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 Estée Lauder Cos, which is the parent over brands such as Bobbi Brown, MAC, Clinique, Origins and more. In fact, growing up outside of New York City in Long Island, Moss wanted to be a teacher. And that’s exactly what she did.
When she graduated from college with a degree in history, she started teaching high school. But over time, she became more interested in the feminist movement. That, combined with a husband attending law school full time, shifted her interests.
“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, 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. 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 a federal judge.
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. She 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, 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 headhunter 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.
I went and met with [the CEO]–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.
Q: What led you to Est?e Lauder?
A: I had said to myself and to [the CEO] 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 living two blocks away from the World Trade Center. She was incredibly shaken.
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, 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 Est?e Lauder. So I took some time off, spent time with my children and joined Est?e Lauder in September 2003.
Q: Tell me a little about the work you do as GC of Est?e Lauder.
A: 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 add value far beyond their expertise and become part of a business team.
Q: Would you tell me a little about Est?e Lauder’s commitment to the environment?
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.
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.
Q: 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. They both have strong commitments to diversity. It has been important to me personally in choosing my job. For legal departments and companies, diversity programs are the smart thing to do.
When we are choosing outside counsel, I want firms that have active diverse partners. Then you are getting the best talent as a consumer for legal services.
Q: How about your pro bono efforts?
A: We don’t have a formal program in place, 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.
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.
Q: What is the most challenging part of your job with Est?e 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. 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 difficult issues wherever you are is 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.