Macy’s Betty Tierney on Cultivating a Culture of Autonomy

Now in a leadership position at Macy’s, Betty Tierney is passing her passion for litigation down to a new generation of lawyers and training them to better operate on their own

“I was a reluctant leader for many years,” Betty Tierney says. “I guess I always thought of myself as a litigator first.”

Today, though, she serves comfortably as Macy’s associate general counsel of litigation, a position in which she oversees a team of ten attorneys, five paralegals, and four administrative positions while managing a full caseload. Getting to that point took a lot of self-discovery as a litigator, and Tierney now wants pave a smoother road for others, so she’s working to create a safer avenue at Macy’s for young lawyers to cut their own teeth as litigators.

It was the opportunity to “actively litigate” that first drew Tierney herself to an in-house position, at the May Department Stores Company, in 1992. (May merged with Macy’s in 2005.) “There’s a battle for billable hours at a firm, so a lot of the good work goes to the senior partners and associates,” she says, reflecting on her time at a law firm prior to joining the May Company.

In-house, she explains, there’s fewer bodies but plenty of work, thus allowing someone looking to gain more experience the opportunity to handle more challenging cases. “As a young lawyer, I was able to do more advanced work than I probably would have at the firm, where I was pretty much doing research all the time,” Tierney says. “When I came to the May Company, I had an argument before the Seventh Circuit within months. In-house, I was able to get a lot more experience much quicker.”

Betty Tierney, Macy’s Photo by Ian Kreidich

Though she was happy in the courtroom, the call to leadership was a persistent one. What finally swayed her was a desire to help prepare Macy’s next generation of litigators. “What really hit me when I took on the role was that we had an opportunity to make the team even stronger for the future,” she says. “I want to make sure that when I leave, the team is ready, so my objective became to find a way to better train our less experienced attorneys.”

One of her solutions was to give those attorneys the chance to take first chair on big cases—but with the comfort of having a senior attorney at their side, in a backseat role. “Being a first chair in a trial is a weighty responsibility,” she says. “We want them to have that experience but to also have a safety net. They get the experience and responsibility, but if something unexpected happens, they also have someone there who can step up and help them resolve it.”

Tierney wishes this kind of arrangement had been in place when she was a young lawyer. Though she values the experiences she had assisting senior attorneys, she says it just “doesn’t make sense” to sit second chair when it’s your own case. It also doesn’t help prepare young lawyers for when they might find themselves on their own. “We litigate across the country for Macy’s,” Tierney says. “You have to stand on your own two feet when you’re on the road. If you’re in a deposition or hearing in front of a judge in another state and things happen that are unique or unexpected, you have to rely on your own abilities and skills.”

This focus on the importance of autonomy extends beyond Tierney’s attorneys, too. She even invites the company’s paralegals to participate in hearings and arbitrations. “It’s important that they see why their work is so important,” she says, “and they need to see the cases on which they’ve worked from start to finish.”

This stems from Tierney’s belief that everyone in her department at Macy’s should “own their role” and “feel empowered.” The hope is that, by giving them this power, her staff will develop their own devotion to Macy’s and its desire for integrity above all else. “What’s the best thing for Macy’s?” is a question that Tierney consistently asks herself in her role, and it’s one she also pushes her team members to consider, especially when they’re on the road, without support. “Through my leadership of the team, they know to ask those questions and make them a focus,” she says. “When they decide how to proceed in a case, I want them to consider not just resolution but also whether or not it’s the right thing. Should we be pursuing this? Why or why not?”

If a team member’s decision turns out to be a mistake, Tierney makes sure to listen and understand why they made that particular choice. “I will always support you if you can justify the decision you made, and if it doesn’t turn out to be the right one, then we’ll figure out a way to resolve it,” she says. “But nobody’s going to be in trouble because they made a wrong decision, so long as they have a legitimate and rational basis for the action.”

That gracious, constructive response also helps ensure that employees feel in control of their own cases. “You want your people to feel empowered and prepared to address any situation they face,” Tierney says.

She may have been a reluctant leader early in her career, but today, Tierney’s impact is not only felt in the present moment but also foreseeable in Macy’s next generation of leaders. She doesn’t plan to retire for another ten years, but when the time comes, she will be able to feel confident that, due to her policies, her team will be more than ready to take the reins.

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Schoeman Updike Kaufman & Gerber LLP:

“Betty Tierney is a true leader and embodies all the attributes we as attorneys strive to attain and master. We extend our heartfelt congratulations to our friend Betty for this well-deserved recognition.”

—David Ganz and Steven Gerber, Partners

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Shutts & Bowen:

“I’ve had the privilege to work with Betty for over fifteen years, and not only is she a phenomenal lawyer but a good friend. I congratulate Betty on all her success and well-deserved recognition.”

—Sheila Cesarano, Partner