Closing Statements: A Q&A with Sara Moss ’74

Sara Moss ’74 has held a variety of leadership positions in law and business, including her current role as vice chairman, executive vice president, and general counsel of The Estée Lauder Companies. A firm believer in empowering others, she has endowed the Sara Moss Women’s Leadership Training Program within the Birnbaum Women’s Leadership Network (BWLN). We talked to Moss about what inspires her support of BWLN.

Why is leadership training important for lawyers?

Leadership training is critical for law students. At NYU Law, we have students who graduate and pursue a wide range of careers in law firms, government, public service, or business. We turn out leaders, and leadership skills are different from technical lawyering skills. In the Leadership Training Program, we work on effective communication, grit and resilience, and building your brand.

Everyone has a brand. How do you build a network based on who you are and how you want to convey who you are? We help the students think about that and present themselves in a way that is authentic and the way they want to lead.

Sara Moss on working with students within the Sara Moss Women’s Leadership Training Program:

How have you developed your leadership style?

My leadership style developed when there were not that many women as role models. I was at the US Attorney’s Office and I had to lead a group of male federal agents. I had to learn to lead at that point. I later joined a small law firm and we had to create a culture.

I’ve learned so much from the people I’ve led, and I’ve learned the things that I believe are important: empathy, humility, really caring about the people you work with, and them knowing that you care. Building trust is critical to leadership. That develops over time. You can’t just say it, you have to live it.

Sara Moss on how NYU Law has always been committed to women:

How has the landscape changed for women in the legal profession?

It’s still not a level playing field. When I started at Davis Polk & Wardwell, there were very few women. When I started at the US Attorney’s Office, I was part of the first group of women in the Criminal Division. When we started a law firm, I was the only woman partner. When I became general counsel at Pitney Bowes in 1996, I was one of the first female general counsel of a publicly traded company. Only when I came to The Estée Lauder Companies did I really have a number of women colleagues in an environment that was supportive. That’s one of the joys of being here that makes it fun and makes you able to really be yourself and bring your whole self to work.

Law firms need to make long-term investments in women. It’s the return on invested capital, because the law firm invests a lot in all the junior lawyers, and the dropout rate of women is too high. It’s just not right. You should be able to have an exciting legal career and a family, feel valued, and be successful.

I can see programs like our Women’s Leadership Training Program in law firms, because women come in and it’s still a harder road for them. Some of it is having children, but not all.

What attributes do you value most in a professional context?

You need courage to be a lawyer. Truth to power is important, and it’s hard. Grit and resilience are critical. Passion for what you’re doing is also critical, and then the values of public service and giving back are important.

Sara Moss offers advice for the next generation of leaders within the law:

What is your advice for speaking truth to power?

There have been times when I have felt that an executive needed to hear truth that may be uncomfortable. I think there is a way to do that, which is to do it in private, close the door, and be candid. And every time it has been accepted well, because they understood that I wanted the best for them. My only agenda is for the success of the company. If that’s the framework, then you can do it and you have to do it.

Why is it important to you to give back to the NYU Law community? I tell my children, and I really try to live this, “Character is what you do when no one is looking.” It’s important to give back, not just financially, but every way you can to the Law School, and frankly, to the greater good.

NYU Law has given me the foundation for a wonderful career that’s more interesting than I ever thought was possible. The Law School continues to support smart, interesting students. It’s a privilege to be able to give back. 

This Q&A was edited and condensed. Posted September 4, 2019