This transcript comes from an interview conducted by Saeed Ahmad—a board member for the Harvard Association for Law & Business (HALB). The interview was conducted on January 24, 2022, with then-SVP and General Counsel at Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH) Americas, Louise Firestone, who retired from LVMH after 23 years in mid-2022. JSEL has agreed to collaborate with HALB by publishing this interview to provide its contents to a broader audience.
Saeed Ahmad, Harvard Association for Law & Business: Hi everyone! My name is Saeed Ahmad and I am one of the board members for the Harvard Association for Law & Business, and we are happy to host the Senior Vice President of Legal Affairs and the General Counsel of LVMH Americas, Louise Firestone.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your current role as Senior Vice President (SVP) and General Counsel (GC) at LVMH North America Region?
Louise Firestone, LVMH: I have been with LVMH for more than two decades, and it has been an amazing journey. My background was primarily in financial services, and I worked at a law firm and then two financial institutions before joining LVMH. LVMH was a brand-new experience for me, and the job has evolved over the years. My team oversees mergers and acquisitions involving US entities, either because they are US-based or have US subsidiaries. I also serve as the corporate secretary and handle matters related to minority shareholders. For instance, we have subsidiaries where some founders are still actively involved. Additionally, I am a member of the Executive Team, so I am involved in various strategic matters, not just purely legal issues. When the pandemic started, it dominated our focus, but we have managed to shift our attention somewhat. Nevertheless, I still have team members who spend most of their time dealing with code requirements and restrictions related to health and safety.
My legal team includes a real estate lawyer, an intellectual property lawyer, a general litigator, and a couple of employment lawyers, along with paralegals, etc. I am actively involved in the development of younger lawyers, not only those on my direct team but also lawyers embedded with the brands due to our unique setup. We have larger brands like Louis Vuitton and Sephora, each with its legal team. I make significant efforts to create opportunities for continuing legal education, organize off-site events, and facilitate networking opportunities, including pro-bono initiatives. This helps younger and more established lawyers connect with each other across North America and globally.
Ahmad: Going deeper into your background, your undergraduate and master’s degrees were in International Relations and International Affairs, respectively. You obviously now work at one of the largest international conglomerates and have lived and worked on three continents. Was working in an international setting the plan from the start?
Firestone: So, ironically, it took me a very long time to look back at my career and realize that the one constant was an international orientation. I would have to say that deep down, yes, that’s true, but I wasn’t really aware of it. When I chose to become a lawyer, I was not really thinking that I would be working in an international setting. As we all know, you have to be bar-certified not only in the United States but also in a particular state in the US. If you are a New York lawyer like me, you can’t even necessarily practice in California, let alone overseas. So, I really wasn’t thinking so much about an international career when I went into law school. But it is true that before deciding on law, my goal was to be a diplomat. I took the foreign service exam, and passed it, but ultimately decided not to pursue it. I never looked back. I love what I do, but yes, I’m sure that loving what I do has a lot to do with the fact that I deal with international issues and colleagues. Although the law that I practice is U.S. law, there’s a lot of education among my colleagues about what goes on in the global legal industry. Additionally, there are many common threads and common problems.
Ahmad: Please correct me if I’m wrong, but you speak multiple languages, right? Do you think that has helped, whether it’s in the role or throughout your career trajectory, in terms of, for example, being appealing to employers or dealing with different types of clients?
Firestone: When I first started here at LVMH almost 23 years ago, there were still many senior executives whose English was not perfect, especially those who were French. Today, that is no longer the case. When people say to me, “Oh, well, you’re fluent in French; that must be why you’re so successful at LVMH,” I disabuse them of that notion. You don’t have to speak another language to excel in this job. Does it help? Maybe, but it’s more of a social lubrication than anything else.
Ahmad: Understood, thank you, Louise. And going back a little bit, right after you graduated from law school, please correct me if I’m pronouncing this wrong, but you were an associate with Cole & Dietz, correct? My question is, do you think the big law environment has any benefits for newly graduating attorneys, besides obviously paying off those loans? Do you think it provides any training advantages?
Firestone: Well, I do. I have mentioned before that I won’t hire someone directly from law school, but I also don’t think that law firms are the only places where you can receive good training. I believe the government is an excellent place for training. People who come out of the SEC, State Department, FDA, or any other government agency often have tremendous insights and can make excellent associates, either in a law firm or potentially in-house, depending on the specific issues at hand. I also think there’s often too much emphasis on big law. While they may have the best training programs, it’s not the only path to success.
