Considering herself shy and sheltered as a young girl, Deborah Platt Majoras likely wouldn’t have believed anyone who told her she would one day sit at the helm of the legal department of a major corporation (The Procter & Gamble Co.)–or even more so, be appointed by the President of the United States to chair the Federal Trade Commission. But that’s exactly where Deborah Platt Majoras’ career has led her.
Attending a small liberal arts college for undergraduate school, Majoras was studying social worker and Spanish, with a concentration on Latin American studies with the intention of building a career helping people. But one of her professors recognized something special about her. One day, when the class was coming to an end, he pulled Majoras aside and said he thought she may be more helpful to people if she could find a way to do it from the top down. “Have you considered law school,” he asked her. At the time, she hadn’t. Later, an internship at the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund gave her more exposure to the legal world, and she was intrigued. Still, after graduation she moved to Washington, D.C., with her girlfriends, setting the idea of law school aside.
But Majoras found herself working as a receptionist at law firm Porter Wright. Her superiors immediately recognized her talent and within months she was promoted to paralegal. By now, Majoras was in love with law. After a year at the firm, she left the position to attend law school full time. Little did she know how far this decision would take her.
Q: How did your career progress after law school?
A: I clerked for two years in the Federal District Court in DC. I wanted to clerk in the trial court because I wanted to have the trial courtroom experiences. Then after that, I went Jones Day in Chicago doing antitrust work and eventually moved to the Cleveland office.
I was in the Cleveland office for two years, and some of the partners wanted me to move to D.C. and I kept resisting. I had mixed feelings because I don’t like politics much, so I resisted. Then, finally I decided it would be a good move.
In early 2001, we started the process of moving to D.C. and no sooner had we found a house to buy, one of my partners about to go into the Bush Administration asked me to go with him. I finally moved to D.C. and six months later went to the just dept.
I was there from 2001 to 2003. I decided to go back to Jones Day in February 2004 and was in my first week back in the office and I received a call from White House personnel telling me in secrecy that chairman of the FTC would be leaving and wanted to know if I wanted to be considered. And I said, “But I just got back to Jones Day.” They said they didn’t realize it would be happening.
I was a 38-yr-old antitrust lawyer, and I wasn’t going to turn my back if that is what the president wanted.
Q: Why did President Bush appoint you?
A: Well, considering I am not political, and I was completely unknown to Bush team until 2001, it’s a tough question. The folks who make these decisions had worked closely with me in the DOJ. We built up trust. We had had some high profile work and we had all had exposure to each other. I worked hard. Also, at one point I had been up for a promotion as was a colleague. I didn’t get it, and I was disappointed. Friends had advised me to leave, but I loved the job and had a lot to learn, so I stayed.
I later learned, the decision-makers went to Bush and said, “This is who you should appoint. She is a team player. She was disappointed and hung in there. She was very committed to the work.” It was a good lesson to me. It was one that is something to remember.
Q: How did you end up at Procter & Gamble?
A: I was in my office at the FTC and received a message asking if I would be interested in P&G. I had broadly contemplating what I would do next. I had thought about the possibility of going in-house. P&G has such an outstanding reputation, I wanted to hear what they had to say. They don’t hire outside all that frequently, so we discussed it for a few months.
Ultimately, we decided it would be a good fit. And the way P&G served the consumer was similar to what I was doing at the FTC, so it was pretty intriguing to think about doing that from another position. I started as general counsel in 2008 and was named chief legal officer this year.
Q: Why didn’t you go back to a law firm?
A: I enjoyed private practice very much. I had a very good experience at Jones Day. I left for good opportunity, not because I was unhappy. I was coming out of the FTC job, which was very special. I was attracted to the idea of doing something different. I spent a lot of time at the FTC advocating for free markets and competition. I wanted to contribute to a company that is actually out there in the marketplace doing that every day.
Q: Tell me the work you do as CLO of the P&G.
A: When you think about this job, there’s kind of managing and leading up, down and sideways. I have a great legal team around the world. That is essential. Together we spend a lot of time working on government and compliance issues. Constituencies today are demanding excellence and integrity more than ever before.
We also have a lot of IP issues. We have a large portfolio of patents. We have lots of advertising work. One thing we spend a lot of time on is counterfeiting. We have to be very vigilant on that.
I also spend a lot of time with my peers working on company strategy. It is my job to think through legal implications. When you are a CLO you have to think strategically about how legal and ethics intersect with business issues. There is not a big wall between us.
Q: What changes has taken place since you joined?
A: We created separate global legal compliance groups. We look at not just whether we are complying, but do we have the system in place to ensure we are. I also bolstered our litigation system so we are more efficient and better at sharing information in how we do risk assessments.
We are now embarking on something called Legal Renewal in which a number of us are thinking about what our department should look like 5 or 10 years out. We’ve looked at global business trends, where the company is headed and where the legal markets are headed, and we developed a structure that will make us more responsive to how the business should run. If you don’t do some strategic planning, our jobs become so reactive. We think this will allow us to be more effective.
We are going to look at work-life balance. People are always struggling with this. And it’s too easy to throw up your hands and say, “well, that’s just how it is.”
Q: How does your experience with the FTC help you?
A: It gave me great experience in leadership. There is no question that jobs like this are very broad and far-reaching. The important thing is having great communication skills. There are so many problems that can be headed off with good communication.
Also, you never knew what would happen day to day–every crisis that arises at 5 p.m. will look much more benign at 7 the next morning. Sometimes, you just have to rest your brain and come back the next morning fresh.
Q: What do you love most about your work?
A: We serve consumers around the world and its really energizing. I love working with talented professional who are great humans. And I love solving problems and finding solutions.
Q: What is the most challenging part of your job?
A: I’m still relatively new and dividing up my time appropriately. We all have to be selective, and I’m still learning the entire scope of it. The greatest challenge is we are living in a challenging environment of constant change. Our challenge is to stay focused enough to understand the company’s needs and what impacts us.
Q: What advice would you give a young lawyer who would like to become GC of a large company?
A: I have found that the key to reaching a goal down the road is to focus on succeeding in what you are doing today. Become excellent lawyers, develop great analytic skills and judgment, be great communicators. If you focus on that, you will have the best shot at getting what you want.
Q: If money, family etc. weren’t an issue, what would your dream job be?
A: Commissioner of Baseball. If that’s too dreamy, then I would be a teacher.