Elisa D. Garcia, Executive Vice President and Chief Legal Officer, Office Depot
Elisa Garcia has never shied away from a challenge. From an early career switch to the law, to successfully convincing the Federal Trade Commission to approve a groundbreaking merger, to raising a family, she has worked across industries, languages and countries.
Garcia was named executive vice president and chief legal officer for Office Depot in December 2013, and also serves as general counsel and secretary. She is responsible for managing legal, regulatory, compliance, loss prevention and government affairs matters for the company worldwide.
Before joining Office Depot, she was executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary for Domino’s Pizza, Inc. She has worked for Philip Morris International as Latin American regional counsel and corporate counsel for GAF Corp. Her first legal job was with Willkie, Farr & Gallagher as an associate.
Women, Influence & Power in Law recently spoke with Garcia about her professional accomplishments, what has her excited about her current job and who has had a meaningful impact on her career.
WIPL: What first drew you to a career in the law?
EG: I turned to the law by default. I had commenced a career as an energy analyst focusing on developing countries in the late 1970s and early 1980s when there was a severe energy crisis facing the world. About the same time, bureaucracies started taking over the process, both in the United States and in the developing countries, and the work became less fun and the oil crisis began to ease. I was set to begin a two-year project in Somalia when I decided to go to law school instead. I had always been interested and active in politics, and law school seemed like an excellent credential for my political aspirations.
WIPL: What professional accomplishment has made you most proud?
EG: My greatest professional accomplishment is unconditional approval by the FTC of the merger of Office Depot and OfficeMax. The FTC successfully blocked the proposed Staples-Office Depot Merger in 1997, and many people, including members of the board of directors, believed that FTC approval was unattainable. I chose the right team and worked closely with outside counsel to get the necessary information to the FTC. They ultimately agreed with our assertions that the world had changed for office products since 1997.
WIPL: What has been the biggest change in the legal field since you began practicing law?
EG: I have been practicing awhile, so I will have to admit that technology and mobility have had the greatest impact on the practice of law. However, the biggest recent change is the move away from hourly based billing for outside legal services. This change is taking many forms such as the increased use of fixed and alternative fee arrangements and hopefully, it is beginning to change the way law firms look at their profitability.
WIPL: What advice would you give to women looking to advance in their legal departments?
EG: First I would look at the word “advancement” and determine what that means in terms of your career and your company. If you are at an outside firm and are seeking to become a partner, I suggest that you befriend the in-house lawyers or investment bankers with whom you work. Work hard to make them look good and find opportunities to learn new areas of law/business together. These relationships will be your bread and butter when you become a partner.
If you are in-house, look not to move up but to expand your sphere of influence. Ask to be put on cross-functional teams that are formed to deal with a specific challenge, get invited to staff meetings and show that you are more than a lawyer. If you learn the business, your ability to think critically and to assess risks—not just legal risks—will be recognized.
Legal departments are quite flat, and if you believe that advancement means moving into my role, you may be waiting a long time. Many of my department’s lawyers have moved into the business as VPs in human resources, compensation and benefits, the EVP of contract sales, director of broadcast media or the VP of HR and business transformation for our European business.
WIPL: Which specific people helped you throughout your career?
EG: Every day I get help from others. A career is not a solo venture. I have been able to accomplish some wonderful things because of the support of my husband and all of those wonderful au pairs who took care of my children, the partners at Willkie Farr where I began my legal career, my colleagues in the Association of Corporate Counsel and the National Retail Federation (who form a critical support and advice network), as well as friends and colleagues at Office Depot. David Brandon, my former boss and CEO of Domino’s Pizza, expanded my horizons from a legal adviser to a true manager of people and the business. There have been many people on whose shoulders I stand.