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The Black General Counsel Project: Neiman Marcus’ Tracy Preston

Dec. 15, 2020, 11:01 AM

Increased visibility of leaders of color has led to recent increases in diversity at the general counsel level, according to Tracy Preston, the chief legal officer of Neiman Marcus Group, Inc.

“It’s clear that everybody’s story has the opportunity to inspire someone else’s story,” Preston said in a recent Bloomberg Law survey. “This sets the example for others to follow suit, which in turn has a domino effect that increases the candidate pool and improves hiring practices.”

Black general counsel now make up over 5% of all general counsel in the Fortune 1000, a significant milestone tracked by the Black General Counsel 2025 Initiative and first reported by Bloomberg Law. We reached out to over 50 Black legal chiefs whose companies were in the Fortune 1000 in 2019 or 2020 to learn more about their careers and diversity at the top of the legal industry and heard from 39 of them.

Preston joined Dallas-based retailer Neiman Marcus in 2013 as chief legal officer. Prior to that, she was chief counsel at clothing company Levi Strauss & Co. Preston also spent nearly a decade in private practice, most recently as a partner with Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe.

These responses have been edited for clarity and length.

Bloomberg Law: What are some key matters you and your team are working on right now?

Tracy Preston: We just emerged from Chapter 11 with a strengthened capital structure eliminating over $4 billion of existing debt. Moving forward, we are establishing ourselves as the preeminent luxury customer platform through retail innovation and technology. It is our mission to pioneer new levels of customer satisfaction by building better and more meaningful relationships and to ensure shareholder success. We are meeting the unprecedented speed to innovation and all the uncharted legalities that go with that.

BL: What’s the best leadership advice you’ve gotten, from mentors or others?

TP: It’s not necessarily a single piece of advice, but more of a compilation of wisdom gained through my mentorship network and the course of my career: embrace and value failure. While valuing failure may seem counterintuitive, given what we have been taught about success, if you are committed to defying the odds, or producing incredible outcomes, “no, not that” is as much a part of the equation toward success as the vision itself.

BL: What advice would you give to lawyers who want to go in-house?

TP: Relationships, relationships, relationships. Build good networks and get a mentor that has achieved the position or skill you are interested in achieving. In going in-house, it is important to understand the full scope of the business, mission, goal, key stakeholder concerns, and benchmarks of success so that you can provide the broadest perspective of business advice when needed. Powerful questions are the foundation of success.

BL: What do you wish you knew at the beginning of your career that you know now?

TP: The legal department is sometimes perceived as the department of “no” when it is actually integral to the company’s success. GCs build strong working relationships based on trust and desired business outcomes. Effective GCs explain the costs and consequences of each approach, illuminating both risk and opportunity. Knowledge of micro and macro environments helps the legal department guide company strategic plans. This empowers clients to value legal as a resourceful and trustworthy partner.

BL: Why do you think the number of Black general counsel has been on the rise? Have you observed any changes in the past few years that have contributed to recent increases in representation?

TP: I don’t know if I can answer the “Why” but the “What” is due to the increased visibility of leaders and executives of color—you can’t be something you don’t see—and it’s clear that everybody’s story has the opportunity to inspire someone else’s story. There’s an increase in race awareness, and some companies are pioneering higher standards of diversity. This sets the example for others to follow suit, which in turn has a domino effect that increases the candidate pool and improves hiring practices. These variables continue to increase representation. Additionally, diversity brings a broader scope and dimensionality of skill set to the table. Studies show that, the more diverse a company is in its leadership, the stronger it is in the marketplace.

BL: When you’re looking to hire outside counsel, how does diversity come into play in your evaluation of law firms?

TP: We are a small legal department, so we don’t have a formalized process with program metrics like some of my GC peers at larger companies with formal diversity programs. However, while we don’t have a formal program, we do want our law firms to reflect the diversity of our stakeholders, company, and associates. This drives our outreach to prospective outside firms. Our legal team at Neiman itself brings a broad scope of backgrounds and diverse networks, and those are vital factors toward increasing the diversity of our outside law firm professionals.

Studies show that diverse perspectives and diverse teams bring a broader scope and skill set to the table. Diversity provides a benefit to the organization by helping to minimize blind spots, mitigate risk, and improve outcomes. When there’s singularity or a monolithic view, there is no ability to appreciate the dimensionality of an issue, crisis, or problem. Diversity makes the company better equipped to address the myriad of issues with the broadest understanding available.

BL: What opportunities or changes has the pandemic brought to your job and your team?

TP: The pandemic has provided us with unique challenges and opportunities to improve how we all work together. Use of Microsoft Teams has allowed us to connect virtually on substantive matters, including drafting and negotiating key brand partner contracts, as well as administrative activities—for example, team building and staff meetings. The pandemic also has provided us greater insight into ways to improve work-life balance, which is often “focused imbalance” depending on what is happening at the time.

Questions by Ruiqi Chen and Lisa Helem.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ruiqi Chen in Washington, D.C. at rchen@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rebekah Mintzer at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com;
Lisa Helem at lhelem@bloombergindustry.com

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