75 women GCs of top corporations. And five years later, that figure swelled to 86, and then to 106 in 2014, according to the latest numbers compiled by Corporate Counsel. (Corporate Counsel counts only companies where the top legal officer is a woman, whether her title is general counsel or chief legal officer.)

Today, women are leading the legal departments at 21 percent of Fortune 500 companies, compared with 17 percent in 2009 and only 15 percent a decade ago. And one of them, Karen Roberts at Wal-Mart Stores Inc., heads the legal team at the nation’s largest corporation. In fact, there are four women GCs in the top 17 companies—nearly 25 percent.

Clearly, these statistics show solid progress. “It’s a positive trend,” Adams notes. “I wish it were faster, but at least it’s going in the right direction. I think at a very broad level, legal training has been more egalitarian and has created more opportunities for women” than have other professions.

Agreeing with that assessment is Joseph West, MCAA’s president and chief executive, and onetime in-house counsel at Wal-Mart. West admits that the numbers “at first blush are not as high as you might hope or expect, considering that nearly half of all law school graduates are now women. ” But like Adams, he recognizes the long-term results, noting, “ The increase has been steady, and the trend is very positive, very strong.”

Women lawyers have been moving in-house for a variety of reasons. Professor Joan Williams, founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, says that many women who entered law firms and wanted to have children found a better work-life balance at corporations that offered eight-hour workdays. Also, she says, 20 years ago, going in-house was seen as less prestigious than being in private practice. “It was seen as a second choice, and therefore open to women,” Williams explains.

But times have changed, Williams notes, and today a quest for diversity can push a company to seek a woman GC. Lee Udelsman, managing partner at the executive search firm Major, Lindsey & Africa, explains there’s a much lower percentage of women chief executives and chief financial officers, about 4 percent of CEOs and about 11 percent of CFOs. So hiring a female GC, Udelsman says, “is an opportunity to inject some diversity into the C-suite.”

Whatever the reasons for the increase, some critics still see a glass more than three-quarters empty. And behind the sheer numbers lie several worrisome details for women. For one thing, the percentage of female GCs in the Fortune 501 to 1000 tier is a lowly 17 percent, though that percentage also has been rising through the years. And last year, for the first time in history, the number of Fortune 500 women GCs dipped slightly from the previous year—by three.

No one is sure why, but it wasn’t for lack of openings. Ten percent of large organizations started 2014 with a new general counsel in place, according to the BTI Consulting Group. BTI said it was the largest change in GC leadership in the 13 years it has been doing the benchmarking survey.

Yet, West and others still emphasize the brighter side of the numbers. For example, West says women lawyers are making more career progress in-house than they are in major law firms. Female partners in U.S. law firms have been hovering around 19 percent for the last five years. “And equity partners drop precipitously, to about 3 percent,” he adds.

Another bright spot is that some women GCs are crashing through glass ceilings to become CEOs or members of boards of directors. And others, like Adams, continue breaking out of traditional industries to move into the hard-hat realm. Adams says about half of Honeywell’s 250-lawyer legal department is female, and its huge aerospace division also has a woman general counsel.

Gender is just not an issue, Adams says. “I find the atmosphere very results-oriented, just get the job done,” she adds. “In that way, big industrial companies with that clarity of purpose may actually be easier [for women].”

Clearly, women GCs are no longer being tied down to the “softer” companies. Connie Collingsworth, general counsel of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, says she meets many women in-house counsel in what were once viewed as traditionally male industries. “I don’t think you can peg them into just human resources or health care any more,” Collingsworth says.

Besides Honeywell, four other major aerospace and defense contractors sport women general counsel. And United States Steel Corp. recently named Suzanne Rich Folsom as GC, while Deere & Co. last year picked Mary K.W. Jones to lead its legal team. And they join dozens of other women GCs in the once all-male domains of oil companies, industrial machinery firms, railroads and big gas and electric utilities [see chart showing industry groups on page 96].

