NEW YORK — This year, Thomson Reuters Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law Program welcomed its inaugural “Rising Stars” cohort — a group comprised of nine high-potential female law firm partners who are working together to learn from and network with some of the most influential leaders in the legal industry.
Invited host, Sara Moss, Executive Vice President and General Counsel of The Estee Lauder Companies joined Deirdre Stanley, Executive Vice President and General Counsel of Thomson Reuters and the Rising Stars cohort for dinner at Oceana last week to discuss critical issues of concern to women in the legal industry.
Moss began the evening with a very simple question for the group: “Tell me why you are here.” As each partner began to introduce themselves and answer the question, a picture began to emerge about the motivations of the group. For example, one partner said she was there to learn about ways to build her own practice. A second member said, “It took me three years to develop business and no one taught me how to do it.” Two others added that they were the only women in their groups at their firms.
As group members began to discuss their individual reasons for joining, they also noted that they found strength in the cohort opportunities. One partner said it was nice to connect with other women who are encountering the same issues and facing the same struggles as other new partners. “Everyone rises together,” offered another group member.
Moss continued the discussion by talking about why she was there. “I’m here because I care about women,” she explained. “Having each other is critical.” Moss said that she had begun her career never intending to be an attorney, and was, in fact, a teacher in New Haven, Conn., after graduating from college. Growing up in the 1960s during the heart of the women’s movement, had influenced her decision to seek a law degree at New York University (NYU). Her choice to go there, over neighboring Columbia University, was based on the larger percentage of women in law school at NYU, she explained.
Moss said her desire to help people drove her to work with the groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which unfortunately, did not have money to hire at that time. She instead ended up clerking for the Hon. Constance Baker Motley and from there went on to gain some pretty impressive positions: litigator at Davis Polk & Wardwell; Assistant US Attorney in the Southern District of New York; senior litigation partner at Howard, Smith & Levin; General Counsel of Pitney Bowes; and Executive Vice President and General Counsel at The Estee Lauder Companies. Somehow in the middle of such a rich career path, she also found time to start a family.
“So, the big theme here is taking risks,” Moss told the group.
Working & Living
During the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Moss said she fully realized the stress of working so far from where she lived. The scare of not being in Manhattan during the attacks and out of reach from her children made her decide to move her career back to the city. Upon doing so, she made a promise to Pitney Bowes that she’d stay on board until a replacement was found. After a year of pursuing the right candidate for the job, the company hired Michele Coleman Mayes, the first African-American female general counsel at a publicly traded company.
Moss then moved her career to Estee Lauder, where at that time there were no other female executives in senior leadership roles at the company. One of the cohort group members asked Moss, “How did you go from being a partner to being a leader?”
“Energy, positive energy,” Moss responded. “A positive attitude is critical!”
Moss continued to talk to the women about the importance of taking risks and working to make their clients look smarter. She recounted that while she was moving through her career path, there were very few female role models to look up to, and she deduced that in that absence, it was important for women to be the very best version of themselves. She explained that in doing this, it was vital that women build an expertise and learn the critical pieces of the business by getting up from their desks and going out to build relationships. Moss also highlighted the importance of such relationships. “Be recognized as someone who is trusted,” she added.
Thomson Reuters’ Stanley agreed. “Sometimes your greatest currency is that other people respect you,” Stanley said.
Indeed, a reputation of being trustworthy and doing the right thing will continue to follow a woman throughout her career, Moss contended, adding that, at this point in their careers, younger women partners did not need to connect with the General Counsel as much as with the senior in-house lawyers who are working for the General Counsel because they often are the ones who decide which lawyers to work with and they will move up the corporate ladder.
When asked, in considering her entire professional career, when Moss thought she was her best self, her reply was poignant: “The last five years.”
In a final question, Moss was asked what motivated her on her pathway — in her legal career, in being a mentor to others, and in undertaking the many philanthropic endeavors she supports.
“I set out to save the world. Clearly I have not done that, but I want to give back,” Moss replied. “Follow your heart — it will all work out.”