Plotting Her ‘Rewirement’
As Deborah Platt Majoras ’89, Procter & Gamble’s outgoing chief legal officer, was getting ready to retire this month, she had the rare experience of being invited — multiple times — to surprise gatherings feting her as she departs from the legal profession and celebrating the mark she is leaving on the current generation of lawyers. Even Arianna Huffington threw her a private retirement party at her home.
In response, the UVA Law alumna — whose accomplishments far outstrip her ego — borrowed a line from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” as the undertaker goes about piling plague victims on a cart: “Hey, I’m not dead yet!”
Indeed, the former antitrust lawyer, former chair of the Federal Trade Commission and current member of at least four boards of directors isn’t quite ready to climb on the cart, even if she is ready to step away from the dizzying career heights she’s achieved.
“I’m not calling this retirement, I’m calling it ‘rewirement,’” Majoras said in a Zoom interview from her home in Cincinnati, one week out from her formal retirement. “These are pretty ‘on 24/7’ jobs, and I wanted to get out of that while I still have some energy to go on and do some other things.”
Majoras and her most trusted adviser — her husband, John — are moving back to Washington, where John still co-leads the business and tort litigation group at Jones Day.
If Huffington has her say, Majoras’ next act will involve nothing short of “transforming the well-being of the legal profession,” as she has previously partnered with Huffington’s latest enterprise, Thrive Global, an online platform to diagnose professional burnout in real time and deliver “microstep” advice to help users build healthier habits. (Huffington started Thrive Global in 2016 after she suffered a frightening collapse in her office.)
“Arianna announced it at that dinner party, that she thought it would be a great thing for me to think about taking on,” Majoras said, laughing. “I do have a lot of passion for the subject, and I have a lot of passion for developing people, so I will think about those things.”
That passion for leadership and mentorship shows through in conversations with Majoras.
She remains close to one of her earliest professional mentors, Joe Sims, who ran the antitrust practice group at Jones Day when Majoras joined the firm two years after graduating from law school.
Majoras had joined the firm’s Chicago office as a litigation associate after a clerkship at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. In law school, she took antitrust law during her final semester but often skipped the class to head to Chicago for long weekends to see her boyfriend, a law student at Northwestern.
It wasn’t until she studied for the final exam that she realized how fascinating the field was, blending economics with consumer psychology. (She still pulled an A-minus.) During her clerkship, she had a second bite at that antitrust apple, when the FTC brought a case before her judge, seeking to enjoin a major proposed merger.
“I lined up all of the binders the parties submitted, and they covered the whole table in the jury room,” Majoras recalled. “There was just me to sit and read though them. I again thought it was so fascinating — I mean, it’s about how markets work and how consumers make choices as human beings.”
By letting the merger go through, they decided the case against the agency she would go on to lead 13 years later.
When she joined Jones Day’s Chicago office, Joe McEntee, the office’s managing partner, mentioned to Sims — a D.C. partner — that he had a talented young litigation associate who had expressed interest in doing some antitrust work.
“She never worked another hour for Joe McEntee,” Sims said, laughing. “And he never failed to remind me of that!”
What made Majoras stand out from other associates, and made Sims want to take her under his wing, was her “tough-mindedness” and her “incredible ability to relate to the people she’s dealing with,” Sims said.
“She may well have had concerns about her ability in particular areas, but she never let it show, and she always seemed like she was in charge,” Sims said. “She can talk to anybody about anything and make them feel like they’re the most important person in the world at that moment. And that’s a pretty rare skill, especially when matched with a high-performing legal ability.”
Sims would go on to give Majoras an increasing workload and eventually entrusted her to run a deal on her own. She frequently tells this anecdote about the moment she received this first big opportunity from Sims: “I was really excited and, when he went to leave my office, he looked back at me and just said, ‘Hey, Deb? Don’t [mess] this up.’”
When she is mentoring other young leaders these days, she talks about how she handled the “oh crap” moment that followed, as the imposter syndrome feelings crept in.
