It would be an understatement to say that Anna Porcaro knows how to be a good mentor. With three doctors and a dentist in her immediate family, Porcaro has been surrounded by smart, hardworking role models her entire life. “We’re a family of overachievers,” Porcaro says with a laugh.
But Porcaro knew early on that a medical career was not for her. Instead, she pursued a career in law. Throughout her thirty-year career, Porcaro built on the example of her hardworking family members and sought out mentors to find success as Ascena Retail Group’s vice president and chief counsel of contracts.
She began her legal career as a clerk for a family court judge. After garnering some experience in the courtroom at a law firm, Porcaro realized that litigation was not what she wanted to do with her career. During the first year of her law firm tenure, Porcaro remembers the day that changed her career path forever.
“The managing partner of the firm I worked at called me in his office to meet with me,” Porcaro recalls, “and I’m thinking ‘Oh my gosh, he’s going to fire me!’” This couldn’t have been further from the truth: the partner called Porcaro to ask her to join the legal department for the firm’s major corporate client. “My law firm had identified me as the junior associate who would best represent the firm,” Porcaro says. “This completely surprised me because I didn’t think that anybody had observed my work that closely.”
This moment became the impetus for her work in-house.
“I’m not a very bossy person, I just believe in encouraging people and supporting the team.”
Transitioning to the corporate world was one of the first great challenges of Porcaro’s career. However, it wouldn’t be the last time Porcaro needed to be adaptable. One of the hoops Porcaro had to jump through as in-house counsel was the lack of tenure at the first company she worked for. “We all worked there with the view that this was not going to be our long-term career path, and that we would eventually be looking for other jobs.”
While being bought out can be stressful for any professional, Porcaro used the opportunity to make connections that proved beneficial to her career further down the line. Porcaro also gained insight on making corporate connections as in-house counsel.
“If you have a good relationship with a senior lawyer as a junior lawyer, that person can help you get a job,” she advises. “However, if you’re looking for senior jobs as a senior attorney, you need to be networking with the businesspeople.” It is this business savvy that has allowed for Porcaro’s greatest career successes.
Another challenge Porcaro faced was her transition from the tech industry to her current position at Ascena Retail. Porcaro gained her footing as a self-described “tech geek” with her time as corporate counsel at Lucent Technologies, so when she began working at Ascena, she employed her knowledge of this field to their IT contracts. And because she loves shopping in retail, Porcaro knew it would be a fun role to take on.
“It’s been a very interesting experience in the retail world,” Porcaro explains, “but everybody who’s reading the business pages today is well aware that retail is going through some challenges.”
Alongside transitioning to different industries, Porcaro found herself very busy navigating the company’s challenges along with her own. It is safe to say that after six years at Ascena, Porcaro is adept at adaptability.
“I want people to know that they can come to me when they are dealing with a certain challenge, and that I always have their back.”
Porcaro has overcome plenty of obstacles in her career, and it has made her a stronger attorney. She was recognized for her skill when she won the 2017 Global Counsel of the Year Award in the General Commercial category. “When I received the email that I was nominated, I wasn’t even sure if it was real,” Porcaro says jokingly. “I asked a colleague, ‘Can you validate whether or not somebody’s trying to spam me?’” Being recognized for her hard work in her career was very satisfying, but earning the respect of peers and adding value to an organization is how she truly measures success.
Her combination of skills sets her apart from everyone that Jeff Eichen has worked with during his career. “Navigating the waters of a large organization is not easy,” says Eichen, who is a partner at Drinker Biddle & Reath. “We all have competing demands for our time and attention. Anna has a sound moral compass and respect for others, which shows in all her professional dealings. I’m honored to be considered as not just a colleague but also a friend.”
During her thirty-plus-year in-house career, Porcaro has acquired a wealth of knowledge. As a leader, she has adopted styles from her mentors (such as the family court judge’s no-nonsense approach) alongside developing her own attitude toward leadership.
“I’m not a very bossy person,” Porcaro explains. “I just believe in encouraging people and supporting my team.”
Porcaro finds herself most often employing a flexible style of mentorship with her colleagues. It’s this method that Porcaro believes adds the most value to her team. “I am involved in their work when they need me, and if they want to keep me out of it, that’s fine,” Porcaro says. “I want people to know that they can come to me when they are dealing with a certain challenge, and that I always have their back.”
Lessons from Lincoln
As a history major, Anna Porcaro is a very proud history buff, and she draws on her personal readings of historical nonfiction in her professional life, as well. One of her favorites is Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which discusses the White House cabinet under Lincoln and their changing perceptions of the sixteenth president from negative to positive.
“I was inspired by how this group of rivals came together under Lincoln’s leadership because he focused on the individuals’ strengths,” she explains. “As they worked together they came to respect Lincoln and value his leadership. The mutual respect among the team was a main reason why Lincoln’s presidency was a success. I think that’s also what makes your professional team a success—focusing and respecting an individual’s strengths.”