Q&A with Elisa Garcia, Chief Legal Officer of Macy’s

Elisa Garcia has been the Chief Legal Officer of Macy’s since September 2016. Prior to that, she worked at Office Depot in a variety of roles, including Executive Vice President and General Counsel, and then Chief Legal Officer after the 2013 merger with OfficeMax. Ms. Garcia previously served as General Counsel for Domino’s Pizza, among other roles.  

Q. Are there any defining experiences or people that led you to your current role as the CLO for Macy’s?

I joke that I’m an “accidental lawyer.” When I was younger, I was very interested in politics and government. I have a Master’s in Policy Analysis and Planning and I was a Developing Country Energy Analyst before I was a lawyer. I really thought I wanted to write laws and be a legislator. Law school seemed like the right direction. In my second year of law school, I did an internship with the SEC Enforcement Division and it opened up a new world to me. I previously didn’t know anything about the world of corporate securities – my family didn’t own a single share of stock. I didn’t know any lawyers, other than the ones I saw on T.V. After law school, I worked as a corporate finance associate in a law firm and, once I went in-house, I took the opportunities that came along and developed an expertise in consumer-facing companies, which has largely been the focus of my career.

As for people, the person that had a profound effect on me and helped me become a true manager of people, and not just a lawyer, was my CEO at Domino’s Pizza. I came to Domino’s as the company’s first in-house lawyer and I had to build the legal department. My CEO made me expand outside the law – I learned about franchise services and building training programs for those franchises. He taught me that there is nothing more important than understanding the business. Through that lens, I really developed in my role at Domino’s. That’s one of the most difficult challenges we have in bringing law firm lawyers in-house: having them understand that it’s all about the business, not the law.

Q. How has mentorship made a difference in your life?

More than formal mentoring programs, mentorship is about chemistry between two people, and you have to fan that flame. Early in my career, there was a senior partner at Willkie Farr who—although not my assigning partner—took an interest in my career. He helped me find really great opportunities working with him and others at the firm to learn new areas so that I could see what was going to gel for me. When you receive that interest from someone, try to nurture it. But don’t force it. It has to happen naturally. You should also develop relationships with people at your own level. I have a close group of peer GCs and other law firm lawyers that I have known for many years who I call upon and go back to all the time. They’re people who are living what I’m living, and I know I can go to them whenever I need guidance from my peers.

Q. What about mentoring others? Is it important to advocate for people outside of your own organization?

I always felt that mentoring others was very important. In addition to working with my own team, and making sure each person receives the opportunities they need to grow, mentorship is probably my most important job. Around 1996, I became involved with P.A.L.S. (Practicing Attorneys for Law Students). I mentored a first-year law student—Darlene, who would become my protégée—all through law school, through all of her interviews and job searches. We’ve kept in touch for over twenty years, despite living in different cities. Mentorship turned to sponsorship when I was eventually able to hire her. I brought her to Office Depot and she worked as my Chief Compliance Officer and Head of Corporate Securities and Finance. Now my job is to help her find a GC opportunity. I also meet with LatinX in-house lawyers interested in becoming a GC, to share experiences and potential leads.

I am also dedicated to encouraging diversity in the legal profession more broadly and making sure my outside firms are helping the cause. One time when I was at Office Depot, I was able to help a female partner get credit for the work that she had done for me. She had built a phenomenal and diverse team to do all of our corporate securities work and she was my main contact anytime I had any questions or issues. One day I learned that another partner the company had used for relatively small employment matters was responsible for issuing my invoices. I wasn’t sure if he was receiving some sort of origination credit for the work – I’d never gotten completely involved in the law firm model. That’s when I realized that it wasn’t enough that I was working with a senior female partner and that I helped her build the diverse team that was servicing the company’s work. I needed to understand how the law firm was compensating and crediting its lawyers. So that’s my new mentoring goal.

Q. What is the most difficult leadership lesson you have learned?

The most difficult leadership lesson I learned is how hard it is to be a general counsel. I’m now in my third GC role. I have to lead a team that supports the business’s need to grow, while both protecting the interests of that business and policing it. Those are three distinctly different jobs. It’s difficult to have to investigate the very people that you counsel every day. It’s difficult to report to a CEO but be beholden to a board of directors and, ultimately, the shareholders. You’re the conscience of the corporation but you also have to help the company move forward to achieve its strategic mission. At the same time, you have to be the moral compass and make sure you keep the company on the right path.

