Chief Legal Officers

CLO Perspectives
December 19, 2017

Q&A with Lucy Lee Helm of Starbucks


While your local Starbucks barista may strive to know your name and order by heart, Lucy Helm, Starbucks executive VP and chief partner officer, strives to know these things –– and a lot more –– about the baristas in her company. The former general counsel for the famous coffee company recently became its first ever chief partner officer, charged with leading what she calls one of the company's most important assets, its people.   

Here, Lucy discusses her journey to the Seattle-based company's legal department, and the various roles and opportunities she's been able to explore there –– not just as a member of the legal team, but also (and first and foremost) as a leader of the business.   

ACC: Tell me a little bit about your background: What was your first job after law school? Did you always want to be a lawyer?  

Lucy: I didn't always aspire to be a lawyer. I was interested in the academics of the field of law and studied it in college, particularly constitutional history. I went to school, both undergraduate and law school, in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky at the University of Louisville. I was a law clerk in Louisville during law school, and stayed at the law firm as a litigation associate. I worked a lot of hours and quickly found out that the work of private practice was not for me. I'd also been doing a lot of pro bono work, and ended up taking a job with a disability rights center, the Center for Accessible Living, as an advocacy director, for five or six years after that, including being associate director of that group.   

ACC: What sparked your interest in in-house practice, and what led you to Starbucks, your work home for the last 18 years? 

Lucy: I always wanted to move to the West Coast and in 1990; I began exploring job possibilities in Seattle. It was a fairly open job market at that time, and I looked at a lot of law firms here. I was hired by Riddell Williams, a midsized, well–known and respected law firm in Seattle. Great firm, great people, great work. But, with my first law firm job, I probably liked the firm more than I liked the practice of law. I enjoyed being a litigator, and was good at it. I wanted to make partner there and I stayed long enough time to do that, but I always knew I'd do something else.   

I assumed my next role would be with a nonprofit. However, many of my colleagues worked in-house and so I started exploring that as a possibility. Starbucks is a tremendous employer in the Seattle community where we were founded. I met the general counsel, talked to other in-house lawyers, and eventually applied for a job there. It took me a few years because there weren't that many jobs available to lawyers at Starbucks 20 years ago; it had a pretty small legal department. I was hired in 1999 as their first litigation director, primarily defending the company in customer-based claims. I also came to handle all litigation –– commercial, IP, real estate and other matters, primarily in the United States.   

ACC: You've had a varied career at Starbucks since then. Can you tell me a little about your career Starbucks journey, including becoming general counsel? 

Lucy: I've had the good fortune of working for several good managers in my time at Starbucks –– GCs who believed in broadening opportunities and career development. Therefore, I got a lot of exposure to different opportunities within the field of law. And about six years ago when our then-GC retired, I applied for the position of general counsel and served in that role for about five years. Starbucks has changed a lot since I started, going from a 25/30-person group of primarily legal professionals, to about 225 people in 14 offices around the globe –– including various corporate affairs functions, such as business continuity, global safety and security, and ethics and compliance.   

ACC: As general counsel of Starbucks, charged with the company's large global legal department, what did your typical day look like? And now, with your new business-focused role, what's changed?  

Lucy: Well, I'm not sure that my HR role is any more business focused than my legal role. The general counsel role in almost any company is business focused as well as legal focused. I believe that's one of the things you learn about in in-house practice: You're a business champion and business partner, and you really must be business oriented to succeed in that role.

There are two major parts of the GC job. One is certainly managing the legal affairs of the company and making sure that you have the best legal talent representing the company to do that. Starbucks has a wide variety of people around the world representing the legal interests of the company at all levels. Those legal and compliance professionals are handling everything from litigation to employment, real estate work, commercial work, trademark, corporate governance and security, M&A –– all the traditional things that most in-house law practices have. Management of that work, and managing the leaders who manage others –– was a critical part of my job as general counsel.