One such GC, Ivonne Cabrera, didn’t flinch when she was asked to leave an in-house job at Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. and join heavy industry as a deputy GC in 2004. Last year, Cabrera was promoted to senior vice president and general counsel at the company, Dover Corp., a manufacturer of diversified machinery near Chicago. She found the 2004 transition from drugs to machinery relatively simple. “For me, it was learning how a winch works rather than how a pharmaceutical compound works,” she says.

The progress that women are making in the field of law encourages Cabrera. But she, too, would like to see women represented in corporations in numbers more similar to law school enrollments, especially as CEOs and directors. “Women GCs are ascending at a faster pace,” Cabrera notes, “and I’m not sure why that is.”

A few observers suggest the answer is stereotyping. Last year, in an article in Chicago Business titled “Why the General Counsel’s Job Is Becoming Women’s Work,” Carrie Hightman and others questioned the higher percentage of female GCs over other executives. Hightman, general counsel at NiSource Inc., said she was the only woman in her Indiana company’s C-suite.

She needn’t feel lonely. The article went on to say that nine of the 25 largest Chicago public companies listed female general counsel, but only three other senior-level women. “This is my pet peeve,” Hightman said.

But is stereotyping really to blame? Cabrera, for one, doesn’t think so. The GC job is different, more complex and more important today than it was 15 years ago, she says. So employers can’t take a chance on someone solely for the sake of gender diversity. Cabrera and Udelsman both say that law schools are filling the pipeline with female talent. “There’s really a lot of highly, highly qualified female lawyers out there right now,” Udelsman stresses.

The position hasn’t gotten softer, insists Collingsworth. There was a time, she says, when some women might have said, “I don’t want to be partner or a rainmaker, so I’ll just go in-house.” But that’s not true today, and especially not true of a general counsel, she adds. “The role of the general counsel has evolved to be a strategic adviser to the CEO,” she says. “Few other positions can see all the issues from that broad of a perspective.”

Honeywell’s Adams also disagrees with the gender stereotyping theory. She sees it as more of a “professional pathway” choice made by men as well as women. If you want to be a CEO, “basically you have to have run a business to get there,” she points out. “If you come up as a lawyer … you’re probably not going to have that kind of experience” regardless of gender.

The next five years or so could tell us much more about women GC’s progress. If MCCA’s Workplace 2020 study of Generation Y attorneys (born after 1980) is any guide, the future will be an increasingly diverse one. MCCA says the data marked a generational trend when a majority of Gen Y-ers said that a diverse legal profession is important, regardless of whether such a priority would benefit them personally.

For Adams, the future means that women need to work harder. The more that women can become successful GCs, she says, they pave the way for more female CEOs, CFOs and directors. “I don’t think we can rest until representation at the senior-most levels in companies and law firms are more representative of the profession,” Adams stresses.

No one agrees more than the Gates Foundation’s Collingsworth. She spoke in January at the DirectWomen Board Institute’s program that grooms selected women lawyers—many of them veteran GCs—to be directors. The percentage of women on public company boards has hovered around 15 to 16 percent for the past three years with little progress, Collingsworth notes. “There are a lot of qualified women lawyers out there, some who have advised CEOs in the boardroom, and who are lifting up their heads and saying, ‘Don’t I belong there as much as anyone else?’” she says.

The future also holds the answer to another important question: Was last year’s dip in women GCs an anomaly or the beginning of a new trend? Williams, the law professor who has a forthcoming book (“What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Every Woman Should Know,” NYU Press), notes the expanding role and importance of GCs these days. Although she has not studied the issue, Williams says she believes “going in-house has shifted sharply [up] on the prestige-o-meter. I suspect more men are heading in-house, and that could help explain the stall” in last year’s number of women GCs. If her suspicion is correct, 2015′s numbers could bring gloomy news for women.

But Udelsman, who specializes in searching for qualified general counsel, isn’t worried. He doesn’t expect the number of women GCs to level off or decrease. He even hazards a bold prediction. “Probably in the next five years or so, one-third of all Fortune 500 general counsel will be women,” he says. “And it will keep increasing.” There are so many talented women lawyers out there.