Online Exclusive: Full Interview with Deborah Platt Majoras

As a self-described shy and sheltered 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.–let alone be appointed by the President of the United States to chair the Federal Trade Commission. But that’s exactly where Majoras’ career has led her.

At a small liberal arts college, Majoras studied social work and Spanish 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 could be more help to people if she could do it from the top down. “Have you considered law school?” he asked her. She hadn’t, but the idea stayed with her.

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 a few months promoted her to paralegal. By now, Majoras was in love with law. After a year at the firm, she left to attend law school. She had no idea 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 D.C. Then I went to Jones Day in Chicago doing antitrust work and eventually moved to the Cleveland office.

Some of the partners wanted me to move to D.C. 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 had started the process of moving to D.C. [when] one of my partners about to go into the Bush Administration asked me to go with him. Six months later I went to the Justice Department.

I decided to go back to Jones Day in February 2004, and was in my first week back in the office when I received a call from White House personnel. They wanted to know if I wanted to be considered [for chairman of the FTC]. I was a 38-year-old antitrust lawyer, and I wasn’t going to turn my back if that’s what the president wanted.

Q: Why do you think President Bush appointed you?

A: Considering I am not political, it’s a tough question. The folks who made these decisions had worked closely with me in the DOJ. I worked hard. Also, at one point I had been up for a promotion. 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 is very committed to her work.” It was a good lesson to me.

Q: What brought you to Procter & Gamble?

A: I had thought about the possibility of going in-house. P&G has such an outstanding reputation [so when I learned they were interested in me], I wanted to hear what they had to say.

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. I started as general counsel in 2008 and was named CLO this year.

Q: Tell me about the work you do as CLO of the P&G.

A: 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. We have a lot of IP issues. We have a large portfolio of patents. 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. When you are a CLO, you have to think strategically about how legal and ethics intersect with business issues.

Q: What changes have taken place since you joined?

A: We created separate global legal compliance groups. We look at not just whether we are complying, but whether 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 about 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 five 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.

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’s your favorite thing about your work?

A: We serve consumers around the world and it’s really energizing. I love working with talented professionals who are great humans. And I love solving problems and finding solutions.

Q: What is the most challenging part of your job?

A: The greatest challenge is we are living in an environment of constant change. We need 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, and be great communicators.

Q: If money and family 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.