Podcast: Women @ RopesTalk: Conversation with Cari Robinson, Revlon
In this episode of Women @ RopesTalk, hosted by litigation & enforcement partner Joan McPhee, counsel Helen Gugel, also of the litigation & enforcement practice, interviews Revlon general counsel Cari Robinson. Cari reflects on the trajectory of her career that spans private practice, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and in-house roles at IBM and Revlon. She explains why she pushed herself when she was already comfortable in a job—and how it paid off enormously. She also shares the skills she believes all good attorneys should possess, no matter the sector or practice. Finally, she talks about the importance of embracing challenges in order to grow and learn.
Joan McPhee: Welcome, and thank you for joining us on our latest installment of Women @ RopesTalk, a podcast series brought to you by the Women's Forum at Ropes & Gray. In this podcast, we spotlight extraordinary women who have had successful careers and interesting lives, and are also making positive contributions in their workplaces and in their communities. We feature women attorneys at Ropes & Gray in conversation with prominent women clients, industry leaders, entrepreneurs and others, about their careers, the successes they have achieved, the challenges they’ve faced, and the hard-earned wisdom they've acquired along the way. I’m Joan McPhee—I’m a partner in Ropes & Gray’s litigation & enforcement practice, based in New York. I also co-lead Ropes & Gray’s independent investigations group, and co-chair the firm’s diversity committee. On this episode, I’m joined by my colleague, Helen Gugel, who is also in our litigation & enforcement practice, based in New York. Helen, could you please introduce yourself and provide a brief rundown on your practice?
Helen Gugel: Of course—happy to. I’m a counsel in the firm’s litigation & enforcement practice group, and my practice primarily focuses on two areas: The first is government enforcement investigations and proceedings relating to market misconduct, including potential violations of the federal securities and commodities laws. And the second is internal and independent investigations into allegations of serious wrongdoing, which can run the gamut from sexual misconduct to breach of fiduciary duty, or other unlawful or unethical practices.
Joan McPhee: Thanks. And can you tell us a little bit about our special guest that you will be interviewing today?
Helen Gugel: With pleasure. So I will be speaking with Cari Robinson, who is the general counsel of Revlon, and you were kind enough to introduce me to. Cari is an incredibly engaging and interesting person, on top of having an absolutely exceptional career, so I’m delighted to have the opportunity to speak with her.
Joan McPhee: So I know it may be hard to isolate any one feature, but what would you say is most notable about Cari’s career?
Helen Gugel: You are definitely right about that. I’ve been particularly struck by how many different types of roles Cari has had in her career. She’s been in private practice, in public service, in-house, and she’s consistently taken risks and pushed herself out of her comfort zone to take on new challenges when she didn’t have to. So, for example, she took on her role at Revlon after a very successful, almost-two-decade run at IBM, and she could have comfortably stayed put and rested on her existing professional accomplishments and reputation, but she instead effectively decided to start over in a new industry with new people, and push and prove herself all over again, and I think that’s just remarkable.
Joan McPhee: Great. Thank you, Helen. And with that, I will turn it over to you and Cari.
Helen Gugel: Cari, you have had a particularly dynamic and multifaceted career in both the public and private sectors, working as a prosecutor, in a law firm and in-house. Can you describe your career trajectory and how you navigated your different roles over time?
Cari Robinson: Absolutely, Helen. So let me tell you the places and then I'll tell you how I got from stop to stop. So I started as a litigation associate at Davis Polk & Wardwell in New York City. From there, I went to the U.S. Attorney's Office, where I was prosecutor in the criminal division for about ten years. And from there, I went to IBM, where for a large part of my career I was in the litigation department. Then after that, I was able to form my own team, an investigations and cybersecurity team. And now, I'm currently the general counsel at Revlon. So how did I get from place to place?
