“It’s good to fail” is a common mantra we hear today. For Louise Firestone, failure led her to the office of General Counsel at LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton Inc. Speaking with Louise, in her offices in the LVMH Tower on 57th Street in Manhattan, felt like a scene from The Devil Wears Prada, given our proximity to chic bags, libations and fragrances. But Louise quickly dismissed the glamour by informing me that her day-to-day responsibilities would be much the same at a toilet paper company, and that she doesn’t get a discount at Louis Vuitton stores. (Sigh.) Some girls dream of working in fashion; Louise was not one of them. Instead, what led her to a rewarding career was keeping her eyes open to opportunity. Plus a little benign neglect of her children — just one of many fine pieces of advice that I took from her story.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Louise Firestone: I have an undergraduate degree and a master’s in international relations. My goal was to work at the United Nations, but when I graduated there was a hiring freeze for Americans. I had taken the Foreign Service exam and was waiting for my results when I came across a law firm looking for a paralegal who spoke French or Italian. I spoke both languages and applied, thinking, “Okay, I’ve got to make money.” I enjoyed the work, but more importantly, I looked around the firm and said, “I can do what these associates are doing — why shouldn’t I go to law school?” The associates at the firm were incredibly positive and encouraged me to apply. I attended Fordham Law School. I had some difficulty in the beginning, because I found the law to be dry and, frankly, not very intellectually stimulating. It’s a little bit like learning another language: At first, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but eventually, there’s a breakthrough.
When I got involved in more extracurricular activities, like moot court and the Fordham International Law Journal, the analysis and the nuance became more apparent to me and it became really interesting.
I was not cut out to be an associate. It wasn’t the work; it was the time. I didn’t like that I didn’t have a lot of control. You could get an assignment late in the day and have to stay all night. I got married the year I graduated from Fordham, so I had someone to go home to. I didn’t want to be there all night. I particularly resented that, at 6 p.m., everyone would order dinner and sit around eating in a conference room. I viewed it as an hour that I could have been working, and then I could get home an hour earlier.
At the time, a lot of the “interesting work” was related to investment banking. You would go into a conference room and the investment bankers would be sitting there, wearing red suspenders and banging the table. The lawyers would be on the periphery, looking like little lap dogs scribbling. My colleagues thought the bankers were very sexy. I didn’t.
In general, I think a law firm model is inefficient and ineffective. Associates don’t need to spend hours and hours at the office. I don’t think that kind of face time has any value today whatsoever. But I’m not sure law firms expect it anymore, considering that so much happens on the computer. Law firms also operate under the principle that when a client calls, you jump. If I’m calling outside counsel because I need something right away, I need it right away. But I don’t always need something right away. Law firms don’t do enough to identify the client’s needs and target the response to those needs. When I work with outside counsel, I try to make my timing clear and say, “Could I have this next week?” or “I’m really sorry, but I need this tomorrow.”
We use the word reactivity a lot, which comes from the French reactivité and means responsiveness. Responsiveness is very important, but it doesn’t necessarily mean producing a document right away. I do want my phone calls and emails answered promptly. But the response could be, “I’m traveling; can I get back to you tomorrow, or do you need someone else to call you right away?” I also want somebody who has curiosity about, and knowledge of, our business. If I’m working with a lawyer for the first time, I expect a lot of questions about what we do, how we do it and how we like things done. I don’t think you can be a good outside counsel unless you understand your client’s needs and respond to those particular needs.
A friend, who was working at Citibank, reached out to me about the job opening. I was very junior, but the work sounded extremely interesting to me because it had an international component.
They were not happy. More than one person told me that in-house was a backwater, somewhere good lawyers did not go. But I did not care what they thought of me or my career.
I had been at Citibank for five years when a headhunter called, regarding a position at Credit Suisse. The international piece of it was compelling to me. Credit Suisse had never had a lawyer in the U.S. before. They’d had some compliance issues, and outside counsel advised them to hire somebody in-house. They weren’t sure that they needed someone full time. I realized this was a risk, but I felt it was a risk worth taking. I was still young; if it didn’t work out, I could find another job. Of course, the minute I got there, I saw it was clearly a full-time job.
