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Notes on the “Twenty most influential general counsel in America”

In its April Fool’s Day issue, the National Law Journal announced the “20 most influential general counsel in America.” No doubt every one of them is a distinguished lawyer and person. For sure every one of the general counsel on the list has accomplished much and brought honor to his or her organization. Still, I noticed four aspects of the list that made me wonder how the NLJ chose these particular 20.

ACC Leadership Role. Serving in a high position in the Association of Corporate Counsel obviously counted with the nominating group, as witnessed by the inclusion of at least seven general counsel who serve now on the ACC Board or did (35% of the group). These were Clorox’s Laura Stein, Cardinal Health’s Ivan Fong, Cigna’s Carol Ann Petren, DelMonte’s James Potter, Microsoft’s Brad Smith, and Timberland’s Danette Wineberg. Hasbro’s Barry Nagler is a former ACC Chair. And there may be others among the remaining 13 who have served.

Diversity. The twenty general counsel manifest diversity. Nine white males; one Asian-American, four African American men, four white women and two African-American women. As to the gender proportions, nine percent of the Fortune 1000 general counsel are women but 30 percent of this list (See my post of Nov. 17, 2008: notes on women GCs in the Fortune 1000.). I do not know what percentage of the 1,000 Fortune companies have African-American chief counsel, but it is less than the 30 percent who make up this list. Additionally, at least six of the brief bios mention diversity as a particular concern of the person.

Celebrity. Some general counsel have very high visibility, which may or may not correspond to industry-shaping influence (See my post of Jan. 30, 2008: publicity by law departments with 12 references; and June 11, 2007: publicity with 12 references.). Three of the top 20 are celebrity GCs who present publicly all the time and appear in print ubiquitously: GE’s Brackett Denniston, DuPont’s Tom Sager, and Microsoft’s Brad Smith.

But magisterial influence? If one measure of influence by a general counsel is his or her company’s influence in its industry, then what about the likes of Boeing’s Mike Luttig, Citigroup’s Michael Helfer, AIG’s Stasia Kelley, Google’s Kent Walker or top lawyers at others of our nation’s most powerful or pivotal companies? What about our gigantic oil companies or IBM or the financial institutions that have been so prominent lately? How do these powerhouse companies and the mighty responsibilities of their general counsel compare to some of the companies in the top 20, such as YMCA, MetroPCS, Cadbury, and Timberland? These organizations are known and good, but they have less stature in the market than many others.

If I had been nominating a general counsel who might be most influential in law department management, I would nominate Mark Chandler at Cisco or perhaps Wal-Mart’s legal department (See my post of Aug. 26, 2008: posts on this blog about Wal-Mart; and Sept. 25, 2008: Mark Chandler with 30 references.).