“The only way to deal with it is to put one foot in front of the other and just do what you know how to do well,” Majoras said. “The stuff you’re good at will start carrying you through, then all of a sudden you find yourself thinking the right thoughts and making the right judgments and the imposter has to shut up for awhile because you’re actually doing it.”
That confidence — and her willingness to make definitive decisions and give clear advice — helped her become partner at Jones Day and then deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division in 2001. (She later rose to principal deputy).
In 2004, she returned to Jones Day but, before she could even unpack her boxes, the White House personnel office called and asked if she would like to be considered for the open chairmanship of the Federal Trade Commission, which shares antitrust jurisdiction with the DOJ. (Coincidentally, between 2004-05, she oversaw U.S. antitrust law in conjunction with fellow Hoo and good friend R. Hewitt Pate ’87, who was the assistant attorney general in charge of the Antitrust Division from 2003-05.)
Born in Meadville, Pennsylvania, Debbie Platt first moved to D.C. in 1985, fresh out of Westminster College, a small, liberal arts school in her home state. She took a job as a receptionist in the D.C. office of a Columbus, Ohio-based law firm, Porter Wright Morris & Arthur. They quickly made her a paralegal and advised her to apply to law schools — one partner planted the idea of going to “Thomas Jefferson’s law school.”
When she realized she would qualify for in-state tuition at Virginia, the deal was sealed. “I went to UVA Law sight unseen,” she said.
She came away, she said, a more well-balanced lawyer.
“We were living the balance together as human beings,” she said of her classmates and professors. “We were learning and showing that it’s possible to be really devoted and excellent at what you do while at the same time being a good person to the people around you.”
As Sims noted, together, those innate traits and learned skills packed quite a punch. In 2006, just 17 years after graduating from UVA Law, Washingtonian magazine deemed Majoras one of the 100 most powerful women in Washington, alongside Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
When Majoras looks back on her time in D.C., that’s not the type of influence she chooses to highlight. She would rather talk about the people she mentored, like Brian Huseman, an FTC attorney adviser whom she promoted to her chief of staff. He’s gone on to run public policy for Amazon. Or Lydia Parnes, an FTC vet who now leads the privacy and cybersecurity group at Wilson Sonsini.
These people are likewise eager to talk about Majoras and the impact she had on them.
“She spent a lot of time coaching us, investing in us, providing us stretch opportunities,” Huseman said. “And it didn’t end when I stopped working for her. That relationship I have with her is one of my most valued relationships.”
After seven years spent balancing the interests of consumers and corporations in Washington, Majoras moved to Cincinnati to join the world’s second-largest consumer products company, Procter & Gamble, in the general counsel’s office. Within two years, she took over as chief legal officer, overseeing a 500-person legal department advising a behemoth that does business in 180 countries.
Besides grooming her successor, Susan Whaley, one of the things Majoras said she is most proud of at Procter & Gamble is the well-being initiatives she led, first for the legal department and then companywide. Over the course of 10 years, the legal employees’ self-reported well-being scores went from about 50% positive to almost 90% positive, she said. Policy changes ranged from offering hybrid work arrangements to more generous leave periods.
Majoras herself took a nine-week sabbatical in lieu of retiring in 2019. Rather than diminishing her standing among her colleagues, taking the mental break earned her kudos.
“Even from very senior people, I was getting all these notes saying, ‘You’re giving us permission to take care of ourselves because you’re an officer of the company,’” Majoras said. “Oh my God, it’s so bad that we need permission to take care of ourselves, but we do — it’s just how we’re wired.”
People have long told Majoras she would know when the time was right to step aside, and this time — unlike 2019 — she’s sure. In part, it goes back to her desire to give her mentees the opportunity to stretch themselves the way Joe Sims let her.
“In a promote-from-within culture, which P&G is, the leader has to know when to get out of the way, because if you stay too long, you’ll skip a generation who will never have the chance to lead,” Majoras said. “The next generation is ready to put their stamp on this, to take what we’ve done and build on it.”
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