Just 19 percent of U.S. law firm partners were women in 2011. And while nearly half (42 percent) of the members of the Association of Corporate Counsel are female, just 101 women (or 20 percent) hold the chief legal officer position among Fortune 500 firms. For the rest of the Fortune 1000 (companies ranked 501 to 1000 in revenue), 82 CLOs (or 16 percent) are women. These numbers should be much higher given that women have comprised nearly half of the nation’s law school enrollment for more than two decades.

What is the problem? What are the major hurdles standing in the way of a woman’s advancement in the legal profession? How have certain women attorneys beaten the odds? What steps did they take and what have they learned that may be of help to others scaling the ladder today? To discover the answers, I interviewed several women who now or have recently held top in-house legal positions.

Do Quality Work

Without exception, every woman I talked to emphasized the importance of doing top-quality work. As one respondent explained, sometimes women have to work harder than male attorneys, especially if they are the first woman in their position in a particular firm or company, so they can prove their value to the doubting Thomases.

Not only must you keep up with the daily demands in the office, but it is extremely important to stay current in your practice area. One of my interviewees put it this way: Do your homework. Try to be as well-informed on the issues as you can be. Make sure you are up-to-speed on everything in your chosen field. As areas of law become more specialized, you may need to take additional courses or even earn a second degree, because some niches require a great deal of substantive knowledge. So continue to learn. Go to conferences and read as much as you can.

Keep Your Ear to the Ground

Don’t let the “head down, work hard” philosophy blind you to what you need to do to get where you want to go, though. “Keep your ear to the ground so you are aware not only of plum assignments, but also of work that others don’t want but is important to someone higher up, someone who will notice what you do and may be able to help you in the future,” said A. Verona Dorch, vice president, deputy general counsel and assistant corporate secretary of Harsco Corp.

Looking for and seizing opportunities that will advance your career was recommended by many of the women with whom I spoke. Andrea Utecht, executive vice president, general counsel and secretary of FMC Corp., explained: “Be willing to take on unusual assignments and things that might not appear to be on your career path.” For instance, she accepted the role of VP of acquisitions and divestitures, which was outside the law department, but turned out to be a great learning experience and helped her gain credibility to become the GC. “Don’t try to plan your career path too rigidly,” Utecht said. “Be willing to take what might at the time seem to be a divergent path if it provides an opportunity for learning and growth.”

Dorch echoed this: “Don’t just blindly follow career plans (notwithstanding my propensity for setting development plans every three years). Be willing to take stretch assignments, whether within or outside the legal function, within the U.S. or globally, that might open up career paths that weren’t even on your radar screen.”

This also means being willing to step outside your comfort zone, e.g., saying yes to an assignment in a different country — “I wouldn’t have reached higher levels if I had stayed in one place,” noted Deborah Rasin, general counsel of Dentsply — or volunteering to write an article or give a speech.

Expand Your Knowledge

In addition to acquiring knowledge in specific fields and/or industries, you should try to learn more about how businesses operate. You need to be innovative and progressive when it comes to helping your clients think strategically about their business goals, whether you’re in a law firm or an in-house legal department. Dorch suggests: “Try to continuously improve yourself. For instance, to better understand the financial side of a company I used to work for, I asked for an assignment with our accounting team.”

Nicole Jones, executive vice president and general counsel of Cigna Corp., took a different approach, but with the same goal in mind. “I didn’t have a background in business, but when I was a young associate, I started reading The Wall Street Journal religiously. A partner at the firm claimed that if I read it daily, it would give me the equivalent of a year at business school. I don’t know if he was right, but I learned a lot and it helped build a foundation for me as a corporate lawyer.”

Know When It’s Time to Move

Of course, sometimes the best opportunities come from a different firm or company. “If you think your current work environment is holding you back, figure out what you want and find the environment that provides it, but proceed with caution,” Dorch said. “You need to determine whether it is the environment that is impeding your progress or whether you are not being proactive enough.”