Ahmad: Louise, you went from a law firm, to working at two other companies as well: Citibank and Credit Suisse. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but much of your trajectory has been about taking risks or going into what many people might think of as the unknown. How important is it to take risks in terms of career trajectories, and how has that applied to your specific situation?
Firestone: I do think that taking risks is important. I also think that I was pretty naive, and I didn’t really know how risky some of my moves were, to be honest with you. When I made my first move in-house, I was still quite junior, and it was also at a time when people didn’t go in-house readily. I was told by one of the partners I worked with that it was a career-limiting move, that good lawyers did not go in-house. I remember spending a lot of time discussing the move with my husband, who was a lawyer in a law firm. He said, “What have you got to lose? If it turns out that it’s the wrong place for you, you can probably go back or go somewhere else.” So, that’s how I decided to pursue it. I have to tell you, I was very impressed with the caliber of lawyers at at Citibank and later at Credit Suisse. It just wasn’t the popular thing to do. Today, it seems like most law students don’t even want to go to a law firm except as a passageway to an in-house position. I think that’s wrong, too. You really should be open because there are different skill sets. I think I ended up being more suited for the in-house positions than I anticipated, but I didn’t really know that. I did it kind of blindly, as I said, but I think it worked out well.
Ahmad: Again, talking about those job transitions you must have had in between those roles, you mentioned in a previous interview that when you were looking for a job, you publicized it to your network. It was through this way that you actually heard about the opening at your current position at LVMH. Many of us are still in the hunt for summer jobs or employment opportunities. Can you tell us a little about the importance of networking in looking for a job?
Firestone: Let me talk to you a little bit about networking for its own sake. I’ve found that when discussing networking with some students, they feel that it’s a bit uncomfortable, almost like you’re going out there and trying to win a popularity contest, especially with partners or other influential figures. I would say to you, look at networking as a real opportunity to expand your network and also the network of the people you’re meeting with.
For example, if you have a hobby like soccer and play on the weekends, consider that the people you meet have hobbies as well. Talk to them about what they do. Find out if you have common interests. Perhaps one day they might have a company, and you could be their first legal counsel. Don’t approach it with the sole goal of getting a job, but rather with the aim of getting to know the people in your network better. Also, reach out to new people to develop genuine relationships. Not all of these connections will lead to job opportunities, but it’s crucial.
Additionally, if you aspire to stay in your law firm and become a partner, you can’t wait until your seventh or eighth year to start building client relationships. You must begin when you’re a new associate. If you’re working for a corporate client, reach out to the in-house counsel, the younger members of the team. Invite them for coffee. Learn about the company’s culture and what motivates them. This approach not only increases your chances of securing a job but, more importantly, makes you a better lawyer for your clients because you’ll understand more about their business.
Ahmad: So what you’re basically saying is to value those genuine connections. Now, you have noted that your team at LVMH works at the holding company level and also handles mergers and acquisitions. Ever since you joined LVMH, there have been a multitude of acquisitions by the company, including the recent one with Tiffany, which was north of $16 billion. Can you tell us a little bit about the steps that go into an acquisition, especially at a global conglomerate like LVMH?
Firestone: We have teams in Paris that focus on finding opportunities. LVMH is pragmatic about finding companies that we can help to develop even stronger positioning in the market. In the case of Tiffany, it was complicated by economic conditions right before and during the pandemic, we tried to renegotiate the price, but ended up in litigation. It was touch and go for a while, but we closed the deal on January 15th. Then, of course, we had to integrate the company, which had been suing us and we had been countersuing. It was a rough start, but so far has been positive.
In terms of the process, it involves learning about various steps and different roles. Much of it was done out of Paris, so I spent a lot of my time dealing with shareholding issues, treasury issues, and other financing matters. It’s complex, and the size of the deal doesn’t necessarily dictate the level of complexity. Small deals can be just as intricate as big ones.
Ahmad: Regarding the relationship between in-house counsel and outside counsel, what is the general dynamic, and how does it work at LVMH? Also, in what situations do you utilize outside counsel?
