Interview conducted by Jane Yi and Heather Rankie, Zelle Hofmann Voelbel & Mason LLP
From childhood roots enriched by her family's involvement in various civil rights issues'and with "a little help from Perry Mason" - Tracy Preston has journeyed through law firm life to her current role as Global Human Resources and Litigation Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer for Levi Strauss & Co. ("LS&Co."). The path she walks (and sometimes runs) is one heavily informed by her efforts to foster global perspectives and diversity in communities both near and abroad. Tracy kindly sat down with us for an interview to discuss her career, as well as ways for female attorneys to progress -indeed, excel - at any stage in their legal careers.
Beginning Her Career
Even before attending law school at the University of Virginia, Tracy knew that she wanted to be a litigator, as the idea of being an advocate for individuals had already impressed her as a young girl. It was through her varied path from an associate at four different firms, and being named a partner at the fourth, that Tracy landed in her current position at LS&Co. She began her career at law firms based in the San Francisco Bay Area - first practicing ERISA law at Baker & McKenzie, then practicing in the areas of labor and employment, intellectual property, product liability, and commercial litigation at Sedgwick, Detert, Moran & Arnold LLP.
It was after her third move to Latham & Watkins LLP as a senior associate that Tracy truly came into her own. As she explains: "That was a unique opportunity for me, because by then I was about a fifth or sixth year and really wanted to have more responsibility. It happened that a partner had just joined Latham & Watkins in San Francisco and needed what I would call a "lieutenant" - so basically I was brought in and I got to run all her large cases." In overseeing the litigation matters of that partner - who went on to become Tracy's mentor and friend - Tracy obtained the increased responsibility she desired, and was able to practice in more diverse areas of law. Life as a law firm associate was, however, not without its challenges. In addition to working long hours, Tracy recalls that the very first time a partner ever thanked her for her work occurred after six years of being an associate.
Tracy's fortuitous move to Latham & Watkins, and the relationship she developed with her mentor there, ultimately led her to LS&Co. In 1997, Tracy followed her mentor to Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP, and eventually became law partner. In 2002, Tracy had the opportunity to join LS&Co. as in-house counsel, where her career took on entirely new - that is to say, global - dimensions.
Next Stop: In-House
Depending on what day you catch Tracy, she may be wearing one of several hats. In her role as Global HR and Litigation Counsel - Tracy is one of six in-house LS&Co. attorneys in the U.S. (there are six more worldwide) - she liaises with Human Resources regarding the company's global HR policies for the Americas, Europe, and Asia Pacific; manages the company's litigation portfolio for the Americas; and is responsible for managing the financing and accounting of the various litigation matters globally. In addition, Tracy makes time to attend the U.S.-based matters that have gone to trial, in part because of her desire to maintain and enhance her litigation skills. In her duties as Chief Compliance Officer, Tracy helps formulate and oversee enforcement of LS&Co.'s global code of business conduct and related policies, and advises the company on global employment policies and issues. While her days are "never boring," Tracy notes that, thankfull generally, I can turn my Blackberry off at 6:00 or 6:30 - a marked change from her life as a law firm associate and partner.
Different Worlds: Law Firm vs. Corporate Life
For Tracy, simply put, corporate life is "just different" from firm life. Among other things, the abundance of meetings and playing a supporting role to her company are distinct from the billable-hour-intensive work of a law firm partner or associate, whose activities directly generate profit for the firm. In the corporate context, Tracy relies on what she considers one of her most valuable skills - being a good listener. She observes: "As a lawyer, you have to listen to what the business is saying, and try to get ahead of them." On that note, Tracy analogizes her role as in-house counsel to that of a river scout. "A river scout is part of the team, but he or she - in my case, she - goes out ahead of the team down the river looking for obstacles in order to mitigate and manage any risks. She's also looking behind her to ensure that everyone is following the rules that she has set up to make sure that the business is legally compliant, and then looking peripherally, to ensure that the business is staying within the parameters that have been set based on the company's own risk tolerance." In addition, Tracy endeavors to avoid the stereotype typically imposed on in-house counsel - that of "naysayer" "It's important to know when to take a position. You don't always want to be the person that says "no" because the company tends to view the lawyers as naysayers. You should be the businessperson that happens to have a legal degree, and you are there assisting the business in finding a business solution while ensuring the business is legally compliant."
Probably the most significant challenges that Tracy faces in her line of work are prioritization and addressing global challenges. Each day, she juggles her anticipated workload with new compliance or HR-related issues that stream in. Her decisions often have global ramifications, and she endeavors to balance LS&Co.'s U.S.-based corporate values with the cultural values and norms of the international cultures within which the company operates. As Tracy explains: "When you have a global role, you really have to approach it not just from the company culture, but also recognize the culture you're interfacing with. What's always challenging is - once you've made a decision - stepping back and saying to yourself: 'Well, okay, how does this impact my entire global employee population?' I think sometimes people forget that they're in a global company because they're sitting here in the United States - especially if they're not used to policies that could have a global impact."
