In-house pro Wendy Hufford now tackles new challenges at the top

Wendy Hufford has seen it all. Well, almost. She may have started as a lawyer in a big New York law firm, but she soon turned to life in-house. Hufford took a job in the in-house legal department incubator at The General Electric Co., which has sent its alumni into legal departments across the globe. Then came stints at healthcare delivery and pharmaceutical companies. Now, she says, she’s back home, in the New York area. What’s different this go-around is that she’s a general counsel, this time of the retail chain Ascena, which has such brands as Ann Taylor, Loft, and DressBarn. She’s done all this while raising eight children, most of whom are now grown and have started careers of their own.

At Ascena, the energetic Hufford heads a department of 37 professionals, 22 of whom are lawyers. MAG caught up with her to talk about what it’s like to be a general counsel for the first time, how to align your team with company goals, and why working at a company has been the right fit for her.

What it is like to be a new general counsel? Is it lonely at the top?

No. You’re coming to a new organization and it’s a different job. You have three constituencies at a public company. The board of directors and you’re working to give them guidance and create relationships and ensure that the board meetings are run smoothly. The second is your CEO and the leadership team and getting them comfortable and to trust you, so those relationships. And then the third part of the job is managing and guiding and creating a vision for the legal department.

You have to work more with nonlawyers as a GC, right?

It’s really interesting and challenging to have the first boss who’s not a lawyer. Before, you had clients as a lawyer, but having a manager who’s not a lawyer comes with a different perspective.

You’ve worked for different industries, and you were in private practice. At an early stage, did you consciously decide that you wanted to work in-house?

I didn’t plan to do that. As I grew as a lawyer at Davis Polk and worked with clients, I got to see the differences between law firm life and in-house life and the different kinds of tasks. And I concluded that in-house was a better fit for me. I felt that it met with my skill sets of being more proactive, getting involved earlier, preventing a problem before it developed. At the law firm, especially in the litigation space, the problem will have already arisen when you got involved. And I liked the idea of going into a company and finding areas of improvement.

It’s really interesting and challenging to have the first boss who’s not a lawyer. Before, you had clients as a lawyer, but having a manager who’s not a lawyer comes with a different perspective.

Is there more of a sense of belonging when you work in-house, or is there no difference?

You still have collegiality in both. In a law firm you are very connected to the firm and you’re all one team. But you’re all doing different things, so you’re working for different clients in different industries. There’s less of a sense of  having one mission. When you’re part of a company, you’re on one team. My legal team, we’re all driving to help the company reach its goals and enabling it to function.

Any other differences?

There’s a difference between when you’re a revenue producer and you’re the enabler.

In a law firm, you’re the revenue producer, so when you need documents copied, it gets high priority. But when I moved to a company, the different perspective was interesting, because you’re just a lawyer helping the company do its job. The business people would come first getting their printing done. I got a kick out of that difference.

Your company website stresses inclusion. When you look at it, you almost wonder “what are they selling?”

That’s an interesting perspective. But the corporate mission is to provide women and girls with fashion and inspiration to live confidently every day. That’s a theme that goes across our brands. It’s what I feel passionate about, because I’ve always been a strong supporter of women and diversity.

Did you see the letter about Paul Weiss and the lack of diversity in its latest partner class? A lot of GCs took the firm and firms in general to task about diversity, that they have to do better.

I didn’t see it. That being said, some of the larger law firms do not have a sufficient commitment to inclusion and diversity and sending that kind of letter to the firms is a clear message that the status quo is not acceptable. I hope the letter encourages firms to put in place programs that encourage diversity and inclusion.

Would you choose firms based on their diversity record?

At a prior employer, where I was in charge of selecting firms for the preferred firm network, one of the criteria we evaluated through our RFP process was whether the firms were inclusive.

And when I worked with firms, I always insisted on having a diverse team, because I valued the perspective that a diverse team gives and leads to the best results.

How do you choose outside counsel? Do you have a panel?

At this point we don’t. I’ve pulled it together at previous employers and I think it’s a beneficial thing to have. So I’m considering that for here.

Are most lawyers on your team from law firms or in-house departments? And would you hire lawyers straight out of law school?

It’s a mix. My direct reports have been from in-house for quite a while, so they have quite a bit of in-house experience. The newer hires have come from law firms.

I hired someone out of law school. I was an ITT and she started as an executive assistant/paralegal and she was a law student and she was terrific. Then when she graduated from law school I hired her directly as a counsel. I believe she’s still there today.

 I think I’ll always be a learner. That’s how you can be more valuable and successful.

You’ve gone through a lot of different industries. Do you think a decent in-house lawyer has portable skills?

I think you have to be comfortable with the industry you’re in and believe in the industry, but I do think the skills you develop as an attorney, you see more and more similarities across industries. So I felt the skill set I brought is transferable.

I also think you have to be a learner. I switched to healthcare, then pharma. I learned about biosimilar products, and other parts of the industry, there was litigation. I had experts, but I did have to learn new things. I think I’ll always be a learner. That’s how you can be more valuable and successful.

Now you’re at an industry undergoing wrenching change. As a lawyer how do you deal with the shift to on-demand, 24 hour retailing?

Retail is changing from brick and mortar to e-retailing. And the lawyers need to be agile to operate in both types of sales channels. With online retailing, you’re dealing with issues like privacy. Brick and mortar stores still have the usual issues like labor and contracts. It just means your job is more interesting and challenging.

Did the GDPR have an impact on what. you do?

Yes. But I look at it as “where is the U.S going to go?” We need to understand what’s going on in Europe, then in California, then in the rest of it. In my prior roles, when I was working for a German company, I was very involved in GDPR issues. We had to deal with information in Germany and in the United States.

One last question. In terms of the in-house bar, as lawyers and business professionals, is there one issue that you’re thinking about, and maybe worrying about you and your team?

No one issue. I think about how to identify emerging legal issues more quickly and enable me and my team to be more proactive in giving guidance to our clients when they make decisions. I did work in that space at GE, an early warning system that got rolled out. And I still think that way, trying to anticipate the trends that are coming before they come.

You have to know the industry, you have to know what’s going on in the political environment, and socially. There’s a lot of different issues, so how to do that better is what I find to be challenging and interesting.


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