Warrior Mentality & Southern Charm

Tracy Preston has reached professional heights by never being afraid to take a risk. Her journey to general counsel of Neiman Marcus is defined by activism, tenacity, and defying the odds

Tracy Preston remembers watching Perry Mason with her babysitter. Though she didn’t have a full appreciation for what Mason did at such a young age, she found the show fascinating. She followed that fascination to Neiman Marcus, where today she is senior vice president and general counsel. Her unique perspective as a woman of color and her diverse legal background give her an edge in the industry.

It all started with her Southern upbringing in Virginia. As she was growing up, Preston’s family instilled in her the values of teamwork and leadership. Her parents were both teachers with strong work ethics, so Preston always pushed herself. She challenged herself throughout high school in tennis, cheerleading, basketball, honors programs, student government, and academics. She was valedictorian of her class. She remembers spending summers with her grandparents and watching them support voting rights by working the precincts. Her grandfather was a stalwart champion of representation and one of her earliest mentors.

Following in the footsteps of her grandparents, Preston involved herself in civil rights and pro bono work after studying law and moving to San Francisco. It was her way to give back to the community. She worked in pro bono clinics on cases ranging from landlord issues to child custody concerns. Additionally, she volunteered at a program for at-risk children and assisted the homeless in finding shelter. “At its best, the law provides protection to the innocent and can be a powerful platform to help people,” she says. “I enjoy helping and giving back to others and giving them a voice.” She recalls a taxi driver she encountered through the program who became homeless. Preston worked with him to complete his requirements and paperwork and obtain the funds to get his license back, giving him the opportunity to take care of his family.

As a member of more than one minority group, Preston values diversity. For her, any underrepresented individual brings dimensionality to a professional team. She sees this as reflective and necessary in the multicultural, global landscape. “Educational expertise is one thing you bring to the table, but your life story and experiences are just as important,” says Preston. “I think it’s relevant that the next generation has a broader scope of role models.”

She hopes to inspire other women of color in roles like hers, as well as young girls. “You can’t be what you can’t see,” she adds. “Everyone has a story. That story will often inspire someone else. It gives permission to the next generation to express their talent in a productive way.”

Preston tells other women to experience life outside of the office. Personal passions and relationships add to success because they add dimension and value to contributions and leadership.

This is where her love for travel, interest in other cultures, and passion for dance and the arts has contributed to her professional success. Whether going on a safari, training for a half marathon, or performing in a dance recital, each personal interest has also provided opportunities to strengthen her discipline, teamwork, leadership, and flexibility, as well as discover new insights about her profession.

When asked if she has any advice for other women aspiring in her industry, Preston insists, “Don’t be discouraged by the setbacks, and don’t take things or feedback personally.”

It’s important to learn from failures and quickly reengage. In time, patterns emerge, and it’s valuable to listen to what people are saying about you and your team, she says—not only in the areas that resonate, but also where you may feel uncomfortable.

“Feedback is the breakfast of champions,” Preston adds. “It shines a light on blind spots, corrects technique, and can immeasurably improve performance.”

Modern Counsel: What effect do you hope your presence and perspective has on Neiman Marcus?

Tracy Preston: I try to create workability. What I mean by that is, people often evaluate something as good or bad, pass or fail. Workability is more inclusive. It’s a broader perspective. It’s choosing from what works and altering what doesn’t.

Given my experience working at different law firms and in house, I have been involved in broad spectra of the law, including employment, litigation, governance, and compliance. I think I’m quite tenacious, and I like to assume positive intent and take in all viewpoints. I think generally in any litigation, negotiation or proposal, people are doing their best to get some need met. While there may be disagreement on the strategy, seeking to understand the underlying motivations can go a long way to crafting an amenable solution.

Modern Counsel: What does a typical day look like for you?

Tracy Preston: I’m often quickly moving around from one business issue and legal discipline to the other and playing in numerous “sandboxes.” I enjoy working for Neiman Marcus because no two days are the same. Even planned days don’t necessarily go the way you could hope. I have a litigation background, and I think people who have that in their background tend to like the adrenaline kick you get when your day isn’t planned. It keeps you on your toes. In my role, I have to be a chief issue-spotter and know where to go to get the information. Adaptability and flexibility are a huge part of my role, but that’s exciting for me.

MC: In your first nine months with Neiman Marcus, you worked on an IPO that ended up being a private equity sale of the company. What perspective did you bring to that process?

TP: It was a combination of things: the immediacy of the project, a forward-thinking company, being blessed with a diverse group of incredibly talented leaders at Neiman Marcus—plus working with a fantastic team. I love a challenge, new things, and being fully engaged. I think all those things occurred in the first nine months. It really pushed me and required immediate engagement with my new colleagues from my team and others. It was not only about taking the leadership role and doing good work, but really hitting the ground running. I didn’t have the time to learn the nuances. I had to integrate. I love working in the paradigm of defying the odds. At that time, it was all about learning many things at once and just diving in.

MC: What’s your strategy for finding and handling new legal issues?

TP: I’m not in the practice of forging new ground or creating new law. I try to understand and manage the nuances and react to change. Unfortunately, the law hasn’t caught up in a lot of areas—for example, in the area of technology. We have to figure out how to stay ahead and understand in those areas where the law isn’t defined. You must be a strategic business advisor who has a legal background, but not a legal predisposition. You have to analyze the law, try to figure out how it is evolving, and engage in risk management and allocation on the particular business issue. It’s not always black or white. Most of the time, you’re navigating the gray.

MC: How does your perspective as a woman of color impact a company?

TP: Let me give you an example from my past. Two employees who were close friends were sending e-mails back and forth. The conversation was pulled and reported to their entire company, which led to their suspension. The two employees were talking about things within their own culture, but people who were not of that minority group read it and took it out of context and found it inappropriate and offensive. After an investigation into the matter, they were eventually “rehired” into the company, given that the facts were not as had been portrayed. I think in that instance, without my background or experience, it may have gone differently.