Deborah P. Majoras, photo for InsideCounsel by Asa Mathat
To help decide whether to pursue a legal career, Deborah P. Majoras took a job as a receptionist at a law firm after she graduated from college. Having been exposed to the legal environment, she pursued her interest and went on to graduate from the University of Virginia School of Law. Following a federal clerkship, she joined Jones Day, where she ultimately was named partner in the firm’s antitrust practice. She then served as the deputy assistant AG at the U.S. Department of Justice’s antitrust division, and was later appointed as chairman of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Today she is the chief legal officer and secretary at The Procter & Gamble Company, ranked No. 31 on the Fortune 500.
How did you enter the legal profession and more specifically, how did you come to specialize in antitrust?
After college, I moved to Washington and took a job as a receptionist at a law firm. I thought I wanted to go to law school but didn’t know many lawyers and thought I could build relationships with lawyers to help me decide. I used this time to learn from people I worked with. I would talk to various lawyers about where I would apply to law school and, with the guidance of a partner at the firm, decided on the University of Virginia for law school. During my last semester, I took an antitrust class and found it to be really interesting. Then, during my clerkship the next year, we had a big antitrust merger case and as I became more involved, I was fascinated by the analysis and interplay between the specific factual scenarios and the dynamics of how markets worked. So, when I got to Jones Day, I approached the head of the litigation practice and mentioned that I’d be happy to take on an antitrust project if one became available. He introduced me to attorneys in the Washington office and in doing so, I met one of the best antitrust lawyers in the world, Joe Sims; he became my mentor and still is today.
How did you like working for the government?
It’s very special to be able to serve in a public office. I worked with great people doing something that I loved. And when I joined the FTC, I gained a new focus area — consumer protection — which I quickly came to enjoy very much.
Could you describe your appointment and Senate confirmation as chairman of the FTC?
I was nominated in 2004, which was an election year and a period in which gasoline prices were on the rise. There were a number of senators who wanted the FTC to do something about it, like pursue litigation against large oil companies in order to bring down prices. I was told that if I did not agree to do that, that they would put an indefinite hold on my nomination. I made it clear that I couldn’t agree to bring a suit against a company with no evidence of wrongdoing; I just wasn’t going to give in to something that I didn’t think was right in order to get confirmed. So, a Senator put a hold on my nomination, and I was recessed appointed in August 2004. Then, when President Bush was re-elected in November, the Senate confirmed 180 of us in the middle of the night. This was a difficult process. But throughout my tenure, I was determined to listen to all viewpoints, and then do what I thought was right.
What are the prospects for women seeking a career in law today, and how do they compare with how things were when you first started practicing law?
The prospects are very good. We have seen enormous change just in the sheer numbers of women coming out of law school now. Naturally, people have a tendency to focus on the number of women in leadership roles, such as general counsel or law firm partners, and these numbers haven’t increased at the same rate. But we are making progress and, outside of just the numbers (which are only one indicator), I see women significantly affecting the culture of the legal profession and the workplaces within it, and I think this is a positive development not to be overlooked.
Do you see there are challenges for women in the workplace?
First, we should remember that there are challenges for everyone, not just for women. But for women, specifically, one challenge is that people who are in leadership positions often look for future leaders who are like them. It may not even be conscious but it happens. In meeting the challenges, we should not make the mistake of trying to be someone we are not — I think being yourself and developing your own leadership style is critical, even if it may take a bit longer to gain acceptance. I’ve actually come to the conclusion that one of the things breaking down any remaining barriers is fathers with daughters, because they see how smart and talented these young women are and they want them to have everything. It helps other women when they bring that outlook to the workplace.
You’ve worked in law firms, government agencies, and finally in-house. Which experience did you enjoyed most and can you talk about some of the differences?
Each offered a unique and wonderful experience, and I feel very fortunate to have had these different opportunities. What I love about being in-house is being connected to the business. I enjoy finding ways to solve problems and keep the company compliant while helping to achieve its business goals. I like leading a legal team and being an executive leader in the company. Government service was tough but incredibly satisfying. Having roles in which I could support free markets with consumers at the centerpiece, that was the ultimate mission, and I loved making policy. It was a great experience because I learned first-hand that good intentions are not enough and became more disciplined in thinking through all sides of an issue, including potential unintended consequences. In a law firm environment, I loved being surrounded by smart lawyers who made each other better and by working on a variety of matters for different clients.
What are some of the most important issues facing your company right now?
The world has become a very uncertain and volatile place. We sell products in 180 countries and the issues that impact these regions — the volatility, the dangers, and difficulties that people face, be it living in a war torn country or under a dictatorship, impact our business because we are serving those people. The challenge is to keep manufacturing our products and get them to the people who need them, whether its diapers for babies or soap or other household products that are important in people’s lives. In terms of specific legal challenges, protecting our intellectual property and our information, in general, is becoming more difficult. We face many new compliance and governance challenges that arise as governments become more aggressive and demand more from companies. As our reach expands, we have more laws, rules and regulations with which we must comply.