I really partnered with outside counsel. There were two firms, and the difference in how each firm reacted to me was pretty amazing. The partner at one firm called me up and said, “We’re the general outside counsel, and we think it would be a good idea for you to come down to our offices. We’ll introduce you to the team and tell you all about what’s going on.” I went down, met with them in a big conference room with really awful sandwiches, and they lectured me for a couple of hours about all the important work they did. Subsequently, a partner at the other firm called. He said, “We represent Credit Suisse and would love to meet you. I’d like to find out what’s top of mind for you and the issues you’re dealing with. We want to know how we can support you.” I went to meet with him, and it was a different experience. He said, “We know this must be a difficult situation for you to walk into, and we want to make it as easy for you as possible.” It was night and day. One thought the client was the bank in Zurich, so he viewed me more as a helper to him. The other partner was a bank regulatory lawyer who viewed me as the client.
Of course. I used the former firm as infrequently as possible and relied much more on the latter.
My daughter was born in 1990, when I was at Citibank, and my son was born while I was at Credit Suisse.
I considered working part time but quickly concluded that full time might give me more flexibility. When you work part time with set hours, people rely on you to be available during those hours. When you work full time, you can usually move a lunch or reschedule a meeting to get to a pediatrician’s appointment. I always lived in the city, so I never had to commute. Being close to home worked best for me.
When I was at Citibank, I had a boss who had made different life choices than I did. She’d married a much older man and never had children. I’m sure that was by choice, but she was one of many women at that time who chose career before family. She was a rather difficult person, and made a point of saying that she was in the office on Christmas Eve until 8 p.m. — stuff that’s designed to make you feel guilty. In retrospect, I think that’s not what she was trying to do at all, that perhaps she was trying to justify her own existence. But I did feel my pregnancy, in her mind, made me a lesser lawyer.
My husband happily changed diapers and all of that stuff. But I did more of the child care and housework. I did have a slightly saner schedule. If he had a trial, for example, I couldn’t count on him for anything.
This may not be a popular thing to say, but when my kids were finally in school, I realized most of the mothers running parent–teacher organizations could have been CEOs. In fact, most of them had worked in high-level positions but didn’t anymore. They put all their energy into their kids. I just said to myself, “I think my kids are better off with a little benign neglect. That kind of intense optics on your kid isn’t necessarily beneficial.” My view is that having kids — for both men and women — is probably the best thing possible to be successful in business. It teaches you that you can’t do everything perfectly.
I’m not a perfectionist. You have to keep a perspective on things — it’s not all about you. Hopefully, you’re always challenging yourself so you can think with a creative, open, flexible mind. But you can’t take yourself, or your position, too seriously — whether that’s as a mother or wife or lawyer. You do the best you can.
In retrospect, I probably should have seen the writing on the wall. When Credit Suisse merged with First Boston, they let go the general counsel on the First Boston side. They merged me into the legal department and brought in a partner from a big firm to be the new general counsel. I understood that they needed me because they didn’t have the expertise in-house, but the truth is, it wasn’t a very good cultural fit. The people who grew up in an investment banking culture were very different from the people from a pure banking culture. I’m sure those on the investment banking side thought we were sleepy and slow. We thought they were reckless. I should have seen that I was not going to fit in with the new regime.
It was really painful. The one good thing that Credit Suisse did was to provide out-placement service. It gave me a place to go every day. That was really important. I could have just stayed in bed and pulled the covers over my head. I had a young child at home, so I could have very easily pretended that I should just hang out with him. But I treated it like a job, and I made sure to go to the gym. I really tried to be very focused and very orderly in how I approached my next steps.
Once I got over the shock and humiliation, which took a long time, I realized that this was a new beginning, and I should embrace it as such. I allowed myself to think outside the box in terms of where I might go next. I went through my contacts and started calling people. I asked if they could give me names of people I could reach out to or perhaps put in a good word on my behalf. What amazed me was how many were willing to give me their time and help.
To tell everybody I knew that I was looking for a job. In a way, that got me my current position. It wasn’t through ads. It wasn’t through headhunters. Someone who knew I was looking called and said, “I heard about this position at LVMH.”