For instance, find partners in your law firm who are doing work that interests you and see how you can help. For one of my interviewees, this meant that during her law firm tenure, she asked to work with some senior partners who were developing an international business practice, which gave her great experience and helped prepare her for her later role as an associate general counsel.

Another indication that it is time to move is if you are struggling with ethical issues or being asked to work with people you do not respect. You need to believe in the people you work for and with as well as the products or services the company provides.

Because you never know when circumstances might change — your company could be bought by a conglomerate that has different ideas about how to run the business — it is a good idea to cultivate a relationship with a reputable recruiter and maintain it throughout your career. “All of my career moves have been due to my relationships with recruiters,” Rasin said. “Knowing how the recruitment industry works and maintaining good relationships with people from previous positions can be crucial. Prior employers and colleagues can help immeasurably with job leads and references.”

Be Nice, Be Yourself

This last point, about staying in touch with people you’ve worked with, echoes something all the women agreed on: Be nice. Remember that everyone you work with — including the secretary and the mailroom guy — are part of your team and should be treated with respect. And do not denigrate other people’s opinions or work. It goes back to Thumper’s Rule: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Of course, this doesn’t mean to shy away from constructive criticism, especially if you are in a management role, but it needs to be administered courteously.

“Be competent and genuine. The competency is a must, but I see women and men lose ground when they try to be something or someone they are not,” Jones said. “Be yourself. Bring your own sense of style, personality and sense of humor to the office. Work is serious, but made more fulfilling when you can laugh, enjoy your colleagues and put your own personal stamp on what you do.” As a result, people will want to be around you and enjoy working with you.

And if you’re ever confronted with discrimination or rude behavior, do not take it personally. Respond calmly and non-emotionally, present compelling and rational arguments for your position and, if necessary, defuse the situation with a bit of humor.

Know What You Don’t Know

Though you may be assiduously keeping up with your legal and business knowledge, there may be times when you need to augment other less-developed areas, said Dorch: “The higher up the ladder you go, the more you will need to exhibit leadership skills, to look and sound like a leader. So, every two to three years, I hired an executive coach to help me identify my blind spots — i.e., areas I needed to work on — and help me put together a development plan, which my boss and employer helped me implement.”

She also asked the company to hire a transition coach to facilitate her move into the VP role. “You need to take proactive control of your career,” Dorch said. “Don’t assume that hard work alone will get you there. It might, but it might not.”

What Else Can Be Done?

Not content to just enjoy their own success, all of the women I talked to mentioned their desire to “pay it forward.” “We, who are in leadership roles, have to sponsor talent — male and female — at our firms and companies,” explained Dorch. “We have to insist on a diverse slate of candidates for every position that we hire for and call our colleagues on it when they fail to put forth a diverse slate. We have to be an advocate for fairness in a way that gains buy-in and isn’t preachy and that allows talent, with a little push, to speak for itself.”

And don’t assume that a company is not open to advancing women or minorities just because they don’t have any at the top. “They may be committed to it as a goal,” she said, “but not yet had the opportunity or found the right individuals. Ask them about it and then make your own determination as to whether you can succeed there. Early in my career, I made the mistake of leaving some really good employers based on what I later realized were incorrect assumptions. This helped perpetuate their inability to retain and promote quality women.” You need to be willing to help make the change you seek.

Parting Thought

Jones also wants women attorneys to realize they’re only human. “One of the biggest challenges women lawyers have is to manage expectations,” she said. “I think it is very hard for anyone to ‘have it all’ from a career and family perspective. Sometimes difficult choices need to be made, priorities have to be set and we have to say no (unless we have a partner who is handling all of the domestic responsibilities, which is rare). Doing so does not mean failing. It means that we recognize that our time and energy are valuable and that we choose to spend them on the things that really matter.”  •

Deborah Z. Thompson is a managing director in the in-house practice group of global legal search firm Major, Lindsey & Africa. Before beginning her legal recruiting career,she practiced law for 10 years with three large Philadelphia firms: Blank Rome, Duane Morris and Wolf Block. She can be reached at dthompson@mlaglobal.com or 215-636-9849.