The Journal on Sports and Entertainment Law recently sat down with attorney Louise Firestone, Senior Vice President and General Counsel at LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton Inc., to discuss current issues in fashion law and life as an in-house attorney. Ms. Firestone joined LVMH in August 1999 after working in-house for Citibank and Credit Suisse.
The interview was conducted by Loren Shokes (Class of 2017), the Executive Editor of Online Content and the Online Interview Editor for the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law. The interview is part of JSEL’s interview series with lawyers in the entertainment and sports field that will be featured on JSEL’s website. It has been edited for clarity.
**Please note that, throughout this interview, Ms. Firestone was speaking in her capacity as an individual and a scholar, and not as a representative of LVMH or any of LVMH’s affiliates**
Loren Shokes, Journal on Sports & Entertainment Law (JSEL): In an earlier interview you conducted with A Lawyer’s Life, you explained that many of the issues you deal with at LVMH would be exactly the same if you were working for a toilet paper company. With that in mind, how much of your work specifically deals with fashion and other things that a toilet paper company would not do?
Louise Firestone (LF): What I meant by that comment was that the tools of the law, for example contracts, litigation, dealing with employment issues, etc., are things that pertain to any industry; they do not specifically relate to fashion, beauty, or anything else in particular. It could well be that the contract is for a license, which could be for a fashion house, or it could be an employment contract for a designer for a fashion house. But the tools that I use in terms of the actual work that I do are unrelated to the industry. It’s law. I am not the one who designs the clothes or creates the perfume. I am the one who protects the company. And that is what I meant when I said that many of the issues are exactly the same at LVMH and a toilet paper company. People sometimes have the mistaken idea that I have a very glamorous life, that I am hobnobbing with Marc Jacobs or jetting off to Paris all the time. As a matter of fact, I am jetting off to Paris this weekend but I am going there for a conference. I am not going to a runway show!
JSEL: I read that you began your legal career at the law firm Cole & Dietz, now the New York office of Winston & Strawn, and you then transitioned to work as in-house counsel for Citibank and Credit Suisse before moving to LVMH. Can you describe the most surprising differences between working as an associate at a large law firm and working as in-house counsel.
LF: I think the biggest difference is that when you are inside you really have to understand the business if you want to be successful. And that is something lawyers in firms tend not to understand. To be successful in-house, you have to be very curious about all aspects of the business and how they all work. When you are outside, you are given a particular problem to research, and may not even understand the entire problem is that your client is facing; you are told one little piece of it and your job is to exhaustively research the answer to the one or two questions that have been framed to you. Chances are most junior associates do not get to visit the client and do not fully understand their business. You might understand in general what the business of a bank, or an oil company, or fashion house means. But when I talk about really knowing the business, I am talking about understanding financial constraints, understanding how your clients budget, understanding their pressures on head count, understanding timing issues. For example, if you are in a fashion company, everything revolves around the runway show. Things have to be produced before you can actually walk them down the runway so timing of deliverables is key. To me, the number one difference being in-house counsel as compared to an associate is being much more involved in the business, and the second is that you are a partner with everyone else in the company. Law firms are all about the lawyers; they are the most important people. In a company, lawyers are support staff; and you have to be a little humble about that.
JSEL: How does working as in-house counsel for a bank compare to working as in-house counsel for a multinational luxury goods conglomerate?
LF: A lot of things are similar, which is why going from one to the other did not totally floor me. I would say that one of the things that I really enjoy is that the people here take their work seriously but they do not take themselves seriously. When you are in the luxury goods business, you are in the business of making people happy. That is what you want; you want people to buy your products because it makes them happy. Banking does not have that kind of end product. I think bankers are excited about coming up with complicated ways of saving, moving, or making money for their clients but at the end of the day, unless they come from the private banking world, their clients are big corporations. Here, our clients are individuals. It is a happier place, quite honestly, to work.
JSEL: From wine and spirit companies such as Krug and Moët & Chandon, to fashion and leather goods houses such as Givenchy and Céline, to perfumes and cosmetics including Marc Jacobs Beauty, to watches and jewelry including TAG Heuer, LVMH has a mass of numerous and diverse subsidiaries. As LVMH’s Senior Vice President and General Counsel, what are the challenges you face managing the various types of companies?
LF: I do not manage all the companies. Some of our companies have their own legal teams. A good example of that is the Moët Hennessy business, which is wines and spirits. That is a very heavily regulated industry and we have lawyers who know the industry who work in Moët Hennessy USA. On the beauty, fashion, and in some other areas where the companies do not have their own legal counsel, my team really operates as the day-to-day counsel. So some of the work we do can be relatively mundane. But we also have the ability to do work that is very strategic on behalf of all the brands or sometimes on behalf of just one brand, like the M&A transactions we handle in the department. You would be surprised at how similar the work is across the divisions. We have a real estate attorney working on leases; working on a lease for a fashion company is the same as working on a lease for a beauty company.
JSEL: When LVMH is considering expanding its already extensive list of subsidiaries, what aspects of a corporation makes it attractive to be acquired by the LVMH conglomerate?
