Fashion Law Institute Turns “Inside Out” For Fashion Week

In the beginning there were…lawyers? No, I’m not referring to the Bible’s Creation (although I have a sneaking suspicion that the snake in the Garden of Eden may have had a J.D.), but rather the first installment of my fashion week. I spent the early morning at the beautiful Fordham Law School’s Fashion Law Institute for a brief panel discussion called “Inside Out: Tips From Fashion’s In-House Counsel” hosted by its equally attractive president, Susan Scafidi decked out in pinstriped DVF.

Susan Scafidi, Doreen Small, Louise Firestone, Paula L. Barnes, Melissa Shoffer Farber

The panel was moderated by Doreen Small of Marquart & Small and speakers/panelists included Paula L. Barnes, Counsel, Macy’s; Angela Byun, Senior Director of International Strategy & Development, Gold Digest, Conde Nast; Jana Checa Chong, Intellectual Property Counsel, Louis Vuitton Americas; Melissa Schoffer Farber, Senior Director of Legal Affairs, SoulCycle; Sarah Feingold, Senior IP & Privacy Counsel,; Louise Firestone, SVP & General Counsel, LVMH; and Avery S. Fischer, SVP, General Counsel & Secretary, Ralph Lauren.

Angela Byun, Jana Checa Chong, Sarah Feingold, Avery S. Fisher

Each speaker reflected on the benefits/drawbacks (if they had dual experience) of working of-counsel to a fashion related company versus being employed at a law firm. Interestingly, all but one (Mr. Fischer) was female suggesting, that there may be more flexibility than in a law firm as far as taking time off for family duties and responsibilities. As they took turns describing  a “typical day” (many said there is no typical day since they are basically there to react and put out fires as needed), it seems to have something to do with reading contracts, protecting the brand’s IP (Intellectual Property) and “mark” (trademark to all you laypeople) from counterfeiting and knock-offs as well as attending endless rounds of “face-to-face time” ie. meetings: “I didn’t realize how many meetings there would be” said Chong of Louis Vuitton, who generally interfaced through emails and conference calls.

Susan Scafidi

Many mentioned that in-house counsel must be well versed in the brands accounting procedures and financial stats, be able to manage and hire different types of people, and know when to bring in and select the right outside law firm(s). “I’m not a believer that you want to give all your legal work to one law firm,” said RL’s Fischer. See, lawyers don’t even trust other lawyers. Occasionally, an in-house lawyer is so well versed in the running of the company that they get kicked up to the C-Suite with the big dogs and the real fat cats. Yes, it does happen.

Ms. Feingold recalled the early days of Etsy when there were just 17 employees “who all fit in one room” and she was the only lawyer, to now with over 800 employees and a legal team (we wouldn’t all fit in one room, at least not comfortably” she quipped). In answer to a question about how “the suits” deal with “the creatives,” Ms. Feingold mentioned not wanting the creatives to always “feel like we’re the department of ‘No'” and copped to occasionally consulting Dr. Google or Google JD. Trust me, she is a regular laugh-riot among her attorney peers.

Ms. Byun of Conde Nast spoke of the challenges of the ever-changing media landscape. “Ten years ago we were focused on the all-important September issue and how many ad pages we had. We went from that to how many Instagram followers do we have?  Many reorganizations have happened within the company since then” she said. Knowing the little bit of what I’ve read in the news, I’d venture to guess that the reorganizations are just beginning.

Louise Firestone of LVMH spoke of her company as “weird” in that it is owned by “the richest man in France (Bernard Arnault) who acquired it but doesn’t interfere.” Apparently his laissez-faire attitude is “a lawyer’s nightmare” and results in a “difficult balancing act” for the legal eagles. Also, if you think office politics are worse in a law firm than in-house, you need to think again according to both Firestone and Fischer. Firestone advised that one’s needs an ability to “read the tea leaves” in terms of “why is this person pushing this agenda when it doesn’t seem to be in the best interest of the company.” Fischer added that if law firm politics hit the scale at around a 5 or 6, then in-house earns an 11. When he hires, he looks for someone who will be able to roll with the punches/fit in well with the collaborative culture of the company, not just where they went to school.

And with that I whisked myself downtown to check out the shows or in legal terms, what insanity the “creatives” had wrought on the runway.

– Laurel Marcus

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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