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Top Women Lawyers in the Fortune 500

Adams-KatherineBy Sue Reisinger, Corporate Counsel

Browse our interactive chart of women who lead the legal departments at Fortune 500 companies.

Aerospace products, automation and high technology, transportation systems—can a woman be a successful general counsel at such a “hard-hat” company? Katherine “Kate” Adams, senior vice president and GC at Honeywell International Inc., is living proof that one can.

At 49, Adams is atop a rising wave of women who are becoming the top lawyers at Fortune 500 companies. She joined Honeywell in 2003, working her way up from deputy general counsel for litigation to three years as general counsel of one of Honeywell’s major business divisions, performance materials and technologies. And then she was promoted to general counsel in late 2008.

She makes it all sound so easy. Her previous practice—in environmental law at Sidley Austin Brown & Wood—gave her experience working with oil companies and other traditionally male-dominated industries. So, she says, Honeywell was a comfortable fit. “It didn’t feel alien to me,” Adams recalls. “And these traditionally heavily engineering companies have a more diverse perspective, and are more open to promoting women.”

Decades ago, women lawyers faced tougher prospects. When CCH Inc., an information service provider, promoted Mary Ann Hynes to general counsel in 1979, the company probably didn’t realize it was kicking off a major trend in hiring. Hynes was the first woman to serve as GC at a Fortune 500 company, but dozens more soon joined her. By 1999, the Fortune 500 touted 44 female GCs, according to the first annual survey of women in the job by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA).

As more women entered law schools once barred to them—the last gender barrier dropped in 1970—the GC numbers kept rising. By 2004, MCCA listed 75 women GCs of top corporations. And five years later, that figure swelled to 86, and then to 106 in 2014, according to the latest numbers compiled by Corporate Counsel. (Corporate Counsel counts only companies where the top legal officer is a woman, whether her title is general counsel or chief legal officer.)

Today, women are leading the legal departments at 21 percent of Fortune 500 companies, compared with 17 percent in 2009 and only 15 percent a decade ago. And one of them, Karen Roberts at Wal-Mart Stores Inc., heads the legal team at the nation’s largest corporation. In fact, there are four women GCs in the top 17 companies—nearly 25 percent.

Clearly, these statistics show solid progress. “It’s a positive trend,” Adams notes. “I wish it were faster, but at least it’s going in the right direction. I think at a very broad level, legal training has been more egalitarian and has created more opportunities for women” than have other professions.

Agreeing with that assessment is Joseph West, MCAA’s president and chief executive, and onetime in-house counsel at Wal-Mart. West admits that the numbers “at first blush are not as high as you might hope or expect, considering that nearly half of all law school graduates are now women. ” But like Adams, he recognizes the long-term results, noting, “The increase has been steady, and the trend is very positive, very strong.”

Women lawyers have been moving in-house for a variety of reasons. Professor Joan Williams, founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, says that many women who entered law firms and wanted to have children found a better work-life balance at corporations that offered eight-hour workdays. Also, she says, 20 years ago, going in-house was seen as less prestigious than being in private practice. “It was seen as a second choice, and therefore open to women,” Williams explains.

PHOTO: Katherine Adams, chief legal counsel of Honeywell International

Jordan Hollender

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