LF: I cannot really answer that because I am not part of the strategizing at that level. What I can say is that when you look at brands we currently own, it is fair to say that they all have a particular role within their industry. Guerlain is an iconic French fragrance house. Louis Vuitton, in fashion and leather goods, was an incredible innovator in terms of how you create luggage for travel. I would say that the brands we end up acquiring are iconic and represent something very specific about quality, creativity, and innovation in their field.
JSEL: Was there anything in particular that enticed you to work for LVMH?
LF: Yes and no. I am not a fashionista, at least I did not start out that way, though I have certainly become more interested in fashion since I began working here. The idea of working for a French multinational was appealing to me. I have a Masters Degree in international affairs. My interest originally was not in going to law school at all; my interest was working in the field of international relations, such as diplomacy. I have always enjoyed foreign cultures and languages so working for LVMH appealed to me on that level. It was a French multinational that gave me the opportunity to use my French and connect with our beautiful brands.
JSEL: Did you ever envision yourself working for a fashion company?
LF: No. Never.
JSEL: Along with Rachel Barnett, the General Counsel of TravelZoo, you taught the course Navigating the Challenges Faced By In-House Counsel during the Spring 2016 semester at Columbia Law School. How did you create the course and in drafting the curriculum how much did you pull from your personal experiences.
LF: The course came about after Rachel and I met at a women’s GC event here in New York and we began talking about how when you are outside counsel you do not always understand the needs of your in-house clients. Sometime after that, Rachel approached me saying that she had been thinking about teaching a course and would I consider co-teaching with her. It was intriguing to me. I had never really thought about it. We sat down, brainstormed, and after a couple hours talking about it, I said yes. After that we created the syllabus and brought it to Columbia. A lot of law schools are interested in courses that are more practical, especially for their upper level classes. Columbia asked for a few changes based on what they had heard students wanted. So that is how it happened. We are going to teach again in Spring 2017.
JSEL: What is the predominant message that you want your students to take away from the course?
LF: I think the predominant message is that the role of in-house counsel has changed over the years. Some people think the in-house lifestyle allows you to work fewer hours. That is not necessarily true. Some people think it is a better place to practice law because you do not have partners breathing down your neck. Frankly I do not think that everyone should go in-house. There are a lot of reasons people are not successful when they leave a firm to go in-house. If we can help students understand what it is really like, we are doing them a service. Most importantly though, since most students go to law firms, what we are trying to show them is that if you are an associate at a law firm but you understand your clients’ needs, you are going to be a better lawyer for them. And that is ultimately what we want. When you are in-house you are in a partnership with your outside counsel.
JSEL: You received your Masters Degree in International Affairs from Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and you speak both French and Italian. I read one of your previous interviews where you stated that you were enticed to move from Cole & Dietz to Citibank when you learned more about the international aspects of the job. As General Counsel of LVMH in the US, do you have the opportunity to work with your international counterparts at the various LVMH branches?
LF: Yes, and it is wonderful. I have colleagues from Italy, France, China, Japan, Brazil and Mexico, and I have been able to meet with my colleagues all over the world, including Shanghai. I get to practice my French and Italian but I speak more French than Italian nowadays. It is one of the things I like best about the culture.
JSEL: While there is no typical day in your line of work, can you describe the range of matters that you work on and how much of your job involves you acting as an attorney and how much deals with the business and management aspects of LVMH.
LF: That is a very good question and it is rather hard to answer because I think many issues, whether they are legal or not strictly legal, involve management and good judgment. But you are right, I do not have a typical day. During a typical week, I probably range from writing up corporate minutes from board meetings for our subsidiaries (I am also the corporate secretary), sending out email blasts regarding OFAC and giving guidance on what our subsidiaries can and cannot do, non-disclosure agreements for possible due diligence on the M&A side, to drafting engagement letters for outside counsel, and attending litigation status meetings and budget presentations. I also administer the department so I deal with fires that my team are facing and try to give them advice on things that come up based on my experience. I am part of the management team and at meetings the discussion is not often legal but I always bring a legal perspective to the way that I look at a problem, and I think that that is usually beneficial to the non-lawyers in the group.
JSEL: What advice would you give to law students who are interested in pursuing a career as an in-house lawyer, and specifically within a fashion company?
LF: The first thing I would say is get your training either at a law firm or possibly the government. The reason that I say that is because those of us in-house tend to prefer to hire people who have already had that kind of training elsewhere; we do not have the resources to do the training ourselves. If you have not had any fashion background or have not worked for any fashion clients before, then I would recommend doing some volunteer work, such as with Volunteer Lawyer for the Arts (VLA), the CFDA Fashion Incubator program, or reach out to a design school and see if you can offer to do pro bono work. Otherwise, attend CLE’s, conferences, and be out there so that when jobs come up (and by the way they are few and far between) you are top of mind. If you are someone who has expressed good interest, followed up, and have not been obnoxious about it, I think that is a way to be remembered when jobs come up. But it is also true that jobs do not come up that often. I am always happy to speak to law students and law firm associates about possible career opportunities; it is a way to give back in gratitude for all those who helped me along the way.