April 23, 2015

MEMBER SPOTLIGHT: An Interview with Laura Stein

It's clear why Laura Stein, General Counsel and Executive Vice President of The Clorox Company, was named one of the 20 most influential general counsel in America by the National Law Journal. She's gone far beyond mastering the skills necessary to run a top-notch legal department, prompting the Harvard Law Bulletin to highlight her as "one of the 50 alumnae who have used their law degree to take them to extraordinary places."

She's served as a leader in the legal profession, helping to promote diversity and inclusion, and also provided pro bono work to the underrepresented. Her list of accomplishments and activities is, quite frankly, staggering. She serves on the Clorox Executive Committee, chairs the Women's Employee Resource Group, and cosponsors the company's social responsibility and enterprise risk and crisis management programs. Then there's her work with nonprofits and the ABA. She serves on the board of Equal Justice Works, the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity, the Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession, and the American Law Institute Counsel. On and on. "I've been blessed with a very high level of energy," she says. "And I also love what I do."

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You speak six languages. When did you start studying languages?

I first started studying German in first grade, but I don’t claim German as one of my languages. I studied French in middle school and advanced French in college. But my strongest language other than English is Italian. I was a foreign exchange student in Italy in Porto Potenza Picena, where, to this day, very few people speak English. It’s one of the most wonderful places on Earth. But the toughest language to learn was Chinese, and that took several hours a day in college; then I lived in Beijing and took advanced Chinese in law school. I don't think it's a language where you can claim fluency. You just do your best. 

Do you use any of these languages for your work?

The two that I use most frequently are Spanish and Chinese. We have a big international business in Latin America. I have done compliance training and meetings in Spanish and Chinese. I've recently joined a board in Montreal, so I'm enjoying hearing French again. 

Prior to attending Harvard Law School, you lived in Beijing and worked as a writer and editor for China Daily, a state-owned English-language newspaper. What was a highlight of that experience?

The culture and the people. This was the early ’80s and China was just emerging from the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese, for good reason, are very proud of all of the inventions and contributions they’ve made to the world. People were very warm and took time to befriend me. I also really enjoyed working as a journalist. The China Daily was created because, at the time, there was no English-language media in China. People from other countries were starting to visit, so China created a newspaper to give them an introduction to the country. 

Wherever I went in China, crowds would surround me and stare, because, in many cases, I was the first non-Chinese person they’d ever seen or the first one trying to speak a bit of Chinese. 

Your father was Dean of the University of Minnesota Law School. What were your dinner conversations like? Were you immersed in law?

You'd think so, seeing that I have two wonderful sisters who both went to top law schools as well, and they’re both practicing lawyers to this day. And so many family friends were lawyers. But I think our parents just really wanted us to have curiosity about life and to be happy. We were also huge sports fans. We went to all University of Minnesota football, basketball, and hockey games from a young age. We loved to travel as a family. 

What was your view of the law as a girl and how did it change, once you started law school and became a lawyer?

When I was a girl, my view of the law was a result of knowing so many lawyers. My dad, when he was a professor, would have his law students and colleagues over. So it seemed normal that many people were lawyers. I also got a sense of all the various fields you could practice in as a lawyer. And I understood the importance of lawyers for democracy, protecting the rule of law, and access to justice. When I started law school, I gravitated toward business and international because that was my interest. As general counsel, you are immersed in a little of everything, all over the globe. My view of the law is that it's incredibly important to preserve freedom and access to justice and fairness. At the end of the day, it still is a way to promote transparency and fairness. 

You took a leave and returned to your alma mater, Dartmouth, and earned a Master of Arts. How has that experience helped you as a lawyer?

I was admitted as a Tuck special student, but I only had one year, rather than the two needed to get an MBA, so I got a Masters of Arts and studied at Tuck. The experience was terrific, and I think it helped me as a lawyer by understanding more about business. Working in‑house, you need to be financially literate, and so increasing my financial literacy was very helpful. It's good to see things from different disciplines and points of view. I did my master’s thesis on the regulation of the Japanese securities industry, so it was fun to broaden my Asia experience. 

