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Financial services companies offer women the best shot at heading a large in-house legal department, according to Corporate Counsel’s 2005 survey of Fortune 500 companies. Of the top 25 female general counsel in the survey, ranked by the size of their legal departments, 12 are either at financial companies or insurance companies that offer such services. Companies in the information technology and health care fields were tied for a distant second, with two women in GC positions in each of those categories.
Chart: California’s Top Women GCs

The overall picture is more complicated, with little improvement in the numbers. This year’s 16 new faces were nearly balanced by 14 departures, meaning that the tally of female GCs edged up � but only barely � from 71 last year to 73 this year. As a result, slightly less than 15 percent of Fortune 500 companies nationwide have women heading up their legal staffs. The situation in California is nearly identical to the broader national picture. Among the 52 Fortune 500 companies that are headquartered in California, eight of them � slightly more than 15 percent � include women in the GC position. The news isn’t all negative, though. The survey found that some women were promoted off the chart. Vicki O’Meara rose from GC to executive vice president and chief of corporate operations for Miami-based Ryder System Inc.; Martha Wyrsch, formerly top legal officer at Duke Energy Corp., in Charlotte, N.C., took over as president and CEO of the firm’s Houston subsidiary; and Andrea Zopp traded a job as general counsel of Chicago-based Sears, Roebuck and Co. for the same post at the new parent company, Sears Holdings Corp., which has not yet received a Fortune ranking. Taking a longer view, there are other reasons for optimism. Five years ago, a Fortune 500 survey conducted by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association identified only 43 women heading up major corporate legal staffs. Looking back even further, Helen Pudlin, general counsel at The PNC Financial Services Group Inc. in Pittsburgh, recalls hearing of only a few female GCs when she left private practice in 1989 in favor of in-house work. Four years later, after becoming the top lawyer at her company, Pudlin had still met only a handful of women with comparable jobs. But the number grew, and she predicts that it will continue to do so. “There are lots of women in the pipeline now,” says Pudlin, “in the law schools, in law firm partnerships and in senior positions in legal departments.” Financial services companies offer women stability as well as opportunity. Pudlin and Louise Parent of the New York-based American Express Co. have both held their GC jobs since 1993 � longer than anyone else on this year’s list. Pudlin suggests that these firms have generally more stable upper management than companies in other sectors. Another reason for her own longevity? “It’s a stimulating job,” says Pudlin. “I am never, ever bored.” Sue Reisinger is a senior reporter at Corporate Counsel magazine, which is affiliated with GC California.

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