Firestone: We always utilize outside counsel for M&A and other matters that rely heavily on tasks like drafting documents, making changes, and coordinating various parties involved. I handle many matters personally, but I can’t do everything alone. Good, strong outside counsel is essential for supporting us. They act as a sounding board, providing valuable insights. At LVMH, we demand immediate responsiveness. Technical expertise is expected, but understanding how we work, being flexible, and exploring unconventional opportunities and structures are equally crucial. We analyze extensively before making decisions, so we need outside counsel who can respect our pace and work with us on that basis.
Ahmad: For anyone aspiring to become in-house counsel at a company, what do you think are the best previous employment experiences or traits that set someone on that career trajectory?
Firestone: First and foremost, curiosity is essential. In-house lawyers are partners with the business, and if you don’t understand the business, you won’t be able to provide excellent legal services. You have to ask why and understand it thoroughly. Being in-house demands dealing with a certain amount of risk based on imperfect information. Businesses often push for quick answers, and you need to balance providing recommendations while respecting the business’s risk tolerance. It’s your job to make them aware of the risks so they can make informed decisions. Adaptability and the ability to work in real-world scenarios where perfect information is often not available are crucial traits for in-house counsel.
There’s no way that a lawyer just coming out of law school and passing the bar really knows how to practice. You need some kind of supervision, some kind of hand-holding. Sometimes it’s understanding how to draft certain things or motion practice if you’re a litigator. These things are not intuitive at all and yet you just don’t learn them in law school. There are also the softer skills; you’re dealing with clients, so you have to understand how to deal diplomatically with perhaps very difficult people. And that’s usually something that takes a little bit of time, but partners and senior associates will guide you.
Ahmad: Now, moving to the present day, in light of COVID-19, you were a senior leader on the LVMH COVID response team. Can you tell us a little bit about your role in navigating the pandemic? I can’t imagine how much pressure there must have been.
Firestone: First of all, I’d like to give credit to my team as well as other members of the management team because they were the ones on the front lines, dealing day in and day out with what we can do, whether we can have people in stores, how to ensure employee safety, how often to clean our offices when we reopened, and various other daily decisions. In the beginning, there were many uncertainties. We didn’t know whether we could apply for a PPE loan, what we needed to do from a tax perspective, whether we should furlough employees, or if we had to terminate them. These were conversations we had, and they weren’t decisions solely made by the legal team. It was a collaborative effort with other senior leaders within the group. It was time-intensive, but at that time, nobody had anywhere to be; we were all working from home. The adjustment was challenging initially, especially since I didn’t even have a proper home office set up when we had to move our work home. Eventually, we adapted, and it became a blur between work and home life.
Ahmad: As for the promotion of women in leadership roles at LVMH, can you share your experiences as a woman general counsel in a multinational company and how the culture has changed throughout your career?
Firestone: Certainly, a lot has changed in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion. This includes women, people of color, and individuals with disabilities. The legal profession, historically, wasn’t very inclusive, but we’ve all had to adapt, and I believe it has been one of the most positive changes. The pandemic, in a way, accelerated this shift towards a more inclusive culture, although it brought its own set of challenges. Being a woman general counsel at LVMH has allowed me to witness and contribute to this positive change, although there’s always more work to be done. Issues like Black Lives Matter gained prominence during the pandemic, highlighting the continuing need for change. However, LVMH has always been relatively welcoming for women. Although women at the top were rare initially, it’s not unusual anymore. My predecessor was a woman, and there are other women serving as CEOs in various LVMH brands in the United States.
Shifting to the future of corporate culture, the concept of hybrid working is here to stay. Younger employees, in particular, prefer the flexibility of remote work. Zoom and similar platforms offer unique opportunities, allowing global participation in events and promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Regarding a fashion background in the legal profession, it’s not a requirement. When hiring, I seek lawyers passionate about the law, not necessarily fashion or beauty enthusiasts. However, working in the fashion industry will naturally kindle an interest in our brands, their history, and designs. It’s the passion for the law that’s crucial, but a passion for fashion can certainly develop along the way.
Ahmad: Can you delve into some common misconceptions present in the fashion industry?
Firestone: Moving on to misconceptions about the fashion industry, it’s important to note that LVMH encompasses much more than just fashion. We cover luxury in various aspects, including hotels, watches, jewelry, and diversified wines and spirits. The focus is not merely on filling a need; we aim to delight the consumer, creating something truly exceptional.
