Jen Meeker, J. Crew Group’s recently retired Senior VP, GC and Corporate Secretary, reflects on her legal career and the transition to ‘Chief Household Executive Officer’
Under her name, Jen Meeker’s LinkedIn profile reads, “So far so good!!” It refers to the fact that she retired as Senior Vice President, General Counsel (GC) and Corporate Secretary from New York-based J. Crew Group in June 2014. Now she’s embarked on a new career she jokingly refers to as Chief Household Executive Officer.
“I hadn’t really planned on retiring,” she said, explaining that her husband got an “amazing” offer in San Francisco. “But that’s where I am.”
Those who know Meeker well aren’t so sure she’s ready to permanently trade her GC days for a DIY gig just yet.
Capitalizing on Networking
Meeker, age 57, earned her law degree at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law and worked in private practice before going in house at Ohio-based Honda of America. She was hired by Shelley Milano; the two had networked previously. When Milano left Honda to become GC for Seattle-based Starbucks Corp., she recruited Meeker to join her. That one networking call netted Meeker her first two in-house positions and introduced her to her greatest mentor.
“I’ve learned so much from watching Shelley,” Meeker said. “Always act with integrity, always act with ethics, never hurt people. She always took the hit for us when something went wrong, and she always gave us the credit when things went well.”
Honda was a very complex business with an international scope and a Japanese-driven culture focused on continual improvement—night and day from the hip, innovative retail culture at Starbucks.
“Many of the things [Starbucks does], there’s no real model for,” Meeker said.
While there, she was involved in litigation, mergers and acquisitions when the company bought a music company, and the transactions involved with taking the stores wireless.
Meeker switched gears again after Starbucks, taking on the public service arena at Puget Sound Energy, Washington’s largest electric and gas utility. In this highly regulated, traditional environment, she dealt with public policy implications—environmental policy, climate changes, fishing rights of Native American tribes and major infrastructure projects. She also helped the utility go private, later using that experience when she transitioned to J. Crew.
Taking a Proactive Stance
Meeker credits getting “older and wiser” with allowing her to adapt to the different cultures she’s experienced. It helps that she found each interesting and stimulating.
“I’ve really loved every day of work,” she said. “That’s true of all my jobs.” It also helps to have the “Zen of Jen,” as one of her co-workers called it.
At each company, Meeker learned important lessons that she implemented with the next. “Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve tried to simplify things and make them better,” she said.
While at Starbucks, Meeker initiated the reduction of an eight-page confidentiality agreement to one page, simplifying the vendor process for everyone involved. At Honda, she learned the concept of “going to the spot,” or figuring out why something is broken and taking steps to ensure it won’t happen again. It came in handy when there was a problem with a system at Puget Sound.
“Learn from it and put systems in place so it doesn’t happen again,” Meeker advised. “Yeah, it takes more work, but it’s the right thing to do.”
When she moved to New York, Meeker missed informative quarterly lunches with fellow Seattle GCs from Microsoft, Nike, Costco and other companies. “I had really good insight into other legal departments, salaries, legislative issues and what was going on,” she said. The collegial, peer relationships also provided her with a soundboard she could reach out to when needed.
She left those connections behind when she moved from the West Coast, and as the new GC on the block, Meeker wasn’t familiar with the “who’s who” of law firms in the Big Apple. “The world of big New York law firms is something unto itself,” she said.
Meeker had to learn quickly; she was immediately plunged into the legalities surrounding taking the company private. For the first six months, she led her team through a strategic review of the legal work and how best to allocate it among the different firms, giving them a voice in the process.
Meeker especially missed not having local connections when it came to mentoring others. “I like to spend time with young lawyers and law students,” she said, “and without those connections, there was just so much less I could do for people.” Her advice to others in a similar situation: “I’ve found, particularly when switching industries as I did, getting involved with trade associations is a really good idea.”
While networking with peers is valuable, communicating with those in house is critical. At J. Crew, Meeker shared the minutes from the biweekly executive meetings with her lawyer team so they were aware of the issues and how the business was doing.
“I wanted to make sure they were fully informed,” she said, “and not caught off guard or spending time on things that were yesterday’s ideas.”
She met with her team biweekly and held hour-long meetings with individual lawyers to hear their issues and exchange ideas. “For the mot part, I tried to encourage them to figure out how they were going to work through a difficult issue,” Meeker said. Her door was always open—and that included on weekends and during evening hours.
Now Meeker’s time is her own. “This is my thirtieth year out of law school, and maybe I’m done, maybe I’m not,” she said. “But every single day, I have really loved what I do.”
Shari Held is a freelance writer based in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Jennifer's Key Partners:Cowan, Liebowitz & Latman (Intellectual Property Law) | Sedgwick (Litigation Services) | Ropes & Gray (Corporate, Securities, Litigation) | Davis Wright Tremaine LLP (M & A, Transactions)
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