You also had two children 20 months apart. Did you take a break from the law and if not, how did you balance it all?

I had a great maternity leave with my first child, with four and a half months of not working. After my leave, it was a very busy time because I was traveling internationally. When I had my son, I was getting my masters and, when you’re a graduate student, you don’t get a maternity leave, so that was a little bit difficult. I had two 20-page papers due about two weeks after he was born. 

I was able to balance it because I'm very fortunate to have a tremendous spouse. If you have a supportive partner, you work together as a team to raise your children. For both of us, our children are our highest priority. They both played traveling soccer for about 10 years, and even though I was commuting cross-country during several of those years, we were at their soccer games during the weekends. 

I think balance is often a state of mind, but also everybody should seek balance while living a very full life because it’s a very short life, and it’s a shame not to make the most of it. 

Prior to your current position, you were senior vice president and general counsel for H.J. Heinz Company. What was the highlight from this experience?

Heinz, like Clorox, is a great company with leading brands around the globe. I loved being a part of the executive team. We had a top‑notch legal team, like we do at Clorox. 

One highlight was serving as a member of senior management and working with the board. We were actively reshaping the portfolio to move into higher‑margin, faster‑growing businesses, so we divested some businesses. We did a pretty complex transaction, where some of our slower- growing, lower-margin businesses were spun in a tax-free transaction to all shareholders of Del Monte. It was a really rewarding deal to work on. I also loved the global aspect of the job. More than 60 percent of Heinz’s sales and profits were outside the U.S. My team had lawyers in about a dozen countries and I traveled extensively. 

Then you joined Clorox as senior vice president and general counsel in 2005. I read that you've worked on more than 50 acquisitions and divestures. You obviously enjoy deal-making.

By now, I think it's well north of 50. I like deals because I like reshaping our portfolio to benefit shareholders by focusing on businesses that are strategic, that can provide faster growth and better margins, and give excitement to a company. 

I really like dissecting a business to make sure an acquisition is the right next step to be added to the portfolio. Then working to identify and integrate which capabilities and skills get added to your company. 

I also really like being involved in innovation. Clorox is known for its innovation, as we’ve been achieving more than three points of incremental net customer sales from innovations in the past few years. 

You chair the Clorox Women’s Employee Resource Group. What is that group designed to do and why did you become involved?

Clorox has employee resource groups, and we also have networks to give employees who want to be involved with these groups a chance to lead and work together to make Clorox a better place. I've sponsored our women's group with women around the globe. Together we determine what we want to focus on to support women, both in the workplace and in our lives outside the workplace. 

It's a great way for women to gain leadership experience. We support at-risk women and girls around the world through different initiatives. We also try to drive opportunity and advance women in the workplace. Clorox has great leadership development and mentoring programs and, through our women’s group, we also bring in speakers. We focus on ways we can be mentored and learn and advance in our careers and gain skills that will help us achieve success, such as financial, communication, and leadership skills. 

It's been a great opportunity to meet really terrific women at Clorox that in my day-to-day I might not otherwise interact with or develop friendships with. 

What barriers are still facing women in senior legal positions?

So much depends on the culture of the place where you work. I do feel very fortunate that at Clorox, about a third of our board and about a third of our executive leadership team are women, half of our legal leadership team are women, as are about half of our senior lawyers. 

If you’re in a culture that encourages everyone to be authentic and bring their best, it can be a rewarding place. Some of the issues generally facing women in senior legal positions, as well as other diverse lawyers, are addressing implicit bias that may exist and also ensuring that people aren’t isolated. That is, that they feel part of a team, a culture that is welcoming. 

We’ve made great progress, but looking at the numbers, we need to retain more women, minorities, and other diverse talent in the law and advance more women and other diverse talent both in partnerships with firms and in senior legal positions. 

You're also involved in Clorox's pro bono initiatives.