Davis Polk is a more simple and direct story—it was an interview at a law school campus, and so I went through the interview process. I loved the firm, the firm apparently liked me, so the rest was history. The U.S. Attorney's Office—when I was in law school, there was a visiting professor, her name was Joanne Harris, and she was helping me train for a National Moot Court Competition. And she basically said to me, "Cari, after you finish your little stint at big law, you’ve got to go be a prosecutor at a U.S. Attorney's Office." So it wasn't really a suggestion, it was more of a demand. I had a tremendous amount of respect for Joanne, so I didn't really think that much about it, and that's what I did next. So I interviewed at the U.S. Attorney's Office—I was at the Southern District. And what Joanne essentially said to me was, "You're going to learn to be a lawyer from soup to nuts in that job. You're going to learn good skills, good judgment. You're going to learn to be a trial lawyer." And she was right. I think Davis Polk sort of helped me build a foundation for being a strong lawyer, and being precise and careful, and knowing how to research and write. The U.S. Attorney's Office really was a soup to nuts job—it started with the investigation of the case, you did all the pre-trial work, so there was a lot of writing. There was a lot of arguing in court, through trial work. And at the U.S. Attorney's Office, you could argue your own appeals before the Second Circuit. So you really practiced all different kinds of skills.
Helen Gugel: To go back to your time at the Southern District—as I understand it, there were not a lot of women in that position, at that time. Is that something that you were conscious of during the period that you were a prosecutor, or has that impacted or affected your experience in any way?
Cari Robinson: There were definitely fewer women there when I started than today, but there were trailblazers, plenty of them, before me. But it's a good question, and I'm certain there were circumstances where I needed to assert myself or prove myself maybe a little bit more than my male counterparts. One thing for sure that I learned to do at the U.S. Attorney's Office was I have a total gutter mouth. I will try not to display that during this podcast, but I definitely learned that there. And in part, it was really sort of an equalizer for me. There were times, especially, for example, doing a proffer with the defendant where they weren't taking me as seriously as maybe they would have my male counterpart, where a few well-placed curse words with the right sort of emphasis was more shocking to them, but it also just sort of changed the tenor. But you are right about the versatility involved, and I learned so many skills that I use today with that. You really do have a slightly different persona when you're speaking before a federal judge as you would maybe in a defendant proffer, or you would when you're speaking with your colleagues and cajoling with them, or you would when you're speaking with a supervisor. You become very versatile and very skilled in communication, because there's so many different audiences that you have to adapt to.
Helen Gugel: You spent almost a decade at the prosecutor's office. What was the turning point for you when you decided to make a decision and leave the office? Was it a particular moment or an opportunity that drew you away?
Cari Robinson: It was a little bit opportunistic, but it was also a thought process I went through. So I'd been at the U.S. Attorney's Office, like I said earlier, about 10 years. I didn't really want to leave, but I started to say to myself, "Unless I want to really be a career prosecutor, I have to understand what the next step was.” I didn't want to box myself in so that I wasn't marketable to do different things, as opposed to maybe go the defense lawyer route, which was something that didn't interest me. And I also didn't think I wanted to go back into a law firm. I thought that being in-house in a corporation would be interesting, but I didn't really know what that meant at the time that I was thinking through that. And so one day, out of the blue, an FBI agent came really literally bounding into my office, telling me that there had been a threat that was made against IBM, and that we had a very short window to determine whether the threat was real or not, and to get to the bottom of things. And so, of course, we did—and IBM was fine. But in the course of prosecuting, investigating and prosecuting that matter, I met with the then head of the litigation department at IBM. So once the case was concluded, I asked him whether he would mind speaking with me and just educating me a little bit about what it's like to be in-house, and it's a longer story, but the short story is: the rest is history.
Helen Gugel: Well, it seems like you made quite an impression on him. You spent almost 18 years at IBM in various critical legal roles, and you were named (not to embarrass you a bit) by Inside Counsel as one of the top 100 female in-house lawyers. Having established yourself and cultivated such a distinguished career at IBM, you then made a very bold decision, and this is very appropriate because as I understand, Revlon's motto is "be bold"—you took on the general counsel position at Revlon. Can you describe your thought process in making that decision?
