Is The Future Of Legal Transformation Female?

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Anna Lozynski

Freelance General Counsel and Legal influencer.

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New research suggests the most successful and innovative legal functions are increasingly led by women, writes former L'Oréal ANZ General Counsel Anna Lozynski.

Last Sunday morning I’m on Instagram and see a Bloomberg Business post flash up on my phone screen. Its headline grabs my attention: “In a few years, two women will earn a degree for every one man”.

Women are taking over the fastest growing industries, it seems.

Including Legal.

As of this year there are more female practitioners in the legal profession than men. Note, the number of corporate counsel has grown by a whopping 82% since 2011.

Furthermore, Plexus research has shown over 30% of ASX100 General Counsels have turned over in the past two years, and nearly 25 per cent in the last year.

Notably, 42% of ASX50 legal functions are currently being led by women.

Similarly, the number of women legal chiefs of public traded companies in the USA has increased to 36% in 2021 (up from 21% in 2014).

And then there’s, to quote Beyonce, “in the club rocking the latest” – the legal operations sector – with 59% of roles being held by women.

In a context where the pandemic has served as a transformation wake up call for many legal teams, is it just mere coincidence that we are seeing the rise of female GCs and legal ops professionals?

I suspect not.

Women interpret the requirements of leadership differently. We are relationship builders and results-focused collaborators. We play the role of change maker, comfortably and nimbly shifting contexts while reconciling paradoxes at the individual, organisational, community and societal levels. And we embrace change not as a matter of course, but in the interest of producing model-shattering, breakthrough results.

This certainly seems to be a pattern looking at the appointment of female CEOs: A few examples include Mary Barra at General Motors, Safra Catz at Oracle, Ginny Rometti at IBM, Marisa Mayer at Yahoo, Susan Wojicki at YouTube, Christine Holgate at Australia Post. And the list goes on.

It’s called the glass cliff – a term coined by researchers from the University of Exeter. A phenomenon where women are seen as being a better pair of hands when the company is in a crisis, or on its way down, and it needs to get out of it.

In recent years, General Counsel have faced an increasing pressure to drive value, increase efficiencies and better manage risk.

Meaning that the glass cliff is not just a business phenomenon – it’s playing out in the legal profession too.

More GCs are being tasked with leading and managing turnarounds and having to act more like a CEO of their function. It’s getting as blunt as drive change or move on.

In 2015, a few years into my greenfield GC role, it was precisely that CEO and intrapreneurial energy that inspired my long term vision for “doing law differently”, ahead of many of my more established male counterparts around the globe. I wasn’t asked or told to transform the legal function.

A key lever to our team’s award-winning legal operations success was the way we built relationships as trusted advisors, collaborated with our business stakeholders every step of the way, and managed risk in a way that was solutions focused and commercial.

We aimed to be more than just legal experts – but as a source of strategic, progressive and efficient problem solving, and that included having a tech first mindset. And yes, throughout that time most of my team was female. Not necessarily by design, but it just turned out that way as we recruited for lawyers to drive our innovation agenda.

Fast forward to 2021, where innovation is no longer a nice to have, but a “must have”, Plexus has observed that 52% of its buyers of its tech platform Plexus Gateway, are female. So not only is the GC role increasingly being filled by women, it appears that it’s the female led legal teams that are unafraid to challenge the industry norms and old-school thinking. To embrace tech.

In a landscape where not all pockets of the legal profession are gender equal, it’s also telling that in-house counsel leadership over-indexes on females compared to law firms. Only 30% of partners at Australia’s 50 largest law firms are women, and only 16% of equity partners at Australia’s 160 law firms are female.

Serial CEO and Board legend Maggie Wilderotter puts it simply – women are better at managing change, because they have to be. Because of the barriers they’ve had to overcome.

And it’s important not to forget that it’s taken an inordinate amount of time for women to be recognised as effective legal leaders, and equality remains an issue across the sector.

The increasing level of gender diversity in the General Counsel and Legal Ops ranks suggests that the once undervalued leadership traits of women – being relationship builders, strong communicators, results-focused collaborators – are now in high demand.

And in a business context, it’s (finally) being recognised that women leading in-house teams get it: they are natural change agents, and hungry for innovation.

Anna Lozynski is a freelance general counsel and legal influencer.

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