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Dan Tomson

Strategic Advisor, Public Finance

Morgan Stanley

New York, NY

Managing Director & Co-Head, Public Finance (at the time of this interview)


New York, NY

Past affiliations include; associate, Hunton & Williams

JD Tulane Law School

BA Cornell University

JD skillset fuels success in public finance

dan tomsen

On setting expectations when transitioning to business

On financial fluency for lawyers moving to business

On understanding and relaying your value proposition

Listen to interview:

Full Transcript

EXJ:  With us today is Dan Tomson, Managing Director at Citigroup, where he co-heads the public finance practice. Thank you for joining us, Dan. Can you tell us about your current role at Citigroup.

Daniel Tomson:  Sure. It’s a pleasure to be with you today. I co-head our public finance department, which really is the investment banking group for states and local governments and not-for-profits who raise capital in the tax-exempt debt markets Typically for infrastructure, but for a variety of other projects as well. So, it could be anything from hospitals to bridges to airports. We do securitizations of assets and revenue streams, so it’s a wide-ranging set of clients and opportunities. It’s a lot of fun.

EXJ:  How did it all start?  Where did you first work when you got out of law school?  Was it a firm that had a strong public finance practice like Hawkins, Delafield and Wood, which I remember from being offered a summer job a million years ago?

Daniel Tomson:  Yeah.  And they’re still around.

I started at Hunton and Williams and had a structured finance and securitization practice and it was very focused on representing banks and broker dealers in that space. So, my first exposure as a lawyer was really working in and around capital markets.

EXJ:  At that point when you’re an associate, had you already been thinking about one day transitioning, seeing yourself as a business person using the JD skillset or is the focus climbing the ladder at the firm to become a partner

Daniel Tomson: That’s a great question. I think, we all walk our own path.  I was privileged to grow up in a house where I had a grandfather who was a State Supreme Court Judge and my dad practiced law in both the public and the private sector. So big sort of family tradition of practicing law, but also people who were very entrepreneurial.

My dad had done a bunch of startups and other very interesting things. So, I always felt that there was no bright line between law and business.  I was fortunate to go to Cornell and study and grow up with a lot of talented people who were really entrepreneurial and did a lot of diversified things  I looked at going into Wall Street and right around that time was the big stock market crash in 1986.  I made it to the final round of interviews at some big firms and just didn’t get the job. That was kind of an inflection point for me. I took a step back thinking about what I was going to do and took some time off. I, ultimately, worked as a paralegal and then went to law school.

So, my thought process coming out of college originally wasn’t to go to law school, and when I decided to go it wasn’t by default.  I viewed the practice of law as such a great platform to do so many things.  I didn’t feel, even from the very beginning that this would be restrictive in any way  So that was part of my journey if that makes sense to you.

EXJ:  Very interesting. And how long were you at Hunton?

Daniel Tomson:   For about four years, and then I moved to a smaller firm where I could be a lot more entrepreneurial.  I still did work representing investment banks, but also did a lot of project finance work, some real estate development work and working in that space with a lot of principals who ran their own companies, had their own businesses.  It really made me appreciate the critical thinking and the skills and

toolsets I had as a lawyer.  But it also made me realize I didn’t really like the business of law.  I liked a lot of the elements of law, but I didn’t like the business side of law. I wanted to be at the point of initiation in transactions which is why I left practicing law and wound up going into business.  And in this sense, investment banking.

EXJ:  And Dan, how did you get that first position in business?  What was that job?

Daniel Tomson:  The first position for me was as Vice President in public finance at Salomon Brothers.  And, you know, those were some heady days in 1999 where the market was going bonkers.  Banks couldn’t recruit people coming out of school or business school fast enough.  I had been representing a lot of clients who were underwriters and was recruited by a bunch of them to sort of make that jump into banking.  And I waited to probably the most challenging point possible–when my wife was pregnant with triplets, I probably had no business moving.

EXJ: Oh, wow.

Daniel Tomson:  Before making the move, I was a junior partner at a law firm.  I took a  leap of faith betting on myself to have the confidence and conviction to succeed.  And it worked out.  When I was recruited by Salomon to come join them in their public finance practice, I came with clients and a lot of relationships that translated well when I joined the business side.  I had to learn the finance side though, the cash flow modeling and the intricacies of investment banking.  This certainly took a little bit of time. You’re kind of asymmetrical at that stage in your career.

You’re like, I have great relationships, I’m obviously good at critical thinking, advocacy and articulation. I know transactions and deals.  And people had a lot of confidence in me, but I also had these big gaps in what I didn’t know and didn’t know that I didn’t know until I came into banking.  So that’s a part of the career where you wake up one day and say, ‘Holy cow, there’s a lot of stuff here that I need to get to know really fast’.

EXJ:  Salomon Brothers.  Yes, those were indeed heady days. This is like Michael Lewis, I guess his book had just come out.

Daniel Tomson: Yes.  Liar’s Poker.  But yeah, that was a rough and tumble culture and super competitive.  And it was a paradigm where there were few rules.  A culture really driven by can you make money?

EXJ:  And were you somewhat unique at that point at Salomon in being an attorney banker or were there a bunch of other people with similar backgrounds in public finance.

