Lacee Ecker is one of those rare lawyers who transitioned directly out of law school into the in-house world of business partnership and support—at US Steel, no less. Bypassing the world of billable hours provided Ecker the immediate opportunity to put her business-focused undergraduate degree to work. Now as senior director and associate general counsel at American Eagle Outfitters Inc. (AEO), Ecker is providing the legal support and agile business response needed to not only survive the COVID-19 pandemic but also thrive in spite of it.
The move from steel to apparel wasn’t nearly as pronounced as it seems on paper. That was, in part, due to the mentorship Ecker received at US Steel. “My boss at US Steel was a former steel worker who had then gone to law school,” Ecker says. “I benefited so much from him and getting that mentorship along with the experience of what felt like its own little law firm in-house.”
Since coming to AEO in 2016, Ecker has been promoted several times into positions of increasing responsibility, gathering essential experience in virtually every aspect of the parts of the company that legal touches—which is all of them. “My focuses and roles have morphed along with the business as it has innovated over the years,” Ecker explains. “Retail is a fast-paced industry, and AEO is a fast-paced company that has been around for a while. My work has been about adjusting to those changing demands.”
Ecker has watched those demands shift in real time, even prior to the immediate adaptation required by the pandemic of 2020. Aerie, which started as a women’s intimates sub-brand under the larger company umbrella, has quickly become one of the most exciting lifestyle brands in retail. Aerie had physical stores in less than half of the US when Ecker came onboard. That, too, has changed. The same goes for the company’s presence outside of the US.
All of this evolution has benefitted from the senior director’s ever-increasing institutional knowledge. “I’ve been able to develop this resource of knowledge based on how the company has developed and the different aspects of the company I’ve been able to support,” Ecker says. “My team and I are the commercial attorneys here, and that essentially covers the entire enterprise.” From vendor agreements to third-party relationships to international transactions to new store designs, Ecker has touched nearly every part of the business.
The same cannot be said of the senior director’s experience with a pandemic that would shut down every single one of her company’s brick-and-mortar locations for several weeks at the beginning of 2020. “I am hard-pressed to think of a single part of the business that hasn’t been affected by COVID,” Ecker says. “All of retail has been impacted by the pandemic, but at AEO we quickly implemented three priorities: protect our people and business, preserve liquidity and prepare for a new future, which have guided us since March in making decisions in response to COVID-19.”
The legal team is essential to any company, and Ecker’s team had to quickly pivot to working from home. “We were preparing guides on simple things like electronic signatures and figuring out the bare bones of conducting business from home and circulating standard operating procedures as fast as we could,” Ecker says. “That was just the beginning.”
The way the senior director explains it, whatever a lawyer’s area of focus may have been on her team for the year, it quickly became about servicing supply chain and logistics. “As our business shifted online, there were so many areas that needed to evolve,” Ecker explains. “Returns processing, reimagining our entire distribution network, and preparing our e-commerce for the holiday season—these were all incredibly important issues that we were suddenly focusing on all at once.”
Even amid all of the turmoil, AEO was still finding ways to innovate. At its distribution centers, a “pick and pack” robotic organizing arm that had been piloted in 2019 came into its own. Twenty-six additional robotic arms were put online to help fulfillment workers focus on higher-level work. That’s just one example of the adaptations the company made during a stressful period that will ultimately benefit AEO for the long haul.
“We have ramped up our distribution network to allow us to get goods to our customers more quickly,” Ecker says. “We’ve enacted a lot of creative solutions that will serve us long after the end of the pandemic. It’s an overall enhancement and improvement to our processes that I think will truly serve our associates and customers for years to come.”
In the Community
When Lacee Ecker isn’t helping American Eagle Outfitters Inc. (AEO) navigate its pandemic response, she’s helping vulnerable populations navigate difficult circumstances. The senior director has been a “big sister” to nonprofit Big Brothers Big Sisters even prior to coming to AEO. Ecker was president of the organization’s Young Professional Outreach Board for the past two years.
Ecker also serves as a trustee of the Allegheny County Bar Foundation and serves as a volunteer for the Criminal Records Expungement Project, which files criminal record expungement petitions for those seeking better opportunities for employment and housing.
The AEO legal department is also excited to partner with the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund Name Change Project, offering pro bono legal services to those looking for help changing their names while transitioning. “The amount of money this company donates to causes and charities is so amazing,” Ecker says. “They offer matching funds for employee donations to charities and volunteer time off to work with the organizations that you are passionate about. It’s an incredible place to be.”