Cari Robinson: I was deliriously happy in my career at IBM, and I got a phone call very much out of the blue from the individual who was the general counsel at MacAndrews & Forbes. MacAndrews & Forbes is Ronald Perelman's company, and Revlon is a public company, but a controlled company. So the GC at MacAndrews called and asked me whether I would be interested in interviewing for the GC role at Revlon. And honestly, I'm not quite sure what I said in the moment because it caught me so off guard, and I was so unprepared for that question. But I guess if you're going to leave a career, it's a good time to leave a career when you're really happy in it as opposed to dying to get out of it. But it made the decision very difficult, and it was a very thoughtful process I went through. Making a decision whether I wanted to leave something I really enjoyed, and a team I loved, and colleagues I really got along with to try something bold and new and different, completely different industry, different skill set, etc. When I met people over at Revlon, it was really exhilarating and exciting, and it's a very vibrant environment, and very innovative and very fast-paced, but I really had to do some deep thinking about whether I wanted to make that decision. I know that might seem odd because some people may say, "You were being offered a general counsel role, and you weren't in one." But for me, I really had to come to terms with the fact that I was probably in my comfort zone at IBM, and a little bit afraid to go out of it. So I really had to sort of push myself out of my comfort zone to take on that position, because I think it did take a lot of courage and I think it required being bold. And I'm so happy I did it. I can't say that it was a smooth-as-silk decision for me to make—I had to give it a lot of thought.
Helen Gugel: It's interesting because I think the fact that it was outside of your comfort zone, it sounds like it was both maybe a reason not to do it and also in your thinking through it, a reason to do it. Is that an element that ultimately pushed you wanting to challenge yourself and explore new things?
Cari Robinson: Absolutely. There's some people that are hardwired to just love the thrill of change and something new and risky, and they leap into situations like that, and they don't really hesitate. Then there's some people that really like the comfort of what they know and stability and not a lot of change. And I learned through that process that I'm a creature who lives in both worlds—I like both. A lot of my jobs over the past couple a decades really have been crisis management. So that's the part of my personality that is not afraid to fight, not afraid for a challenge, not afraid to do something new, not afraid to feel uncomfortable, but I'm also somebody who's stayed in their jobs a long time. I clearly am a creature of comfort and stability. So that's what I mean in terms of the difficulty of the decision—it wasn't, "Do I like Revlon? Would I be happy there?" It was more, "Am I prepared personally to take on this challenge?" And I have to say, the one really wonderful thing about it is I had a really strong support system, not only in my husband, but my kids, who are two adult kids. I have a son and a daughter, who really supported me and encouraged me to go ahead and take the leap. So that helped me make the decision, and it was a wonderful family moment too for me.
Helen Gugel: That's wonderful. And you mentioned crisis management, which I assume has served you particularly well, that expertise, because you joined Revlon I believe in 2019, so you didn't have very much time to get acclimated before the pandemic hit. How have you navigated the challenges imposed by the pandemic, getting up to tackle the learning curve through this very unprecedented period and in a new position?
Cari Robinson: So yes, you're right—I hadn't been in the position that long when the pandemic hit. I experienced what a lot of legal leaders and legal teams obviously all experienced at the same time, which is, how do we navigate this? How do you navigate the emotion, the fear, the safety concerns? How do you keep your business operating? What portions of your business can you keep operating safely? And what portions can you close and have your employees work remotely? This is not news to anybody listening to this—everybody's been through this. I have to say, we had just a really smart, very focused team, who spent an unbelievable amount of time putting together a process that I'm really proud of, and a set of protocols, obviously, that are still in place today. We had top focus dedication from the CEO down. The most important thing on everyone's minds was how to keep people safe. We obviously wanted to keep our business operating, but really the focus was on our people, and how do we keep our people and our customers safe? And we've managed, I think, really beautifully from a COVID perspective during this period, because we've managed to keep our manufacturing facilities open, our employees safe, and for those who are working in a remote environment, we're getting all of our work done. I think people would probably be saying that at Revlon specifically, but maybe around the world, that people are doing a lot more work now that they're working remotely than they were when they were actually in a physical office environment. But it has definitely been challenging and a tremendous learning and growth experience. And also, it's a horrible way to do team building, but, boy, did it help build a team, because our team really had to rely on each other's judgment and instincts to get things done and to move quickly and work late hours, and whatever it took to get the company through this pandemic.
Helen Gugel: Well, you're going through the trenches together and seeing everybody's snippets of home life, which I imagine is an interesting experience, too—the blurring of the lines with kid cameos and dog cameos and everyone's backdrops. So it probably both accelerates, I imagine, and creates all sorts of additional layers of complexity to navigate.
