Nicole Seligman
Nicole Seligman

Nicole Seligman recently getting named president of Sony Entertainment is not just a major achievement for the lawyer turned corporate leader, who has represented the likes of Bill Clinton and Oliver North. It shows, too, how general counsel (Seligman first came to Sony as GC) can get promoted to higher management levels. Yet, it is also a reminder how many women attorneys have yet to achieve their career goals.

But first to Seligman who later this month, will have three titles at Sony: president of both Sony Corporation of America and Sony Entertainment and senior legal counsel at Sony Group.

She is apparently giving up her current responsibilities as GC, but remains a member of Sony’s Group Executive Committee. She has been president of Sony Corporation of America since June 2012.

Seligman first came to Sony in 2001, after working as a partner at Williams & Connolly in Washington, D.C.

“Nicole is terrific – one of the best partners this firm has ever had,” Robert Barnett, one of the firm’s most prominent senior partners and member of its Executive Committee, said in a statement to InsideCounsel. “She is creative, analytic, brilliant, and a real leader. She will do a fabulous job in her new role. Sony is lucky to have her with them. I wish she were still here at Williams & Connolly.”

She was first introduced to the prestigious law firm as a summer associate while attending Harvard Law School where she was an editor at the Harvard Law Review. Earlier, she worked for the Asian Wall Street Journal as associate editorial page editor and was introduced to journalism at the Harvard Crimson, the student-run newspaper, where she was managing editor. Then, after law school, she clerked for both Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and federal appeals court Judge Harry Edwards.

Shortly after arriving at the law firm, she got a prize assignment for a newly minted attorney, helping to represent North in the Iran-Contra scandal. She was so young that one television news commentator during public hearings identified her as North’s daughter, The Washington Post reported, rather than as his highly effective lawyer. It was just a few years later, she became part of the legal team representing Clinton in the Lewinsky scandal. Seligman earned a lot of respect from both President Clinton and Hillary Clinton. Her discretion, intense work ethic, thoroughness and sense of humor helped her gain the confidence of such high-profile clients.

In addition, since high school she has an interest in all things Asian, an added plus for her career at Sony, which is based in Japan. Her college dorm-mate, Caroline Kennedy, for whom Seligman was later a bridesmaid, is now the U.S. ambassador to Japan – still another plus.

On a more practical level, the company said in a statement that as she becomes president at Sony Entertainment, Seligman will “directly oversee finance, human resources, legal and corporate communications.” She will also work with Michael Lynton, CEO of Sony Entertainment, on developing “overall strategy and growth opportunities, identify and implement efficiencies within and among the three Sony Entertainment companies, and expand the businesses’ combined global footprint and influence,” the statement adds.

Sony’s top management is impressed with her abilities. “Nicole is a dynamic and respected leader whose experience and skills are ideally suited to help spur the growth of our Sony Entertainment properties, while continuing her essential role as an advisor to me and Tokyo senior management,” Sony Corporation President and CEO Kazuo Hirai said in the statement.

“I look forward to continuing to work closely with Michael as we harness the exceptional talent of our people and encourage the development of new synergy points to catalyze innovation throughout the company,” Seligman said in a statement.

In addition, CNET reported that although Seligman “will be leaving her role as general counsel, Sony says that she will remain on in an advisory role on legal matters.”

It is noteworthy too that as GC, Seligman was in a high visibility position, where the board likely saw her interacting with board members and top management, and was seen in a role exercising authority and leadership. The GC at many companies becomes the “right hand person” to a company’s president and CEO, playing a “critical role,” and frequently interacts with the board, Michael Sachs, a partner at the legal recruitment firm, Major, Lindsey & Africa, explained in an interview. Similarly, BarkerGilmore, another legal recruitment firm, found in a recent survey that the GC is looked upon as a “sounding board,” a “trusted adviser” to the CEO, and can “provide sound judgment” on company governance and legal matters, InsideCounsel reported.

Sachs adds that Seligman’s appointment is “completely indicative of what we are seeing” based on his firm’s discussions with CEOs at Fortune 500 companies, as they seek more women and minority candidates among applicants for GC openings.

BarkerGilmore estimates that 21 percent of the Fortune 500 companies have women GCs. That is an increase of about 17 percent over the past five years, InsideCounselreported, and that number will likely increase over the next five years.

Despite these strides, some want to see faster progress for women in leadership positions with more examples of promotions as with Seligman at Sony.

“It is always a good day when we see a woman rising to the top,” Deborah Froling, president of the National Association of Women Attorneys and who also works as an attorney in Washington, D.C. for Arent Fox, told InsideCounsel. “The fact that she is a lawyer makes me very happy.”

Yet, Seligman’s appointment also is a reminder of the gender gap faced by many women attorneys, whether they work at companies, law firms or other organizations.

“Every day should be a good day like that because many talented women are out there who could do these jobs,” Froling said. “They just need to be given that opportunity.”

In most cases, it helps for someone to have sponsor or mentor, and even a role model who can show them that while it may not be easy, they can succeed, Froling said. In addition, Froling said the pipeline of woman attorneys has been filled with increasing numbers of female graduates from law schools. It is time now for more of these attorneys to be sent through the pipeline and graduate to positions of leadership, Froling adds.

Even at Seligman’s old firm, Williams & Connolly, which has gotten positive recognition for its treatment of female attorneys, and where there are 73 male associates and 58 female associates, there is still room for growth. There are 102 male partners, there, compared to 21 female partners.

No doubt, many of firm’s women partners are recruited away, like Seligman, or even Judith Miller, who left the firm to go to Bechtel Group, where she became senior vice president, GC and a member of the Board of Directors.

In the meantime, Robert Barker, managing partner of BarkerGilmore, told InsideCounsel, “I am confident that we will be seeing many more talented women, like Nicole, moving to the top ranks of major corporations.”


Further reading:

Corporate leaders say general counsel widely considered part of a company’s executive team

Highest paid GCs equipped with high level of business acumen 

Number of women CEOs remains low, but long-term outlook will improve