When the headhunter saw my background, she told me that LVMH would never hire me because of my heavy financial services experience. I had done nothing in retail. After a lot of interviews, I eventually got the offer. I later found out that they had made an offer to someone else, who turned them down. So my getting the job was dumb luck. As it turned out, my boss liked me exactly because of my financial services background.
I do in the sense of being open to receiving what’s out there. I point out to students that all their lives, they’ve been on a particular path, got straight A’s, got into college, got into law school. It’s very straight and narrow. My view is that you’ve got to be open to what’s around you, because opportunities sometimes present themselves in ways you would not expect. You have to look for them and recognize when they appear.
This is unfair, perhaps, because some very smart and wonderful people work there. But financial services work is not about creating anything. I’m not going to pretend that what we do at LVMH is rocket science. It’s not. But people don’t take themselves as seriously here, either. There are a lot of very smart, very creative people in this business. They know their work brings people pleasure, and that’s good enough. In the financial services industry, there was incredible arrogance about how important and how smart everybody was. And, of course, the lawyers were simply the back office. I’m back office here, too, but in financial services, the bankers were viewed as the smart, intelligent businesspeople. Everybody else was there to make it happen for them. Of course, the bankers were the ones who got huge bonuses. To me, it seemed a lot like emperor’s new clothes.
It was a breath of fresh air to come into an industry where people work hard and love what they do, even without a banker’s salary. It’s very creative. There’s a lot of camaraderie, it is challenging intellectually and people don’t pretend that they’re saving the world.
It’s not glamorous at all. If this were a toilet paper company, a lot of the issues that we deal with would be exactly the same. You’re dealing with employee relations, litigation, intellectual property, real estate. It’s not like I get to sit in the front row at fashion shows or sit there while the “nose” comes up with a new fragrance. I don’t!
No, I don’t. I do get access to sample sales. But if I walk into a Louis Vuitton store, I have to pay full price.
I am always happy to talk to someone interested in fashion law, though I think the term is a misnomer. I explain that different types of law may be useful in a fashion business and that it’s better to find the area of law that interests you, then seek to apply it to the fashion industry. And to be aware of potential opportunities. I never could have crafted the route that got me here. You have to be flexible enough to recognize when a lateral move might be interesting, rather than always looking to move up.
I look for self-starters with functional expertise that I don’t necessarily share. I’m not an employment lawyer or a real estate lawyer. I hire people who are able to do things on their own but will come to me if they’re in over their heads. Also, you have to have the right personality. In a law firm, you’re the king of the hill. In a business, you’re a support function. You have to bury your ego a little bit but still be confident so the businesspeople will listen to you. It’s not the same personality that’s most successful in a law firm. I look for somebody who can be an ambassador for the company, someone who will be collegial and respectful of the other lawyers. I also prefer someone who has in-house experience, but I don’t always find that.
We have good relationships with our outside counsel and are loyal to them, so I rarely work with new counsel. At the same time, I appreciate when firms reach out to me, especially if they have something new to contribute. I don’t like people to call me up and say, “I’m a friend of so-and-so. Will you have lunch with me?” I don’t want to waste anybody’s time, and that’s not generally how we give out work. Word of mouth, good references, that’s what works. I’m skeptical that law firm marketing really amounts to much.
I believe it’s good to fail. I consider it a failure that I was let go from Credit Suisse, even though it was absolutely the best thing that could have happened to me. I believe that failure is inevitable in life and that you should plan for it. How you fail is a test of character, whether you wallow in it or pull yourself up. Because the reality is, what’s the worst that can happen?
My daughter would make a fabulous lawyer, but I think the profession has changed. We have too many lawyers in this country. When you’re talking about paying $100,000 for a degree that doesn’t necessarily get you a job in your chosen field, you have to wonder whether there is a good rationale for going to law school. I think it’s a wonderful career, but I just don’t know if the opportunities exist the way they did when I graduated. Still, if my daughter said she absolutely had to go to law school, I’d give her my blessing, just like my friends whose kids say they absolutely have to work in the theater.