Q. What would you consider your most valued accomplishments so far?

Two things stand out to me. One of the highlights of my career was taking Domino’s public in 2004. I was the company’s first lawyer. I built the department—both the internal controls and the compliance systems—in the wake of Sarbanes Oxley. I taught the executive team what it meant to be a public company and worked with a new board on processes and procedures to make sure that they had the information they needed to oversee the company. And the company has been hugely successful. Also, I can make a large pepperoni pizza in 44 seconds.  

My second highlight was the merger of Office Depot and Office Max. Many people thought that it would be impossible, because of the failed Office Depot and Staples transaction. I’d done some acquisitions before, but this was my first “merger of equals.” The most difficult and the most fun part was the integration afterwards. When we first merged, the board was made up of half Office Depot and half Office Max members. There we were with an interim CEO, two CFOs, two GCs, two heads of marketing, two heads of sales—we were co-everything. It was a very unusual situation. Once we had a new CEO—who was very experienced in turnarounds and merger integration—I learned so much from working closely with him to bring the companies together and to prepare the organization to move forward. It was a very exciting time.

Q. You have said in the past that it is important to view your resume as a set of skills rather than a series of jobs. Which skills do you feel have been the most instrumental to your role as CLO?  

One skill that’s crucial as a CLO is listening to learn. Similar to reading between the lines, that means hearing what’s not being said and not talking as much. Sometimes you’re sitting in a room with your CEO, CFO and President, and they’re each saying different things. But they’re not really listening to each other so they don’t realize they’re saying different things. If you can be the person that brings it all together by asking the probing questions to bring out those differences of opinion, that’s a tremendous skill.

Another valuable skill is emotional intelligence or, as I call it, street smarts. Coming in to a new leadership team is like sizing up the cafeteria on the first day of high school. You have to know who the bullies are, you have to know who the smart kids are, and you have to know how to be useful to both of them.

You also need humility to be a really great CLO. You have to let others take the credit, including your team or your peers. And you have to be comfortable with the fact that the place will fall apart without you, even if no one else knows that.

Q. What’s a skill that lawyers seeking to go in-house roles should develop?

There’s nothing more important than learning the business inside and out. When I was at Domino’s, the CEO invited me to take a four-day course in Las Vegas, which is typically offered to franchise owners to learn the ins and outs of the business. I spent four days in a Domino’s Pizza store learning how to answer the phones, use the point of sale system, make a pizza, deal with the rush, deliver the pizza, scrub the pots and pans at the end of the night, do inventory in the cooler, all with the CEO by my side. I truly learned how to make it, bake it and take it. I learned how the company made its money and how franchisees were successful. By honing those skills and, whenever we had some extra time, taking my team to make pizzas for the fun of it, I earned the respect of the franchise community. They had never seen a lawyer covered in cornmeal working in a pizza store. But understanding the business and knowing how to make it, bake it and take it were all part of the culture—by learning the ins and outs, I had a fundamental understanding of the company.

Q. What is one must-read book for female lawyers that you recommend?

A must-read for any lawyer, especially any young lawyer, is a book called Tomorrow’s Lawyers by Richard Susskind. It discusses how the legal practice is changing and gives you an idea of areas you might want to focus on as you develop your skills.

For women in business generally, there’s a book called The Empress Has No Clothes, written by Joyce Roche, one of my directors at Macy’s. It’s about conquering self-doubt and embracing success. Too often, women in senior positions feel surprised by what they have accomplished and fear that perhaps they didn’t deserve it. For a long time, I thought I was the only one who felt that way, and it wasn’t until I read books like Lean In that I realized I wasn’t the only one. This book is a collection of Joyce’s and other women’s experiences. It helps you realize that you deserve your success and helps you figure out how to enjoy it and celebrate it.

Giselle Alvarado is an associate in Debevoise’s New York office.

Comments? Suggestions? We’d love to hear from you. Send us an email at women@debevoise.com.