Becoming a lawyer wasn’t a lifelong dream for Sara Moss. She certainly didn’t envision one day holding the title of executive vice president and general counsel of The Estee Lauder Cos. In fact, growing up outside of New York City in Long Island, Moss knew she wanted to be a teacher. And that’s exactly what she did.

When she graduated from college with a degree in history, she married her high school sweetheart and started teaching high school. But over time, she became more and more interested in the feminist movement. That, combined with a new husband attending law school full time, shifted her interest. “I wanted to make a contribution and that wasn’t something I had thought of right out of school,” she says.

After three years of teaching high school, Moss made a life-changing career decision when she decided to attend New York University School of Law, known for its high enrollment of women–then, around 20 percent. By the time she graduated, Moss landed a clerking position with Constance Baker Motley, a civil rights activist and the first African-American woman to be named (by President Johnson) to federal judge.

“I had good fortune and great opportunities after law school,” Moss says. “Working for [Judge Baker Motley] was such a privilege.”

Moss then moved on to work as an associate at Davis Polk, where she met Robert Fiske. Fiske soon left the firm to work as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and he lured Moss away to work with him. Moss furthered her litigation experience in the position and was one of the few women to work in the state’s criminal division. Moss eventually went back to the law firm life–adding another decade of great experience onto her resume. But when she received a phone call one day in 1996, she had no idea her legal career was about to take a whole new direction.

Q: How did you end up in your first in-house position?

A: It was really dropped in my lap when I got a call from a head hunter about the GC position at Pitney Bowes. I had been a litigator at that point for many years. I had worked on cases that were very interesting, and going in-house would be a new challenge.

There was a new CEO at Pitney Bowes, Mike Critelli, and he had written out a profile for who he wanted as GC. I went and met with him–very smart and interesting. His character, integrity and intelligence were very persuasive. I was so engaged by him and the issues. Because I was a litigator and because the problems were challenging, the idea of working closely with someone I liked and respected at a good company to help build value over the long term was appealing to me.

At that point, there were very few women in GC positions at Fortune 500 companies. It was a great opportunity.

Q: What led you to Estee Lauder?

A: I had said to myself and to Mike that I would stay at Pitney Bowes for five years. We had a number of challenges, and at the end of five years, those had been met. I had been doing a reverse commute from New York to Connecticut for five years, at least one hour each way, and it was hard.

Then, on Sept. 11, I was in Connecticut, and my children were in New York. I couldn’t get back to the city. My daughter was in her second year at NYU, and she was living two blocks away from the World Trade Center. She was incredibly shaken.

The timing was right, and I just felt I needed to be back in the city. A few months later, in January 2002, I met with the CEO and told him I was burnt out and needed to leave, but I would help him find a successor, which I did.

In my search during spring 2003, I cast my net widely. There was some interest from law firms, and I looked at some other opportunities at non-profits and in television broadcasting. As I was leaving Pitney Bowes, I got a call from a headhunter about Estee Lauder. So I took some time off, spent time with my children and joined Estee Lauder in September 2003.

Q: Tell me a little about the work you do as GC of Estee Lauder.

A: We’re public and global. I have 30 lawyers–with a total of 55 legal department employees. Most of our lawyers are in New York. And we have one lawyer in Brussels. The array of work is patent, trademark, advertising, and labor and employment.

The lawyers are organized in two ways: We have areas of expertise and a dedicated lawyer program where every brand has a lawyer dedicated to it. That has been fabulous. It has really motivated the lawyers. They love it; they get to be part of the business unit. They add value far beyond their expertise and become part of a business team. They still report to me but it has been terrific for the lawyer and the client.

Q: Would you tell me a little about Estee Lauder’s commitment to the environment and how the legal department was involved in that effort?

A: It’s exciting. We have a lot of global environmental initiatives. For the first time, we’re tracking our results–the initiatives as well as the benchmarking. We have a whole array of successes.