The second half of the job is being a member of the senior team of the company. As the general counsel, I have always reported to the CEO and been a member of the executive team. That means that you not only take the responsibility of being the company's chief lawyer, but also one of the top leaders in the company ­­­–– contributing to and supporting the strategy and business of the company. Being business oriented was my job, certainly with a bent toward the law, but I wasn't in the room to simply represent the legal issues. I have always considered myself to be an active and participatory senior leader with a great passion and commitment to Starbucks and its mission and values.   

ACC: Can you define your new role with Starbucks and elaborate on your transition?  

Lucy: My role is executive vice president and chief partner officer. Our employees are called partners because we are owners of the business, both in terms of stock and in responsibility and accountability. Many companies have defined the chief human resources officer as "chief people officer". For us, chief partner officer makes sense because it focuses on one of our primary assets ­–– our partners. Arguably coffee and people are what Starbucks is about. I feel fortunate to be able to take the leadership role on the people part.   

I lead what we call the Partner Resources Organization (PRO), the Starbucks HR team. PRO has all aspects of people management from recruitment to retirement. We're responsible for hiring and development, personnel matters, compensation and benefits, learning, talent and leadership, partner data and analytics, inclusion and diversity –– everything around managing the company's talent, whether in the retail sector, channel development, manufacturing, or functional support.   

ACC: What initially sparked your interest in this position and what steps did you take to make it happen? 

Lucy: I have always been keenly interested in people development as a leader of Starbucks. I'll start from the beginning: as a manager at Starbucks, you are given autonomy and accountability to hire, develop, retain, encourage, and promote the people that work for you. And as you get higher in the organization, you spend more time on that, not less. It's more critical than ever to have people who can lead their people and build and grow not only the company's business and strategic plan, but also its talent in support of our culture, mission, and values. I've always been interested in that aspect of being a leader at Starbucks, and it was exciting to think about the prospect of leading the group that has responsibility for the people in the company as a whole. I took on the job first in an interim role, supporting our CEO as he searched for a new HR leader. As I enjoyed the job and got some traction with the group and started feeling that we were making an impact together, I then threw my hat in the ring for a potential permanent job.   

ACC: Per this recent move, one can assume that you're in favor of in-house counsel taking on roles outside of the legal department. What advice do you have for those who aspire to a more business-focused role? 

Lucy: My belief is people should love what they do. If you're in a law firm, you're likely striving to grow your expertise, and over time, gain deeper knowledge within a subject matter –– but you don't have a lot of opportunities to stretch beyond that. That's one of the things that's exciting for lawyers who come into an in-house environment. As soon as I walked in through the door at Starbucks, for example, I knew that I had more opportunities to think about broader issues that were of interest to me. At first, I did that within the legal field, but I certainly wasn't limited in my job. I could work on projects or be part of cross-functional teams in which I supported –– everything from new beverages to social impact issues to commercial arrangements to diversity and inclusion.   

I was exposed to a lot of projects as a Starbucks lawyer that gave me ideas about different ways in which I could support the business. I think that's true for a lot of in-house legal practitioners who get close to the business. If you're a real estate lawyer, learning about leasing, development, design, and construction, those might be areas in which you might build a career. We've had lawyers in our department who've been supporting the supply chain, doing contracts, who went on to become part of the procurement team. Recently, an employment lawyer from my former team joined our Partner Resources Organization as the director of diversity and inclusion. One of the great things about working with a diverse and interesting organization like Starbucks is there are so many opportunities within the business to learn about and potentially support.   

ACC: Given your previous and current roles with Starbucks as a member of the company's senior leadership team, why is it important that senior counsel ­­–– and general counsel in particular –– have a seat at the executive table?  

Lucy: The most effective way that a head of a legal department can impact all aspects of risks, governance, and legal matters is to be intricately involved at the beginning when decisions are made. No one wants to be the lawyer who is brought in afterwards and asked for an opinion on whether something can or can't be done and then be limited to giving a yes-or-no answer. Instead, you want to be part of the business process, able to shape business decisions at the very beginning, lowering risks but also making smart decisions. One of the great advantages a business gets when it has lawyers at the table is really strategic, smart, organized thinking, great intelligence and potential problem solving – lawyers know the way the world works. Having the perspective of a legal counsel or trusted advisor is important at all levels, but especially as you get up to the more senior levels of decision making.   