I’m really proud that our legal team, through people’s passion and volunteerism, lead our pro bono efforts. A hallmark program has been supporting domestic violence survivors in family court. We work to get restraining orders or custody, guardianship, and on other issues. For the holidays, we also support families whose mothers and children are domestic violence survivors. We have a group of IP lawyers who are involved with Lawyers for the Arts, helping artists on all kinds of IP-related legal issues. We also have a group that represents tenants in landlord matters and we staff other clinics. Through these experiences, our attorneys learn a lot about leadership and becoming better lawyers, as well as how rewarding it feels to give back. 

This is the first year that we're sponsoring an Equal Justice Works fellow in conjunction with Morrison & Foerster law firm. The fellow is Whitney Rubenstein, who is with the East Bay Community Law Center, which is another group that we are involved with. We’ve partnered with East Bay Community Law Center to help people get rid of minor criminal records, so they can get jobs. 

How many Clorox lawyers are involved in pro bono efforts?

It's well over half of our department, and includes other legal staff as well. 

You were named one of the 20 most influential general counsel in America. What role do you see in-house general counsel playing in developing the legal system in the U.S. and internationally?

Being a general counsel is a great role, and it’s an increasingly strategic role. We wear many different hats, but clearly we act first and foremost as a trusted counselor to proactively guide and protect our company and proactively counsel the board, the CEO, and senior management on legal matters globally where the company is the client. We help to develop the legal system by trying to drive transparency and fairness and access to justice. 

We also have the ability to shape the legal profession – in the U.S. and internationally – by driving professional responsibility and diversity, as well as the rule of law. We help ensure that lawyers focus on professional development because it’s an increasingly complex, global, and regulated world, where lawyers need to constantly sharpen their skills and develop themselves. 

I read your daughter was studying Chinese in Beijing.

My daughter is now working for a start-up in San Francisco, but she studied in Beijing and she worked at law firms in Shanghai following college. She has the same level of Chinese proficiency that I have. She minored in Chinese. We’re slightly competitive, so we keep each other on our toes. When she was in Beijing and Shanghai I got to visit her, which was fantastic. 

You’re active in the community, serving on so many boards. How do you find the time and energy to stay so involved with a high-powered, demanding job?

I’ve been blessed with a very high level of energy. I also love what I do. Being general counsel is definitely demanding, but incredibly rewarding, especially when you work with a top-notch legal team and for a company you really respect and want to be involved in enhancing its reputation. 

It’s important as lawyers to give back, because we’ve been given so much. When you get involved in the community, legal services groups, pro bono or diversity matters, you also develop lifelong friendships with people with big hearts. 

You’ve also been very involved with the ABA. What’s been the value of your involvement with the ABA?

The ABA should be the voice of lawyers and represent us at national and global levels. I’ve enjoyed the issues I’ve been involved with. I was Chair of the Asia Rule of Law Board for several years and was very involved in ABA Rule of Law efforts, and Chair of the Domestic Violence Commission for several years. It was really an honor and a privilege to work with other experts to increase access and justice and safety for domestic violence victims. I've also been involved in the preservation of justice work to increase funding of the courts. I care a lot about the Business Law Section and served as Co-chair of the Corporate Counsel Committee. From a professional development and relationship standpoint, I've created lifelong friendships with people who are leaders and tremendous lawyers. 

Over your career you’ve received so many awards. Is there one that’s most meaningful to you?

It’s flattering to be recognized, but that’s not what drives me. And most of the awards are a reflection of the entire team with whom I work. I felt very good about receiving the Margaret Brent Award, which is the highest award given to women lawyers within the ABA. When I look at the women who have received that award, I’m just very humbled and privileged to be part of that group. 

You once told a Pennsylvania business magazine that your dream jobs included being a college basketball coach or president of the United States. Does one still interest you?

It would be incredibly rewarding to be a college basketball coach because I love college basketball; I love sports generally. You’re focused on strategy. You’re focused on making a team stronger and really leveraging strengths and the chemistry of a team. I like working on teams, which I clearly do in my present role. President of the United States is an amazing job as well. 

Thank you so much for your time.