Sonya: When did you first realize that you wanted to become an attorney? What first drew you to a career as an attorney? What do you enjoy most about your career now?
Elisa: I began my career as a developing country energy analyst. After a few plum assignments in Mexico and the Caribbean, I was about to begin an 18-month stint in Somalia, but I was not quite sure I wanted to commit to 18 months so far from home. Also, this was right about the time the Department of Energy was created, and the life of an energy consultant was about to become more bureaucratic. So, I started to give law school some serious thought. I was interested in policy, and becoming a legislator seemed like a great way to influence policy.
Sonya: Have there been specific people (real or fictional) or pivotal situations/events that have inspired you, helped shape your career?
Elisa: My family is my inspiration. Beginning with my grandmother, who came to the U.S, with a cousin when she was only 17. She was a cook in Spain and worked in so many different jobs in the U.S. From helping care for babies in a hospital, to owning her own bar and grill. My dad died when I was only 19, but watching him struggle to get his GED when he only had completed 8th grade was a huge inspiration. And my mom continues to inspire me today with her resilience and good humor. They all taught me the value of education and hard work.
Sonya: Are there particular traits that you believe successful attorneys share? Traits that you believe you have yourself and which you look for in hiring outside and in-house counsel? How about common traits you’ve observed in other successful GCs?
Elisa: While I don’t necessarily see this trait in many GCs, I do think that humility is a very important factor in success. Also, listening, and I mean truly “listening to learn” and not just hearing words and responding. I learned from a very wise CEO that, in order to be truly valued as a business partner, I needed to understand the business. Being ready and able to put on an apron and make pizzas during a “rush” in a Domino’s pizza store was an exercise in humility (because I am nowhere near as fast as anyone else) and showed my clients that I was willing to do what it took to make them successful.
Sonya: What professional accomplishment are you most proud of? What would you like your legacy to be in your company/law department? In the legal profession?
Elisa: I don’t think about legacies, but I want to be remembered for building general counsels. I want to help my team build the skills they need to take on the GC role at my company or at another. Two of my former deputies became GCs, one succeeded to my role and the other became GC at another company.
Sonya: Have you had mentors/sponsors? Have you acted as a mentor/sponsor to others? Is mentorship/sponsorship important? How? Why?
Elisa: I cannot say that I have had a formal mentor, but many people helped me during my career. From the partners that ensured I was exposed to great work in my early years, to the CEO that insisted that I take on a role beyond leading the legal department. I would say most of my mentors have been my bosses. They have been mostly CEOs that have taught me how to manage a team and how important it is to bring my whole self to the job and not just my legal skills.
I have also acted as a mentor to a number of young lawyers. I have one good friend that I started mentoring when she was a 1L and she is now a successful lawyer, well on her way to becoming a GC.
Sonya: Think about the legal profession over the course of the next ten years. What do you see as the big changes that are coming which you believe will most significantly impact the profession and the role of the GC/in-house legal department?
Elisa: I believe that the way we provide legal services will shift to the use of more technology and I believe that the people providing those legal services will less likely be at traditional law firms. New providers, the need to do more with less, and the ability to use data to make decisions will necessarily change how we practice. I believe in-house lawyers will become better managers of information and will use that information to become legal risk managers. Frankly, the way to best serve a company is to prevent legal issues, to train, to audit and to provide standardized forms that business managers can use, without the need for legal sign off.
Sonya: Describe a significant challenge you have faced in your life or career. How did you overcome it? What did you learn from it?
Elisa: My most significant challenges, I fear, will die with me, because they are subject to the attorney client privilege and I do not own the privilege! There is one challenge I had that perhaps I did not handle in the best way, but the outcome was good. I spent 5 years in an in-house position at a global company and I felt it was time to request an overseas assignment. When I asked my supervisor, he was very negative, and shut down my request immediately. The more mature me would have found other avenues to pursue this goal, but the immature me took the next call from a headhunter . . . . and so, I became a general counsel. I suppose the lesson is not to try to plan everything.
Sonya: What does Diversity & Inclusion mean to you? How important is D&I to you personally? As a GC? To your company/legal department? What advice do you have for GCs and others seeking to make a positive impact on the progress of D&I in their organizations and in the legal profession?
Elisa: I am fortunate to have a wonderfully diverse legal team at Macy’s. Diversity has been a priority for this company for a long time. Half of our independent directors are women and the board has minority (3 members) and LBGT representation. Macy’s endeavors to look like its customers at all levels and the legal team is no exception. I have always stressed the importance of diversity and have implemented programs to increase the focus of our outside lawyers on diversity. There are a number of organizations that are focused on the diversity of our profession and I suggest that GCs get involved in them. I serve on the Board of the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession, for example, which is a thought leader in this space.
Sonya: If you were not General Counsel of your company (or of any company or even a lawyer at all), what career do you think you would most like to pursue?
Elisa: I always wanted to join the crew of the Calypso—Jacques Cousteau’s ship. I love the ocean, and its fragility is something that Cousteau brought to life for me. But, if I am being completely honest, I always wanted to become a coroner and offer free autopsies to friends and family.
Sonya: Knowing what you know now about being a lawyer and a GC, if you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be? At what point in your past would you give yourself that advice?
Elisa: Chill and don’t sweat the small stuff. As I sit at my desk at 7pm on a Friday, I would tell myself to go home, play with my kids and take a vacation. My kids are now grown, I don’t do vacations well, and I am sitting at my desk at 7pm on a Friday answering these questions for you, Sonya! I’ll never learn.
Sonya: Tell me something fun about yourself. A personal skill or hobby that, while not directly related to your day job, you feel makes you more well-rounded, helps you be better at your day job and/or helps relax and focus you to do your job as a GC better.
Elisa: I am passionate about food. I love discovering new chefs, new cuisines, and I will make dinner reservations before plane reservations. And, I have been known to fly to a city just because I got reservations at a coveted restaurant. I am not sure how this makes me a better GC, but I do fill out my desk chair quite well.
Sonya: Hashtag/Brand yourself in 5 words or less (For example, mine is #SelfiesWithSonya )