Megan Belcher, vice president and chief employment counsel for ConAgra Foods
Megan Belcher, vice president and chief employment counsel for ConAgra Foods

If you are inside counsel, chances are you got your professional start at a law firm. And chances are, if you are a female in-house counsel, you have come face-to-face with the difficulty that exists in aspiring to attain a legal leadership position by embarking on a career trajectory within the confined culture of a law firm with old-fashioned roots.

Today, there are women running the legal affairs of 106 major American corporations, nearly double the number from 2001. While significant progress has been made in the last decade-plus, there is much more work to be done. In the legal industry, there has been a groundswell of support for the InsideCounsel-sponsored initiative known as Women, Influence and Power in Law (WIPL). Last fall, the group held its first conference in Washington, D.C., and since has been gaining momentum from a series of related projects and events that are generating a national following.

One of the women at the forefront of this movement is Megan Belcher, vice president and chief employment counsel for Omaha, Neb.-based ConAgra Foods. Belcher recently launched a group called “Drinks Among Friends,” (DAF) a a networking coalition of women aimed at helping other women advance in their careers by “sharing the power” through female in-house counsel giving work to female outside counsel.

“After WIPL I wanted to help drive some change, other than mentoring my own team [at ConAgra],” explains Belcher. “I was thinking about why women fall out in such greater numbers and was noodling around this idea of women helping women. I partnered with other women to host the first event in Omaha on February 26. We invited people and asked them to bring a ‘go-to’ woman lawyer from a firm that they could introduce.”

The genesis for DAF is modeled after a similar group called “Dinner Among Friends,” which includes approximately 25 female GCs representing a broad swath of industries. The concept is the same: Each member—most of whom manage legal budgets—brings a female law partner as a guest.

Belcher’s late-winter invitation resulted in a gathering of about 50 women. Colleen Batcheler, executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of ConAgra Foods, kicked off the event by talking about some of the statistics regarding women in the legal industry. Batcheler told the in-house women in attendance, “You are consumers in your personal life, but you are also consumers in your professional life,” and asked them to commit to finding a woman in that room to give work to, recalls Belcher.

Sharing the power

At the event, Belcher and company imbibed their shared experiences, mixing spirited conversation with the spirit of female empowerment and making a commitment to give work to other female counsel.

“Everyone likes working with someone they already know and are comfortable with; I got my job because someone was willing to take a gamble on me,” adds Belcher. “We all need someone to take a gamble on us sometimes. It is a big deal to someone in a law firm. Doing little things like that can make a big deal happen, or turn into a relationship for that matter,” says Belcher. “I don’t think anyone is actively thinking about the idea of ‘I am going to give business to women,’ but that is how we are going affect change in the legal services environment.”

Moving forward, Belcher plans to hold quarterly DAF cocktail hours and roll out a “mini MBA” program that encompasses a bigger scale networking opportunity for women to develop their business acumen.

Another women’s leadership initiative, Project 5/165, aims to promote placement of women as Fortune 500 GCs, with the goal of raising the percentage of women in the GC role to 30 percent. The project is one of seven specific initiatives within the WIPL network.

“There is incredible momentum behind the program, there is so much support and inertia and excitement around it,” says Belcher. “I think it’s an ambitious goal. Two things need to happen to get us there: We need the full support of Fortune 500 leadership, and we need to effectively deploy the principles of 5/165 to the women who are ready now or will be ready to become GC in that time period.”

Ripe for opportunity

Given the large number of GCs in their 60s, Angela Spivey, a partner at McGuireWoods in Atlanta, who co-hosted the event with Belcher, agrees that the industry has approached a new era of opportunity for women counsel.

“It’s never too early for women who aspire to become general counsel to put themselves on a career trajectory that prepares them to succeed the increasing number of general counsel approaching retirement,” Spivey says. “By that, I mean get to know these late-career general counsels, show interest and respect in what they do, cultivate relationships with them, and find ways to make their work lives easier.”

“If you think about the number of GCs who are getting ready to retire, it’s ripe for opportunity,” adds Belcher.

Across industries, it’s been a generational climb for women to get to the top of an organization. In the legal industry—a highly male-dominated field—progress has seemed even slower.

“If you think about the legacy of women who grew up in the 1980s and ‘90s, it was a completely different world. I think about how much the landscape has changed in even just the last 13 years I have been practicing. It takes a long time to turn a very big ship,” says Belcher.

The “sharing the power” movement is not only about women edging their way into the male-dominated C-suite; it also takes a reciprocal effort on the part of women to include men in their circles, too, according to Rebecca Gregory, general attorney at Union Pacific, who participated in the Omaha DAF event.

“Women need to be allowed into the men’s club; men need to be allowed in the women’s club, too. I think a lot of women get derailed since they also carry a lot of responsibility at home. We have to make men feel comfortable so there is a true partnership at home,” Gregory advises. “The women that have the biggest problems with that don’t have true equal partnerships at home. Women are taking more responsibility and not sharing it with men.”

Sandy Maass, associate general counsel at Mutual of Omaha Insurance Company, another DAF member, used the inaugural event as an opportunity to introduce her outside counsel guests to other in-house counsel. For those looking to climb the ladder in the legal department, Maass says women need to be more than legal experts; they also need to achieve a high level of business acumen.

“You need to learn the business; you need to develop the difference between giving business advice or legal advice and respecting the business person’s ability to run the business with the advice you give them,” Maass says.

Drinks Among Friends also resulted in a published directory of women in the legal industry to help accelerate the ideal of “sharing the power.”

“The way for this initiative to evolve would be for more in-house counsel to come and meet with outside counsel and have more women supporting women through utilizing legal services,” adds Maass. “To the extent that there is a qualified female, I would be more than happy to do so.”