Another way of saying “Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy,” or LVMH is ”iconic luxury.” It’s a luxury goods company that spans continents and industries, making and selling everything from Louis Vuitton handbags to Champagne. And not just any wines: The company owns the wineries that make the premium Champagne, Dom Perignon, and Chateau d’Yquem, the luscious dessert nectar beloved of connoisseurs. An international company deserves a globally oriented lawyer, and that’s who LVMH has in Louise Firestone, its North American general counsel. Firestone is the daughter of immigrants from Europe, and she has a master’s degree in international relations, as well as her law degree. She lived abroad as a child, and picked up French while living in North Africa.
Firestone talked to our colleagues at MAG about how she channeled her personal passions into her career, how she runs a small legal operation in the big continent for a large conglomerate, and why she takes stands that run against what may be currently fashionable for general counsel.
You’ve pretty much focused on working internationally. What drove you? Was it personal desire from when you were a kid, or something that you fell into?
It’s not something I fell into. I studied international relations in college, I have a master’s in international relations. So, in fact, that was the thing that was most compelling for me. And it ultimately shaped my legal career as well. I lived abroad as a child, my parents are both immigrants—my father from Romania, my mother is from Italy. I lived in North Africa for two years, which is where I learned French. I did a whole junior year in Bologna. So yes, I was always internationally focused, and I’m sure that that had a lot to do in terms of my choices of where I went to work when I went in-house.
Do you think an in-house lawyer has to have an affinity for the kind of company she works for? Or do you think that it doesn’t matter?
Absolutely. If your personal values didn’t align with the values of your company, I think that that would be a problem. But apart from that, if you’re asking me if you have to be a fashionista to work for a fashion company, I’d say no. But you certainly have to have a curiosity, a willingness to learn, and a willingness to be swayed.
Here’s a good example: I spent 12 years working as a lawyer in the financial services arena, and I think I was a good lawyer, I did my work and I enjoyed it. But I never was particularly interested in the financial instruments that were the basis of the work that the companies did. That was not what motivated me. What motivated me when I worked at Citibank were, in fact, the people. I made very good colleagues and lasting friendships. And then the same thing with Crédit Suisse. It was the Swiss culture that was more compelling for me. Here at LVMH, the fact that it’s a French company, the international aspect, is far more compelling to me than the fact that we make perfume or design handbags.
Do you use much outside counsel, and for what? How do you choose them?
We’re small so we have to use outside counsel. We’re a large company, we have a lot of employees, we have high revenues, so you can’t do it all internally. That said, we try to do as much as we can. So, for example, on my team I have a boutique leasing attorney and he does the vast majority of our lease work. But occasionally there’s overflow. And what I tell the businesspeople is “we will do your work for you if we have the expertise and time.” And by that I mean that there are some times of the year that there’s a heavy workload and crunches.
In the employment arena, we try to do the vast majority internally. But as you can imagine although I have litigators on my team, they don’t generally go to court. They coordinate the litigation. So anytime we have true litigation or arbitration, we have outside counsel as well.
Do you have a panel?
No, it’s based on subject matter and expertise and often we do have existing relationships for particular matters. If there’s a conflict we might do an RFP. The other thing is, if we have insurance coverage, we might go with panel counsel. And frankly, we’ve found insurance panel counsel is pretty good. And significantly cheaper, of course.
You’ve worked for both U.S. and European based companies. Is there a big difference? And there’s a perception that European companies are male-dominated. But you have a senior position. Do you ever have to overcome any barriers or perceptions about that?
LVMH is a bit of a different animal in that regard. We are very, very heavily women. Now, do we have women at the very top spots? No, we don’t. But in the United States, many of our subsidiary presidents are women, and we do have at least one woman who is on the management committee, what we call the Comex, in Paris. So it’s getting better. For me personally, the sexism that I’ve encountered in my career has not mattered and hasn’t varied whether I worked for an American or European company.
Last month, a large group of general counsel wrote a letter to law firms saying that they needed to staff their matters diversely. I didn’t see your name on the list.
No, my name wasn’t on the list. I did see the letter circulated, in draft. There are a lot of reasons my name wasn’t on the list. LVMH doesn’t want its lawyers to put themselves forward in any kind of individual way. We’re not there for self-promotion, number 1. And number 2 is I don’t always make those choices about who we’re going to hire and why. I do it in collaboration with the businesses. Sometimes there are global relationships that I have to take into account.
Although I’m very much in agreement over the spirit of the letter, I actually felt that it was a little precipitous. The fact that Paul Weiss [editor’s note: The letter criticized the all-male composition of Paul Weiss’ partnership class] was the subject of this scrutiny was really unfortunate. It’s a firm that has done a lot in recent years to try to maintain and promote diverse lawyers. The fact that this year’s class didn’t live up to that is also something that Paul Weiss couldn’t control.
Let’s focus more on the pipeline. One of the things I like my lawyers to do is reach out, when they’re working with outside counsel, reach out to their counterparts, the young associates who are laboring on a matter. Have coffee with them. Take them to lunch. Introduce them to the company. It’s by encouraging them at a much younger level that you might get them to stay. And you might put in a better word for them down the road. “Hey, that lawyer did a great job on our matter.” We should do more work along the way so that there’s a wider group to choose from. And so that diverse candidates are willing to stay and become partner.
Some GCs will say they don’t want younger associates on their matters because they’re paying a billion dollars a minute. Do you have any policy about that?
I am not the kind of person who will say I’m not going to pay for you to train your young lawyers because I actually depend on law firms to train their young lawyers. I will not hire someone right out of law school. I hire someone who’s been seasoned, who’s worked for a while and generally will come from a firm. And I’m counting on the fact that the firm trained them well. I don’t have anything against training. I do have something against churning, and there’s a big difference.
I also believe that the billable hour is the most ridiculous way for firms to be billing. And the fact that they’re continuing to do that is just ridiculous to me. You hear, well that’s because the GCs like the billable hour because they don’t really understand how alternative billing arrangements work. I think that’s bullshit. I have always pushed firms to work with me on an alternative fee arrangement. I would rather pay the smartest guy who knows the answer to the question $10,000 for five minutes of his time if he’s got the solution to my problem. Rather than have some firm churn and churn, spending hours writing memos gazing at their navels, talking to lots of people, and spending many more hours to come up with a solution that’s not as good.
I’m much more willing to pay a flat fee for the expertise that I know exists. Even if it’s a larger amount than paying the billable hour.
I have one more global question. What do you think are the main challenges facing people like you and the in-house bar in general?
Like everywhere else, we have to deal with so many new things in this world. Technology is one. Things like artificial intelligence. And that’s going to come to the legal department and we’ll have to learn how to deal with it.
But my own view is that it’s the people issues that will ultimately be the thorniest, and the ones that we need to be spending our time on now. How do we develop people, how do we keep them growing. Unless you’re in a very large company, in-house departments tend to be quite small. You can’t promote everybody all the time. You want to be able to give people new challenges, you want them to grow. You want to promote mobility, perhaps you want to promote the mobility from lawyers to the business side and back again.
There’s a lot of things I think that the development of the in-house lawyer is going to be important. That’s especially true as tech turns out to be the aid that they say it is. You don’t want lawyers doing the routine work; you want them to spend time doing strategic thinking. And that’s going to be more valuable over time.