Alternative Billing Methods
Lawyers - even those adept at multi-tasking - can only wear so many hats. LS&Co. has taken a unique approach to retaining outside counsel. Beginning in 2009 under the direction of then-general counsel, Hilary Krane, the company hired two of its trusted law firms - Townsend and Townsend and Crew LLP and Orrick - to handle the bulk of LS&Co.'s intellectual property (mostly trademark) and all other matters (including real estate law, commercial litigation, employment benefits, etc.), respectively. The two firms were hired under a "flat fee" model in an effort to take much of the guesswork out of the firms' total billings. LS&Co. is also experimenting with other such alternative billing methods as the "milestone" model, blended rates, and contingent fees. Using these methods, Tracy tries to "think outside the box" in her approach to retaining outside counsel, and believes such arrangements will become more prevalent in the future. Although each has its advantages and disadvantages - the former consisting of a faster learning curve for firms who have become familiar with the company's inner workings, and the latter consisting of working with firms that do not share LS&Co.'s global presence (the company sells its products in 110 countries and has employees in 70)-Tracy is cautiously optimistic about the overall benefit from the models, and believes that the true benefits, shortcomings, and overall impact of the relatively new billing practices will come to light in the next few years.
Importance of Diversity
When asked why diversity in the legal profession matters to her - and should be important to all attorneys - Tracy's answer is simple: "because it's a value-add." "First and foremost, what people don't want to talk about, or don't even realize, is that diversity brings different perspectives. My experience, the way I grew up, how I learned things, do add a benefit to the company, the law firm, et cetera. You can have different perspectives around the same table and you can all be very smart, but there may be some practical thing that, just because of your experience, you haven't thought of." Toward that end, Tracy has spoken on numerous panels to encourage women and minorities to get involved in their professional communities. She notes: "I know it's hard to be in a law firm - having been in four of them - it's difficult, even taking gender and ethnicity out of the equation; it's a hard life. It's not that glitzy thing you see on TV, and so I think it's very important to always look back and encourage others to bring their different perspectives to the table."
One of the organizations close to Tracy's heart is the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, with which she became involved around the same time that she began her legal career, and for which she has been a board member for more than a decade. Beginning as a summer associate, Tracy participated in the organization's Tuesday night clinics, where she would perform client intake and represent clients in pro bono cases. She found the work to be very humbling, as it allowed her to surface from her daily routine of performing corporate-focused work, to help people with real-world problems. Tracy is also an active member of Corporate Counsel Women of Color, an organization composed of in-house female attorneys, and will be speaking at a Bar Association of San Francisco conference regarding diversity in November 2010.
As for steps any attorney can take to promote diversity in the legal profession, there are several. Tracy notes: "It's important - especially for young associates - to get involved in what you're genuinely interested in, be active in bar committees, and be visible." And, lastly "ask questions, always ask questions."
Despite her busy work schedule, Tracy makes a conscious effort to make time for life outside of work. She recently signed up for a half-marathon, and loves to travel, hike, read, watch old movies, attend concerts, make jewelry, and play sports. On the subject of finding a balance between work and non-work life, Tracy notes that women, in contrast to men, often fail to prioritize their own self-care. That is, women are prone to allowing their busy work schedules to take precedence over their efforts to care for themselves - including, for instance, such simple tasks as a trip to the gym. Tracy advises young attorneys - including her interviewers specifically! - to make a habit of carving out time in their work schedules for self-care. The sooner a young lawyer can integrate self-care into her normal routine, Tracy notes, the more likely she will be able to build that time into her schedule as she progresses in her career. Tracy's own calendar contains blocks of time for her to work out during the week; they serve to remind Tracy to exercise her physical - rather than only mental - muscles.
Advice for Female Attorneys
During the interview, Tracy had ample practical advice to share, both for female attorneys starting out in their careers, and for established practitioners seeking to grow their business. For new lawyers, Tracy's advice is as follows: "be active and ask questions - there's no such thing as a stupid question"; "practice self-care""do really good work""focus on getting as much experience as you can"; and if you have down time, consider pro bono work, or ask for new projects in areas of the law that interest you.
For established attorneys looking to generate new business, Tracy recommends that such women: speak on different panels on areas of the law that interest them; attend various female-centered organizational events; have a mentor; and network.
Her advice for outside attorneys working with in-house counsel is simple: "Of course, it's more important to do quality, excellent work, but it's also important that you are pragmatic and practical versus being a perfectionist." In the same context, Tracy considers being able to explain or write a legal memorandum in layman's terms a valuable skill.
Finally, for those persons considering becoming a lawyer, Tracy identifies the following traits as key to a successful legal career: first and probably most important, good writing skills; for litigators, good oral communication skills; related to the first two qualities - knowing one's strengths; strong analytical skills; the ability to synthesize - especially from legalese to layperson's terms; being quick on one's feet; good listening skills - especially for in-house counsel positions, as a large part of such an attorney's role is to listen to the business and spot issues even before the company does; and lastly - but far from least important - "do it because you want to."
After sitting down with Tracy for our interview, we came away impressed and inspired by this gracious and accomplished individual - and better yet, equipped with practical tips for accomplishing goals that are important to us, such as promoting diversity in our day-to-day work, making time to balance work/life, and thriving in the legal profession. As a Zealous Woman in her own right, Tracy gave us much to ponder - which we will get back to very soon, right after a trip to the gym.
Spotlight - Tracy M. Preston, Global Human Resources and Litigation Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer, Levi Strauss & Co.
Posted on Wednesday, December 01, 2010
Interview conducted by Jane Yi and Heather Rankie, Zelle Hofmann Voelbel & Mason LLP