The number of women general counsel at Fortune 500 companies doubled from 1999 to 2008, according to a new survey published by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association. The study adds to a growing pile of data finding a correlation between businesses that do well and the number of women and minorities at the highest rank of leadership. But do these studies really create any momentum for change?

This report used public documents to count heads at Fortune 500 companies and found there were 44 women general counsel in 1999, 75 by 2005, and 92 by 2008.  An additional 23 were added since 2009. But overall, only 21 percent of general counsel are women or minorities.

“The real impact of this news, hopefully, is that it will illustrate to law firms that corporate law departments are serious about inclusion both in word and in deed, and that the time is coming when law firms need to get serious about it as well,” says MCCA president Joe West.

Much of the research finds that diverse candidates come into law firms because the legal field made an effort to increase diversity at the recruiting level. But these women and minority lawyers don’t have the same opportunities for growth and advancement as their non-diverse peers, West says (either at law firms or private companies). Any time he sees research illustrating an increase in numbers of minorities and women at the top of the food chain, it bodes well for diversity not only as a recruiting tool, but as a method for inclusion and retention, he says.

“And that’s where the rubber meets the road.”

Dr. Arin Reeves, a leading expert on diversity in the legal world whose consulting firm Nextions frequently advises law firms on diversity, says all of these reports do a great job counting heads—but the MCCA report in particular helps to show where the increases are happening.

The numbers of female and minority lawyers are increasing in corporate legal departments, which researchers can quantify in public companies because of the transparency requirements put on them by government and the accountability required by consumers and shareholders, Dr. Reeves says.

“So what are the areas of our profession that have no transparency, no accountability, and no oversight?” Dr. Reeves asks. “Law firms.”

The percentage of minority lawyers at the nation’s top 100 firms was 13.6 percent in 2011, according The American Lawyer’s diversity scorecard (The American Lawyer is a sibling publication to Corporate Counsel).

Raymond Ocampo Jr. is former general counsel for Oracle Corporation. He retired in 1996, but has written several books since, as well as an article on about Oracle’s outside counsel retention policy that was “designed to eliminate law firm excuses for not assigning women and minority attorneys to legal matters.” In the article, “On Hiring Women and Minority Attorneys: One General Counsel’s Perspective,” Ocampo recalls a story told to him by a minority lawyer with sparkling credentials:

As with most “stars,” he encountered few if any problems at his law firm—until his firm’s retreat in which there was a role-playing exercise during sensitivity training on diversity. He played an associate in a case in which the inside lawyer tells the partner to make sure that he does not assign a minority to the case. In this role-playing, the partner said, “Of course!”, and assigned the case to someone else.

The associate afterwards asked the partner whether he was serious. He could not believe that the partner would act in real life the way he acted in the role-playing session. The partner replied matter-of-factly, “If the client tells me not to hire a minority attorney, I won’t hire one.” He was not joking. “Don’t you realize what you’re doing?” the associate asked. “Yes. I’m doing what the client wants me to do.”

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