In-house counsel representing some of fashion’s leading brands shared tips on the importance of communication, the benefit of knowing your company’s story, and the changing role of lawyers during the Fashion Law Institute’s “Inside Out” event on February 11.
The panel included counsel for seven companies ranging from multinational conglomerates focusing on luxury clothing lines to a pair of New York City-based upstarts that have exploded in popularity since launching as startups in the past decade. Professor Susan Scafidi, founder and academic director of the Fashion Law Institute, hosted the event.
Whether working for a long-established brand like LVMH Moet Hennessey Louis Vuitton, Inc., or a rapidly expanding one such as SoulCycle or Etsy, panelists agreed there is no normal day as in-house counsel. Issues surrounding intellectual property and brand management often arise but so do many unforeseen challenges.
IQ and legal expertise only account for a portion of an in-house counsel’s necessary skillset. It’s vital for in-house counsel to build trusting relationships that allow room for disagreement, panelists said. Counsels’ grasp of their brands’ history, as well as strong emotional intelligence and business acumen, helps forge these bonds.
“The more you know about the business and the more you know about the market, the more you’ll find your client will have trust in you and give you terms to run with,” explained Angela Byun, Senior Director of International Strategy and Development for Golf Digest, a Condé Nast brand that is the world’s most widely distributed sports publication.
Being able to communicate well in the business world is also a major driving force in the hiring process. Just because an attorney is brilliant does not mean they will fit a brand’s culture, panelists agreed.
“Outside lawyers tend not to understand the business well,” said Louise Firestone ’85, the Senior Vice President for Legal Affairs and General Counsel for French luxury group LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, Inc. It is important for the in-house counsel to get along with the CFO, understand accounting cycles, and “know the business well so you can be a translator,” she explained.
In-house counsel also must be adept at “reading the tea leaves” of office politics, Firestone added. This is especially true when it comes to understanding why a person pushes an agenda seemingly at odds with the best interests of the company.
At multinational corporations with offices across the globe, navigating political and cultural differences is a complicated yet important role of counsel, one Firestone said she has grown comfortable with in her 16-plus years at LVMH.
In-house counsel for multinational corporations also must be adept, for instance, at advising company executives on differences in litigation and discovery between the U.S. and European legal systems, said Jana Checa Chong ’09, who has served as Intellectual Property Counsel for Louis Vuitton Americas since February 2014.
In addition to providing practical legal advice, in-house counsel is integral in protecting the brand’s reputation – whether in seeking to stop would-be copyright infringers or to mitigate damages caused by the actions of rogue employees. This multipronged importance is true whether your company is growing at a steady rate, like the ones SoulCycle Senior Director of Legal Affairs Melissa Schoffer Farber and Etsy Senior IP & Privacy Counsel Sarah Feingold described, or have undergone multiple reorganizations like Condé Nast.
Following the 2008 financial collapse, Byun volunteered to lend her legal expertise in more ways at Condé Nast. Her desire to branch off in new directions has mirrored, in some ways, her company’s focus on newer ways to connect with audiences, including social media followers, unique web page views, and increased video content.
“The days of saying, ‘I’m just a lawyer, I just handle this’ are over,” Byun told the sold-out room. “You’ve got to be able to draft, write, negotiate, and the list goes on and on to what you can contribute to your company.”
Paula L. Barnes, counsel for Macy’s, and Avery Fischer, the SVP, General Counsel & Secretary, also participated in the panel moderated by Doreen Small, a founding partner of Marquart & Small and former in-house counsel at Ford Models. Guests including attorneys, students, and fashion industry professionals traveled from as far away as California, Jamaica, and France in order to attend the event.