Cari Robinson: I love that part, actually, because I'm somebody who definitely doesn't take myself too seriously, and I don't think anybody really should. But I love seeing snippets of people's real and personal lives, and it doesn't bother me at all if somebody's dog is barking or somebody's child needs them, because it just gives you a window into somebody that's not just their work persona. COVID has been just painfully sad and awful, but the little silver linings are I do feel like I've gotten to know some of my friends and my colleagues on a more personal level because you see the inside of their home life, and I've actually really enjoyed that part of it.
Helen Gugel: It's so interesting to hear you speak about your experience, because it sounds from one perspective that the opportunities were almost serendipitous or you weren't necessarily looking for them, but the preparation, the relationships that you had built, the skills that you had cultivated with such care and devotion over years served you so well to create this moment when things came to be and these opportunities presented themselves to you. So are there things that you wish you had known along the way as you were transitioning into different roles or some kind of advice that you would give to others who are starting out and trying to think through the course of their own careers?
Cari Robinson: Yes. So I didn't mean it to sound like it was all sort of happenstance, my career shifts, because it was a combination of good fortune, but also my taking advantage of an opportunity and making it into something. There's some people who are very lucky in their careers, and literally just luck comes to them—their careers get molded or changed, because somebody has really guided them along the way. But that's, I think, a small percentage of people. I guess one thing—I'm not a terribly good networker. But obviously, from the stories I've shared, networking is important because my network did get me opportunities that wouldn't have been available to me without it. I would definitely encourage people to network in a way that makes you comfortable. And it's so easy now to maintain a network, and you can maintain it at whatever level is right for you. You can reach out periodically to people in your network or more often—whatever suits your personality. So I think that's really important.
I also think you have to be open to change. You either have to be somebody who is self-guided and knows exactly what their next career step is going to be—sort of plots it out. I wasn't a plotter outer or knew that five years from now I'm going to do this job, and then five years later, that job. But I did have some sense of where I thought I wanted to go next, and directed myself there. But I think if something does come in your direction that you're not expecting, like the Revlon opportunity came to me, I think you have to be open to something new and open to make a change, or else you may miss out on a great opportunity. And Revlon for me has been an unbelievable growth, learning, career, exhilarating opportunity, and had I just reacted by saying, "I'm so happy in my job and I don't really want to change, and this seems like a lot," I would have missed out on that opportunity. So I think being open to change is something that people need to be, and open to risk. You hear a lot of motivational speakers that say if you're not uncomfortable, if you're not throwing yourself out of your comfort zone, then you're not really growing, and I do believe that that's true. And I do believe that I have through each stage of my career, thrown myself into something that was challenging for me that had a steep learning curve. Each job actually had a steep learning curve, going from Davis Polk doing commercial law, to criminal law where you're completely on your own at the U.S. Attorney's Office, then going from criminal law back into a company, and then going from one company to another. I think you really have to embrace those challenges and take those risks to grow and learn.
Helen Gugel: One might even say you have to "be bold?"
Cari Robinson: Yes. I think you have to be bold. And if I can put in a little plug, I think if you buy Revlon cosmetics or Elizabeth Arden, it might even help you be more bold.
Helen Gugel: In your various roles at the law firm, at the SDNY, in-house, you've had a pretty unique vantage point in our industry. Are there common traits that you've observed that differentiate superior lawyers from the rest of the pack?
Cari Robinson: Yes. To be a good lawyer I think you have to have really good writing skills. And by writing, I don't mean long briefs—I mean, you have to really be able to put your thoughts in writing succinctly. I think the art of being able to provide an executive summary, whether you're in-house or whether you're a lawyer at a law firm who's guiding your client, to be able to condense information and make it bite-sized and important pieces as opposed to long nosebleed emails that nobody wants to read. So I think that's really important. Oral skills obviously, I think, are important. I think having good judgment—I think you can improve on good judgment, but I don't know that it's something that if you don't have you can learn to have. So I think that the really skilled lawyers have very good judgment. I've definitely learned throughout my career and the building blocks—I built and built and built on this—how important facts are. There's some lawyers who don't appreciate that, aren't going to win their cases, because the facts are really important, and you have to understand them good or bad, and then you know how to navigate the issues. If I were giving guidance to my outside counsel on how to be a really good outside lawyer to an in-house client, I think it's great if you're super smart and you're a good writer and you have good judgment and all the things I just said, but if you take the time to really understand your client and know their business, but also know their needs, know when they present a problem to you, how they need to navigate their own company, their own politics in their company, what they can or can't do—I think you're a much better counselor to your client if you can navigate an issue along with them rather than dictate to them that this is what the law says, and this is the safer approach, and this is too risky, and all of that. So you can be a good, smart lawyer, but if you're not ready to get in the trenches with your client and understand your client's issues and some of the stumbling blocks that they have just to get something done or move in a direction, then you're not the best counselor for your client.