Aveda has the first wind-powered plant in Minnesota. We’re a founding member of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. Seventy-five percent of our manufacturing waste is recycled–up 50 percent from last year.

The Origins brand has a “Returned Origins” program that includes all brands. Under that program, Origins will accept used containers, and we will recycle them for you. Aveda has a cap-recycling program.

As a corporation, we have big energy initiatives. I have a senior lawyer dedicated to the environmental group–two of them work on it. The company is very aggressive, and the legal department is a big part of that. This is very important to us.

Q: Why do you think it’s important for a company to have an environmental initiative?

A: It’s the right thing to do, and it’s the only way we will survive as a company and a planet. It’s the only way we’ll be successful. Not to mention, there is a strong business case for sustainability.

We’re a family-owned and -controlled business, and [Chairman] William Lauder leads the environmental initiative here at Estee Lauder. He feels very strongly about this, and that makes it very powerful. It’s important to all of our stakeholders. It is the smartest business way to operate.

Q: You have received quite a few awards in areas such as diversity and pro bono. Would you tell me a little about your work in diversity?

A: I have been GC of two companies and feel very privileged to have had those jobs. The companies I had chosen are both important to me. They both have strong commitments to diversity. It has been important to me personally in choosing my job. Those awards were really for the spokesperson for already terrific companies. For legal departments and companies, diversity programs are the right and smart thing to do.

When we are choosing outside counsel, the diversity of the partnerships at the law firm is important to me. I want firms that have active diverse partners. Then you are getting the best talent as a consumer for legal services, and I want to make it clear that I care about that. That has made a difference in the firm.

Q: How about your pro bono efforts?

A: We don’t have a formal program in place at Estee Lauder, but we have a number of formal and informal opportunities. I want people to be involved in work they care about. Giving back is something we need to do. It’s part of the company culture, but also as lawyers, I feel that public service is something we are morally obligated to do. I encourage my in-house lawyers to do pro bono work of their choosing. We have a partnership with several firms who we work with in this area.

Q: How do you feel about winning these awards?

A: This goes back to why I love my job and think in-house work is so satisfying. My moral beliefs, ethical beliefs and principles are well aligned here. I am able to make a contribution through the company and through the support of the company. In the contributions that we make, I am very lucky to be in the situations. I feel like I can do more, but we’re working hard here.

Q: What do you love most about your work? About being a lawyer?

A: I love the range of work. My job has a wide array of challenges and issues. The things that come across my desk range from regulatory issues in China to advertising issues in the U.S. or SEC matters. That range makes it exciting, challenging and fun.

I also love being part of the team that helps lead the company in the right direction. I work with a team that is fun and engaging. And the array of challenges is the combination that makes this job so satisfying.

It’s very satisfying leading a group of wonderful lawyers. The management part of it is different–even though I managed lawyers at a law firm–when you are head of a function at a company. The responsibility of managing a group and leading them is an important part of the job. I do really enjoy leading the group of lawyers we have because I care about them. I nurture them and bring out the best in them.

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

A: Right now it’s local regulatory issues. That’s what keeps me up at night. We are a global company, and regulatory enforcement and legislation is increasing dramatically around the world. Addressing those issues is most challenging now.

Q: What advice would you give a young lawyer who would like to someday become GC of a large company?

A: Work hard, be exposed to and get involved in the widest range of issues you possibly can. That is the best advice. Don’t be too narrow.

When I became GC of Pitney Bowes, I had been a lawyer for 22 years, and to some extent I didn’t even realize how much I had learned over all that time. After I became a GC, someone–a well-known partner–called me up and said, “How do you know how to do this job?” And I said, “Well, I know how to pick up the phone and call a lawyer.” But that was when I had enough experience and I knew when there were red flags. Being exposed to the widest range difficult issues wherever you are is probably the best prep.

Q: If money, family, etc. weren’t an issue, what would your dream job be?

A: To be a member of the singing group The Supremes.