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For the second year running, women comprise 13 percent of the general counsel at Fortune 500 companies.

At first blush this statistic, in our second special report on women GCs, hardly seems cause for celebration. Given that women have made up over 40 percent of the nation’s graduating law school classes for close to two decades, the figure seems underwhelming. And this year’s Fortune 500 roster actually contains two fewer female GCs than it did a year ago (down from 67 to 65). So it’s safe to assume that the explanations we found for last year’s disparity (flat-out sexism, a hiring system run by “old-boy networks,” the demands of family obligations) are still hampering women’s advancement.

But it’s certainly not all doom and gloom for women lawyers. Last year’s figure actually reflected that women were, in fact, making steady gains. As recently as 1999, for instance, only 9.6 percent of the GCs in the Fortune 500 were female, according to Catalyst, Inc., a New York�based research organization.

And the stagnant economy undoubtedly weighed down this year’s numbers. The Chapter 11 filings of Kmart Corporation and US Airways Group, Inc., led, in part, to the departures of Janet Kelley and Michelle Bryan, two prominent female GCs. AMR Corporation’s Anne McNamara retired in the midst of that carrier’s troubles.

And in lackluster economic climates, there’s typically not a lot of job-hopping. So the past year saw few opportunities for women to leap into vacated, high-profile roles.

Rather, in 2003, it seems that the best way to become a female Fortune 500 GC has been to hitch your wagon to a rising star. Ace Hardware Corporation hired Donna Flenard in 1988, and she stayed with the company as it rode into the Fortune 500 ranks this year for the first time. Starbucks Corporation last summer hired Paula Boggs away from a deputy spot at Dell Computer Corporation, just as the ubiquitous coffee retailer was breaking into the elite group. Guidant Corporation, WellChoice, Inc., and Asbury Automotive Group, Inc., all with female GCs, finally climbed on to the list, too, this year.

And don’t be surprised if by next year, Electronic Arts Inc. and the woman on our cover, their GC, Ruth Kennedy, make the same ascent.