ACC: According to ACC's Chief Legal Officers 2017 Survey, 70 percent of those surveyed rate ethics and compliance as the top issue keeping them up at night. What is the top concern or challenge facing corporations today? And further, how can the lawyers at the table best contribute to addressing this concern?  

Lucy: I'm not sure I can name the top legal issue that keeps other people up at night because I think there are so many issues that general counsel deal with. Frankly, if you're the head of a legal department, not many things keep you up at night because you're used to the quick decisions that you have to make to support a business in real time.   

Some of the hot topics that are pretty obvious to almost all companies are the changing privacy and data security regulations and potential security breaches. Even the most important and complex technology companies are having those issues. I'm not sure there's a legal issue that we have to manage that is as critical as protecting the business from things that could happen to its data and information.   

At Starbucks ethics and integrity issues are always important. That's not something that keeps me up at night because we're a mission-driven company with a very long history of having guiding principles and a deep culture that supports ethics and integrity. But it's still a very important part of our in-house lawyers' jobs to make sure that our executives understand the ethics and compliance issues that are in front of them, and to help them make good decisions.   

ACC: Can you tell us about the Starbucks Global Inclusion Council you started, and why diversity and inclusion are so important to Starbucks?  

Lucy: We started a Global Inclusion Council at Starbucks because we didn't want the topic of diversity and inclusion to be limited to just our hiring or promotion practices –– it's so much more than that. Our legal department has long been a leader on the topic of diversity in the legal profession. Inclusion includes everything from who our vendors are, to what our policies stand for, to how we welcome our partners and customers into our stores. We wanted to make sure that we looked at inclusion holistically across the company. So, we gathered the leaders of the company who expressed interest in diversity and inclusion, and created a Global Inclusion Council to set goals, promote diversity, and share best practices across the company on how to make inclusion a part of our culture.   

ACC: You've touched on this question, per your ongoing focus on the business, but can you point to any one thing in particular that your previous role as GC has done to prepare you for this new journey?  

Lucy: That's a great question. Although the company didn't get an HR expert when they put me in this role, what I think it did get –– and I think what a general counsel has to do and be every day –– is someone capable of making the tough decisions, being brave, direct, and truthful. And I think that is very useful in a role where you are charged with leading the people in an organization. The kind of decisiveness and clarity of thinking that you gain from being a lawyer is very useful here, because people issues are messy. And all the decisions that you make about people, from hiring to promotion to retention and support, are very one-on-one and individualized. I believe that you can best support people by telling them the truth, and giving them great feedback and support along their journey. The decisions I've had to make as GC prepared me to communicate directly and respectfully, and to tell the truth.   

ACC: What one piece of advice would you give your younger self? 

Lucy: Mistakes are what make you who you are and every mistake that I have made has made me stronger and better. I have an executive coach who tells me, after I've talked about a mistake I've made, "Well, you won't do that again." That philosophy of making a mistake, getting back up, and using it to inform your decisions moving forward, is advice I'd give my earlier self.   

Getting to Know Lucy Helm ...   

Name one person, living or dead, you'd love to have a cup of coffee with?

President Barack Obama. I've been inspired by his journey since he was a young senator for Illinois, and certainly admired him when he was president of the United States. I always imagine what it must be like to be a former president in any realm. Any of the former presidents, from Jimmy Carter to George Bush, must all have fascinating perspectives having been in that role and then watching the world turn after them. But particularly in this time, with the significant changes that have happened since the last election, I'd love to hear President Obama's perspective on what we can continue to do to make our country the strongest country it can be. I'd love to have an informal conversation over coffee ­­–– and I'm sure he'd love our coffee!

—by Tiffani R. Alexander, Editor in Chief, ACC Docket

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