Ahmad: You kind of delved into the importance of that work experience beforehand before going into in-house roles. Do you think, specifically in a law firm, there are any specific practice groups that are conducive to later becoming general counsel at a company like yours? Or is it more of a case-by-case scenario, depending on the type of in-house work you do?
Firestone: Regarding transitioning from law firms to in-house roles, the specific practice groups conducive to becoming a general counsel vary. If a company needs to fill a void due to a particular problem, they might hire a litigator with relevant experience, such as in government investigations. However, for growing companies like ours, a corporate generalist background, including M&A expertise, is valuable. While backgrounds like immigration law or intellectual property law can also be relevant, any legal background can lead to an in-house position.
Ahmad: Can you talk about the importance of lawyers engaging in pro bono work and its personal significance for you?
Firestone: We are obligated to give back to those who cannot afford our legal services, and I take that responsibility very seriously. I’ve always believed it’s an essential part of being a lawyer. When we created our pro bono program we started by surveying our internal lawyers to understand their interests and if they would participate in a group-sponsored program.
Initially, there was pushback; people said they didn’t have time, considering how busy they were. Unlike law firms where pro bono work is encouraged, here it was viewed as extracurricular. That was a fair point initially. So, when I structured the pro bono program, I had two key concepts in mind. First, the projects had to be impactful but not prolonged for months, avoiding complex cases like death penalty appeals. Second, they should offer networking opportunities, allowing our team, including paralegals and admins, to engage and understand the legal work better.
The pandemic disrupted our plans, but we adapted. Personally, I participated in an immigration rights clinic over Zoom. We provided training remotely and conducted client interviews. I handled the intake for a four-year-old boy who had escaped gangs in El Salvador. We often partner with law firms, and while in-person clinics are preferred, utilizing Zoom has enabled us to continue our pro bono work effectively.
Ahmad: Do you interact with the in-house legal counsel at LVMH’s subsidiary companies, and if so, in what regard?
Firestone: Yes, all the time. First of all, as the holding company, we are kind of like the watchdogs. We see the forest, not just the trees, whereas they mind the trees. So, for example, when there’s litigation or any issues, they bring them to my attention. This allows us to ensure that we’re observing to see if it’s a problem that could affect our other brands as well.
I also have weekly team meetings with the other general counsels for the businesses. As I mentioned before, I provide pro bono opportunities for their teams. We also organize off-sites where we conduct continuing legal education, cultural activities, and networking. I consider all of these activities crucial. Developing lawyers is key. We want people who are engaged, interested, and have an understanding of the group’s overall plan, even if they primarily focus on individual companies. Not all our companies have their own counsel, so my team also acts as the operational council for some of our smaller brands.
Ahmad: Can you discuss the ways in which U.S. general counsel might be involved in the broader strategy of the business beyond legal issues?
Firestone: Absolutely. As a part of the executive committee, our discussions are diverse. We address code requirements, hiring decisions, strategic plans, and various ongoing matters. I’m one of eight people on the team, and we spend considerable time dealing with non-legal issues, from everyday operations to shaping the business strategy.
Ahmad: And, Louise, we have a question from the chat related to Virgil Abloh’s recent passing. Can you reflect on the impact of his work on the broader LVMH brand? Are there any shifts you foresee among consumers regarding luxury or the brand?
Firestone: Virgil was undoubtedly a creative genius, a unique talent. LVMH and Louis Vuitton made a bold choice in selecting him to lead, considering his unconventional fashion approach. His influence was substantial, especially in the realm of streetwear. The shift towards streetwear was evident before the pandemic and has only become more pronounced. Many consumers are now more inclined towards comfortable, casual wear.
Ahmad: That’s great to hear. Speaking of LVMH, are there any specific companies under the LVMH umbrella that you particularly enjoy wearing or purchasing?
Firestone: Absolutely. My favorite pieces are usually those that travel well, like this leather jacket from DKNY, a brand we used to own. It is short, lined with jersey inside, making it incredibly comfortable and easy to wear. I’m also fond of outerwear and scarves by Loro Piana, and I am a big fan of Belmond Hotels, not to mention our fine Champagnes, and skin care from Fresh, Dior and Guerlain. I find that people often associate LVMH with Louis Vuitton, but there’s a diverse range of brands under the LVMH umbrella, offering unique and high-quality products.
Ahmad: Thank you for sharing that. And with that, I believe we’ve covered all the questions. Thank you, Louise, for taking the time to join us today. Your insights and experiences have been incredibly valuable.