How Leigh Avsec Turned Bad News Into Success

Leigh Avsec employs her “let’s try it” philosophy at Fortune Brands, where she’s come up as an attorney

Leigh Avsec, VP and Associate General Counsel, Fortune Brands Photo by Amanda Kush

More than ten years ago, Leigh Avsec sat in an office at Fortune Brands and was told that by the end of the year, she wouldn’t work there. She wasn’t technically employed there in the first place: she’d spent two years at Mayer Brown before the firm took a look at its second-year class of associates and transitioned on the bulk of its lawyers. Avsec was one of the few who were secunded to one of Mayer Brown’s clients to work in-house, salaried for a year by Mayer Brown while provided with work by the client—in her case, Fortune Brands. “I sat in an office with a very nice person and at the end of our conversation she said, ‘I just want to be honest with you. We’re not going to be able to hire you permanently when your secundment is over.’” The recession was in full effect. It was possibly the worst professional day of Avsec’s life.

Avsec’s response, though, was atypical. “I told her that I was going to work so hard that they’d have to hire me,” the lawyer remembers. She made it happen—and today she’s not only vice president and associate general counsel of Fortune Brands Home & Security, but her most recent promotion put her in the same exact office where she was told a decade ago that she wouldn’t be permanently employed by the company. “For me, it meant so much,” Avsec says. “I’ve been with Fortune Brands as a young attorney, with Fortune Brands Home & Security as a more seasoned attorney, and because I was with the company during its spin-off, I have been here since its inception. I’ve grown up here and in in some ways the company and I have grown together, and it’s made me so proud.”

It wasn’t luck or happenstance that has propelled Avsec through five promotions. She considers herself someone “with a naturally curious nature, which can lead to some unusual and creative ideas,” and says the support that she’s received from leadership in pursuing those ideas is a major contributor to her own success. “Instead of being told that an idea could never work or that it’s nuts, my boss will usually say, ‘Let’s try it,’” Avsec says. “It’s a philosophy that I’ve worked to communicate to the people that now report to me: ‘It may fail, let’s try it.’”

That philosophy reflects in Avsec’s tenacity. “What gnaws at me aren’t the times I have failed. It’s the times I was too scared or nervous to try,” she says. Her favorite analogy is that of a tightrope walker. “I’m up there, I’m scared, and people are watching. I may fall and it may be embarrassing, but at the end of the day there’s a net, and those are the people who support me.”

The willingness to take on the unknown has paid off big at Fortune Brands, but it hasn’t been without some disappointments for Avsec. The lawyer took on an anti-dumping case in 2017 that didn’t play out the way she’d hoped. “It was the first big loss I’d ever had, but I knew I did everything I could,” Avsec says. “I dusted myself off and took the exposure it had given me to the world of trade and really grew from the experience.”

“It’s a philosophy that I’ve worked to communicate to the people that now report to me: ‘It may fail. Let’s try it.’”

That exposure to trade has turned into big business for Fortune Brands. “When I started in trade, it was just a side note for the company, but it has really morphed into an incredibly important priority for my company,” Avsec says. She traveled to Washington, DC, with members of company leadership and made Fortune one of few companies to get some of its products successfully moved off of the Section 301 tariff list. “We were successful because we tried,” Avsec says. “We went there. We didn’t hire lobbyists. We just told our story.”

Fortune Brands is now part of a coalition of forty domestic cabinet companies whose workers are endangered by low-priced cabinets and vanities from China. “We’re working hard to protect the jobs of our eleven-thousand workers all over the US,” Avsec says. “That’s what I’m working for every day.”

Working on behalf of US jobs, Avsec says, is a personal passion as well as a professional one. Her husband, also a lawyer, is from an area in northern Ohio that has lost nearly all of its industry. “I see what happened to that community. There are great people but no jobs, and I don’t want to see that happen in the communities where our factories are.”

As Avsec continues her professional climb, she says that a general counsel job for a publicly traded company has always been a dream, but ultimately her dream is less about a title and more about making a difference. “If you give me a choice between a GC job where I sit in an office and do nothing and a different role where I’m doing work that matters, I’m going to take the second job every time,” Avsec says. “For me, the ultimate reward is doing work that matters.”