Helen Gugel: I think you're absolutely right. We've talked a little bit about the Zoom crashes and seeing a little bit about people's home lives and getting a personal component, and your CV to me is a particular wonder because in addition to your day job, which I know is incredibly exacting and demanding, you also seem to hold down basically a dozen others, working as a faculty member for the Cardozo trial advocacy program, serving on the American Conference Institute's global anti-corruption advisory board. You're a prolific public speaker. You volunteer for your alma mater. You are a mom to two kids. So there's been a lot of debate, obviously, about whether women can have it all, and particularly, whether they can have it all at once. Are there strategies that you've employed to navigate personal, professional demands at points in your life, when they seem to be in conflict with each other?
Cari Robinson: Yes, and I'd like to say that for the most part, I've done a really good job. Work/life balance is very important to me. And I don't want to generalize because it's not something, by the way, that's important to everybody, so I'm just really going to speak about me. For me, it's really important, and I think it makes me a better-rounded person. I think when I can step away from my day job and do something, whether it's with my family or something just for me or volunteering, something that's not my everyday job, I think I come back more fresh and more energized and more engaged. I think you have to learn to set boundaries, and part of that is you need to actually be bold enough to start to set them so that other people start to respect them. But there are definitely points in my career, and I'm sure other people have experienced this as well, where it's more difficult to establish a work/life balance and you have to work a little harder. So for me, when I first started in law and was just a baby at a law firm, I really was at the beck and call of the more senior lawyers or the partners, and I didn't have a lot of control over my schedule. And while there were times where you could establish a boundary, you didn't really feel like you'd earned the right to do that, and it was kind of your job to just be there when they needed you. So I can't say that I had a perfectly balanced work/life balance at that stage of my career, but it wasn't as important to me then either, because it was before I started building my family, and so the sacrifices I was making were for my own sacrifice. Anytime you start a new job—so starting at Revlon was the same thing—if you want to do it well, there's going to be a lot of intensity and a lot of long hours and a lot of focus. And then, your earlier question, when you compound a crisis like the pandemic and other unexpected issues, it makes the balance part of the work/life balance more difficult. But I think when people have respect for you, and they want your advice, and they value you, and they know that you're going to be there, by the way, and you're not going to leave them high and dry, you're going to get your work done—I think the more gravitas that you have and you build in your career, the more people are likely to respect that because you don't abuse it. But again, I think being able to do that and do things that are important and invigorating to you personally just really makes me a lot happier—I feel a lot more complete, and I feel like I'm a better counselor and lawyer to my client when I'm feeling like my life is in balance.
Helen Gugel: Thank you so much, Cari, for sharing your time and your perspective with us. It is so invaluable, I think, for everyone to understand how you've approached the various choices that you've made in your own career, the challenges and the opportunities, and how you've responded to them and how you have been bold. I know we keep saying it, and it really is not just because it's the Revlon tagline, but it really seems very apropos to the themes of your career transitions and the way that you've really dived into opportunities and stepped out of your comfort zone and challenged yourself at times when you really did not have to. That is incredibly impressive, and I think is fascinating to observe from the sidelines, so thank you.
Cari Robinson: Well, thank you so much for inviting me to do this. It was a lot of fun, and it's very flattering. And go out and buy something Revlon, Elizabeth Arden, American Crew. Go for it!
Joan McPhee: Helen and Cari—thanks to you both. Helen, for your always engaging interview style, and Cari, for sharing your bold, fun and dynamic self with all of us. And as always, thanks to our listeners. For more information about Ropes & Gray's Women's Forum and our women attorneys, please visit www.ropesgray.com/women. You can also subscribe to this series wherever you typically listen to podcasts, including on Apple, Google and Spotify. Thanks again for listening.