Daniel Tomson: There is no sort of analog for who does this. There are the traditional people who come up through the training programs and make their way up.  And then just given the nature of the clients–government, a lot of not-for-profits–you had a lot of people come in laterally from different fields.  They might be engineers, they might be people who worked in government and specific sectors where that experience translated well.  But it was nontraditional. There were not many lawyers at that point.

EXJ So then from Salomon Brothers to Citi.

Daniel Tomson:  It was mergers.  Salomon Smith Barney and then the great taking down of the Glass-Steagall Act by Sandy Weill and the merger of Salomon Smith Barney and Citibank. And then at that time, Travelers.  It was quite the amalgam.

EXJ:  Right.  You started to talk a little bit earlier about how your law school training helped you achieve success in business and about deciding to go law school to develop a certain skillset.  If you could talk a bit about the biggest takeaways from your legal education.

Daniel Tomson:  Sure.  I think you approach graduate school with a different perspective than you do as an undergraduate.  And one of the things that you get with somebody who has a law degree is somebody who’s very serious.  I think that the student, the academician I was in college is very different than the person I was in law school.  And I think taking the time off in between sort of focused me on how I wanted to approach law school.  A tremendous amount of time is spent on critical thinking, marshaling arguments, thinking about how to work on your own and with others.  You know, I think business school people focus a ton on how to work as teams, which is super important.  As a lawyer, you must learn how to work on your own and with groups.  I think that in banking a lot of people want to be able to work in cohorts or groups and teams.  And as you know, when you’re a lawyer, you’ve got to figure out how to get things done on your own often times.

I think law school also provides you a tremendous amount of appreciation for the amount of work that has to go into doing anything at a high level, to really be best in class and achieve.  You’re surrounded by a lot of talented people who are very driven, and you realize to separate yourself from those people what it takes to get to the next level.  For me, I also did Moot Court.  That’s a lot of thinking on your feet, a lot of advocacy, but also there’s a lot of preparation that goes into it.  And as you know, there’s a lot of things that look casual, but they’re not.  We spend a tremendous amount of time preparing, getting ready, making sure everybody’s prepared.  Law school helps teach you how to be prepared.  And that level of preparation and knowing what it takes to separate yourself I have always appreciated.

EXJ:  If somebody wants to transition out of the practice of law into public finance or even Wall Street more broadly, is there an optimal amount of time one should first spend practicing law? 

Daniel Tomson: I think it’s all about what you bring to the table.  Whether you’re going to a meeting with a client or on an interview.  What differentiates you?  So, you really must know your audience. You must know what you’re applying for, and you have to know what your value proposition is.  So, I think that could be somebody who’s right out of law school, that could be somebody who’s practiced for a couple of years or that could be somebody who’s a partner in a law firm.

I think that people who are lawyers because they don’t know what else to do or they’re practicing law but are just searching without knowing where they want to be kind of get lost a bit.  I mean the people who come in here as lawyers are intentional, they have a focus.  They know what they’re bringing to the table, and they also know what they don’t have.  And those are the people we have very serious conversations with.  And I think you have to understand the job that you’re stepping into and do that diligence to really appreciate it.  We still recruit lawyers here.  And I think there’s a lot of complex things in finance around tax, around bankruptcy, around really interpreting contractual and credit provisions where a lawyer with the right set of skills can really help.  In my banking practice, we obviously hire hundreds of lawyers here in compliance and regulatory and legal.  And I work with a lot of super talented people who do that. I ‘ve got somebody who works with me who was a partner at a big law firm who’s now the GC to our group, A really, really smart person.

EXJ  Dan, culturally, going from a law firm to your environment.  What’s the transition like when you come from a law firm background where there is not a traditional hierarchy to a corporation where there is a chain of command, where you do have a boss and they have a boss etc. What do you have to do differently to succeed?

Daniel Tomson:  Yeah, that’s a good question.  Investment banking has very flat management and not a lot of verticality. So, unlike other parts of the bank where there’s a lot of hierarchy and structure that doesn’t really exist the same way here.  For a lawyer to come in and succeed, they have to understand what their value proposition is, what they’re bringing to the table, and they have to understand that quickly.  Because you have to understand how to leverage your existing skill sets for the benefit of who you’re working with and driving value is about being able to generate revenue. So you’ve got to figure out what you know and what you don’t know and how you want to work with the group again in a relatively short period of time.

I always tell people, don’t talk yourself into a job. You know, make sure that you understand what you’re doing, who you’re working with and what the expectations are.  Because I talk to a lot of really smart people who are lawyers who say, I want to be in banking, and you say, why and what do you bring to the table?  What’s going to be your impact?  And the higher up they are, the greater their expectations are on a career path, or what their pay should be.  And I try to help people look over the horizon a little bit and say, well, if you’re plugging in here, you know, think about what that means.  And a lot of times I have to walk people back and say, ‘yeah, you may be here where you are as an attorney but I’m going to recommend you come in as a senior associate or a VP.  Like don’t put a bull’s eye on your back and come in too high.  So, knowing where you come into an organization, I mean, giving yourself the runway to succeed I think is super

important when you’re transitioning, whether it’s as a lawyer or an engineer or whatever it might be.

EXJ: That’s sounds like terrific advice to succeed in a bank.  And that’s a perfect place to leave it.

Dan, thanks again for joining us.

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