Sara Moss, General Counsel, The Estée Lauder Companies

Foundation for success

Between juggling a thriving career in law and raising her four children, Sara Moss has been a consummate woman on the move, stopping little to rest along the way over the past 30 years. Moss, executive vice president and general counsel of The Estée Lauder Companies, has a diverse background in the legal industry, from serving as a clerk for a U.S. District Judge to serving as senior litigation partner at Howard, Smith & Levin (now Covington & Burling), a New York City-based law firm, and later as GC of not one, but two, Fortune 500 companies. Before joining Estée Lauder in 2003, Moss served

as the general counsel of Pitney Bowes for five years. When the company’s then chief executive, Michael Critelli, recruited her, there were fewer than 10 female CEOs in the United States. Today, with just over 4 percent of CEO positions in the Fortune 500 currently held by women, Moss is part of a small but slowly growing faction of senior-level executive women.

When she was recruited to Estée Lauder 10 years ago, Moss says she was attracted to the company’s values, and the opportunities and challenges the job presented. Since graduating law school in 1974, Moss has taken a similar approach to each role she has held, each providing the opportunity to hone her decidedly unique skills as a corporate attorney.

“It was hard and very challenging but very rewarding. I am not sure I have slept much in 30 years,” Moss says with a laugh. “But my job enabled me to have the support I needed. I tried not to travel too much. It was it a lot of juggling.”

Although Moss’s children are now in their 20s and she has attained what she calls her “dream job” as GC of Esteé Lauder, Moss is not resting on her laurels. InsideCounsel recently had an opportunity to catch up with Moss to talk about her biggest challenges as GC as well as what makes the job so rewarding. Below is our full exchange.

Q: What do you like about in-house work vs. private practice?

A: What I really love about being in house is I feel I can make a long-term, positive contribution to a really great company. Estée Lauder is a great company and I feel I can make broad and long-term positive contributions. When I was a litigation partner, I would be called into really difficult situations and I would try to help solve those in a positive way, but I would parachute in and parachute out. As GC here, I am able to provide more long-term solutions to a broad set of problems.

Q: Do you prefer working in-house to law firm work?

A: Yes. The range of issues that come across my desk as GC is unbelievable. Apart from being a federal judge, if you are GC of a global company, the range of problems you help solve is so wide-ranging and diverse that it keeps the job challenging and exciting. In a given day I will deal with issues in Russia, China and in the U.S., real estate and antitrust. There are many issues a public company has to deal with. As a litigator in a law firm, you have very big cases and you tend to be focused on the few big cases. What I really love is the diversity and the ability to make a contribution in a long-term, broad and deep way.   

Q: What’s important to know about Estée Lauder? 

A: We have 30 great brands. We are a global company and the global leader in prestige beauty. We do not do mass produce and we are in over 150 countries. In the 10 years that I have been here, the big news is how global we are and the emerging markets are the areas of greatest opportunities. We have approximately 40,000 employees around the world; we are global yet we are a very family-values based company. (Esteé Lauder is the grandmother of the company’s executive chairman, William Lauder.) We are very involved in breast cancer work, Alzheimer’s research and the MAC AIDS Fund. I think those strong family values in a public company make it really special.  

Q: Tell me about the work your legal team does.

A: We do the full range of legal work except that we don’t handle litigation; we support litigation. We always have outside counsel for an acquisition. The range of work of our in-house team includes IP, employment law, commercial law, real estate, claims and claim support, corporate governance, securities filings/board works, antitrust law and government relations. Our global securities team reports to me since they are involved in anti-counterfeit work. We have a team of 36 lawyers inNew York and four outside ofNew York.

Q: Are there any specialized skills you’ve developed by working at a cosmetics company, as opposed to another kind of company?

A: To some extent every public company has many similarities. There are two aspects of my work where I have honed my skills. In the claims area with our advertising, we have to substantiate our claims in a highly competitive market. When you open any page of a beauty magazine, there is another company telling you why you should by their product. Every single word is carefully substantiated and that was an area that I was not as familiar with. The regulatory landscape around the world – understanding the global regulatory framework – is something I had a general understanding of before but not nearly as deep.China is a big area of opportunity for us. I spend a lot of time working on some of the problems and challenges there. Those are areas of expertise that have grown dramatically for me. Trademark is another one. Every product has a name; every perfume bottle has a shape. It’s the biggest group in our legal department. As we expand globally, trademark protection is critical.

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

A: There are two parts: Being able to make a positive contribution to the company’s success. That is a real fun part of the job. The real fun and challenge is when you can combine your legal expertise and business expertise to really help the company have a competitive edge. Working closely with our CEO and our senior team is spectacular. We have a really talented group of executives and it is a lot of fun for me to be part of that team. Another rewarding part of my job is mentoring other lawyers. We have a very talented group of lawyers. Working with them, mentoring them and helping them to be successful has been very rewarding.

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