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Apr 23, 2024

Ex-Mary Kay CLO Says Firms Should Work As Co. Partners

Author: Michele Gorman

After she received separate offers to join the legal departments at Mary Kay and JCPenney in 1995, Julia Simon in part based her decision on the work setup.

"JCPenney had cubes for the legal department, and then the white noise," Simon recalled. "I'm like, 'I'm loud, and I need an office,' so that's sort of how, at the time, I picked Mary Kay over JCPenney."

Simon told Law360 Pulse in an interview this week that she started at the multilevel marketing beauty company as a labor and employment attorney, but she soon realized she needed more experience and wanted to try lawsuits. She left the Addison, Texas-based Mary Kay Inc. after only eight months to work at what is now Locke Lord LLP.

"That eight months in-house helped me really understand what the legal dispute looks like from the client's perspective," she said. "It made me understand when you forward this notice to them, what happens internally."

She added, "Knowing that helped me be a much better service provider to my client."

A few years later, she received a phone call from a friend who was preparing to leave Mary Kay and asked if she would want to return to the company. Simon, who had made partner and had a baby, said she was interested.

She rejoined Mary Kay in 2000 and took on roles of increasing responsibility in the legal department over almost 25 years, including becoming chief legal officer in 2016.

Simon retired from Mary Kay in October. But earlier this month, she returned to private practice by joining Texas litigation firm Lynn Pinker Hurst & Schwegmann LLP as a partner.

Here, Simon shares more about her decision to return to a law firm, why she doesn't think there should be a distinction between the goals of in-house lawyers and outside counsel and why when she was in-house she rehired outside counsel who viewed their role to be a partner. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you decide to return to private practice this month?

I left Mary Kay in October. That was because I was eligible for retirement. I was at a point in my career where I knew I had a good 10 to 15 years left in my career. The question was, am I going to retire at Mary Kay, meaning stop working at Mary Kay? My thought was, no, I think there's a next phase.

What I thought I was going to do when I retired from Mary Kay was start a mediation practice, and maybe do a little bit of consulting on the side. I saw a real need for mediators with my experience.

But then I thought, how do I make sure I'm going to be a good and effective mediator? It occurred to me that it might make sense for me to go back and litigate before I do that. As I looked at that, I realized, wait a minute. This is much like the time I went back to the law firm [after her eight-month stint at Mary Kay].

When you think about where there's a gap in women making progress in the law, one of the places is women litigators. I think about the background I had: that I got to go to trial, that — as I was at Mary Kay for all those years — I was able to be a part of the trial teams for the litigation that happened, at least early on. When I was deputy, I was really involved in all my litigation cases. I was good at it.

Then the question became, do I go back and litigate? And that's how I ended up where I am.

While you were chief legal officer, did the role evolve into you becoming more of a strategic partner to the business?

I was always [part of the business], from the day I walked back in the door. Because of that time I was at Mary Kay to begin with, I always understood the intersection between the business and law. When I came back to Mary Kay, I kept getting new responsibilities.

Part of that is because people think about the in-house legal department as if they're playing defense. You're protecting people. But we're playing offense, to use a football analogy. When you think about the legal department, our goal is not just to protect the company; it really is more to help the company reach its goals. That's what you're doing. It's important for your offensive line to know what the play is. You're not sitting back and waiting. You have to be a part of the play.

We contribute by understanding the business so that we prevent unexpected things from happening, if we can. We are the ones who are making sure the company has a smooth path to their goal. That's what the legal department does. I was talking about that in different ways from day one.

Earlier in your career, did you aspire to work in-house?

Honestly, not really. I was the first one to go to graduate school. I didn't know all the possibilities.

It was early on when I was at McGlinchey Stafford PLLC; one of the partners sat me down and explained the business of law to me. He explained basically how law firms work, how they function, what my role as associate would be at the firm. I had a client-centric understanding of what I needed to do from really early on in my career.

How that translated for me is, I'm not doing this work to get a grade on a paper — this is me as an associate. I'm going to be judged on whether the client thinks this work is valuable enough to pay what I charge for what I did. Early on, that's how I thought about it.

When you think about that approach, to practice in the law, it's about the value. That translated easily into the business. With my offensive line analogy, it's all about what's the value we're bringing? If your role is to help people score, your value is in all of it. The legal department has to understand the business better than everybody. It is all about the legal department bringing value.

Earlier, you asked [about] the difference in the chief legal officer role. It was more about having access to drafting the plays. I had more access to my peers, where we could talk about, strategically, where are we headed?

What was your approach to outside counsel when you were in-house?

Outside counsel who seem to view their role to be a partner with me. What I mean by that is they didn't make me feel like they saw Mary Kay as a source of business for them; they saw Mary Kay as a company they wanted to see succeed.

Those law firms that make you feel like, 'I care about what you do at Mary Kay, and I want to help you do that effectively, efficiently.' That's who we used over and over again.

I think that in-house counsel more and more are coming from law firms. There was a time when that wasn't true. In-house counsel are leaving partnership roles and going in-house. They are leaving from senior associate roles. They're effective lawyers who are going in-house.

As a result of that, our standards are pretty high. Some lawyers don't get that you've got somebody in-house who not only could do your job, they did do your job. They just don't have time to do your job, so they need you to do your job as effectively as they would've done it when they were in your job. I think that's the key for those relationships with outside counsel.

What's one major lesson or attribute from your time in-house that you've been able to apply to your new role at Lynn Pinker?

It's early; it has only been a month. But what's exciting to me about the perspective I have today is: Lynn Pinker already has a national reputation for being one of the very top trial law firms in Texas. The idea of merging together the goals of the companies with the ability to back up what you do with some of the best litigators in the country is compelling to me, because it allows for a lot more creative approaches to complex problems, in my mind.

When I left Mary Kay and went back to private practice decades ago, it was to understand how lawsuits work. Now when I take back what I've learned in 24 years and bring that back to this environment, the possibilities are endless as to how I'm going to be able to build a practice that does what I talked about doing when I was in-house: "How do we help continue to merge the goals of the company with the benefits your law firm can bring to you?" That's what I want to explore, and I think it's going to be fun.