Hildene Capital Management
Earlier positions include associate at Skadden and Cadwalader
Former associate launches hedge fund
On how to get a job in investment banking
On the value of a law degree in business
Listen to interview:
exj: For the benefit of our membership, if you could just tell us a little bit about Hildene Capital and your current position with the firm. What you do.
JS: Hildene Capital is a hedge fund manager that I helped create in 2008 coming out of the financial crisis. It started with just a few people, and we grew it to several billion dollars of assets under management. And, currently, there’s about 30 people working for the firm. About a year and a half ago I took a step back from the role of Chief Operating Officer. I’ve had numerous roles at the firm, and particularly when we were smaller. In addition to Chief Operating Officer I was also General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer. But as the firm grew, I had to give up some of those positions, including Chief Compliance Officer and the General Counsel role. So, there’s another person in each of those positions at well as someone who took over from me as COO. Now, I consult with the firm. I’m still an employee and I help management with strategy and historical concerns related to the firm.
exj: Initially, were you also the Chief Investment Officer?
JS: No, I’ve never overseen any investments. We have an excellent team of people managing the assets.
exj: I see that you worked in industry before going to law school, including being the New York comptroller of a Fortune 500 company. How long were you working before you attended law school?
JS: I worked for about five years at a few different companies before I decided to go to law school. I worked at a manufacturing company right out of college as a cost accountant. And then I went to work for a health care company and eventually was promoted to the controller for the New York laboratory. I moved to New York from California. And then I decided to go to law school.
exj: Why law school, John? As opposed to getting your MBA.
JS: Well, that’s a good question and I wish I had a more thoughtful answer for you. But I had been pursuing an MBA prior when I was in California before moving to New York. And I just became interested in law school. I took an LSAT practice exam with a friend who wanted to be a lawyer. I just thought it would be fun to learn about and do it. And lo and behold, I did pretty well on the test, so I decided to pursue it.
exj: And I see that when you got out, you worked at Cadwalader.
I joined as a litigation associate, and I learned early on that I didn’t like litigation that much. It wasn’t very constructive. I approached the firm about moving. They advised me to stick with it for a year and then see what I thought. I could then transfer into corporate if I still wanted to. At about the same time, a friend of mine who was at Skadden told me the firm was recruiting associates. So, at the end of that year I moved to the corporate department at Skadden where it was a little different experience. I started working doing structured finance transactions.
exj: And when you left the firm, and essentially the practice of law, what level associate were you?
JS: I must have been a fourth-year associate at Skadden.
exj: Is that when you went to Citibank?
JS: Yeah. It wasn’t something I had planned. I was working with several different clients at the time. One client was Salomon Brothers, yes that’s how old I am.
exj: Me too.
JS: They approached me even though I hadn’t done work for them in a little while. If you remember that period, a lot of young lawyers were leaving law firms to go work at Internet startup firms and the investment banks were having a very difficult time finding people. I knew what the Salomon guys were doing. I had a background in the work, and I was recruited over there. The reason I wanted to make the transfer was more of a lifestyle issue for me. I had a young family, I had children. I wanted to spend more time with them. But after I left to join Salomon Brothers I was approached by some other former clients of mine at Skadden. They expressed dismay that I didn’t let them know that I was available, or they would have happily brought me in to do the same thing. So, I went to Salomon Brothers, which was eventually acquired by Citibank.
exj: Yes, it’s nice be wanted. And, after your experience at Citibank you formed your own firm. Let’s take a step back. You’ve obviously had, and still have, a very successful business career. How do you think your legal education has helped you in business?
JS: I think being a businessperson is a little different than being a lawyer. People who are very good at business sometimes don’t understand or don’t appreciate risk as much as lawyers do. And I think I’m a much better evaluator of risk than I am a businessperson. So, that makes me a good advisor to businesspeople more than I am a businessperson myself if you will.
exj: And to turn it around a little bit, did working as a business professional before law school help you as a law student?
JS: I think it was extremely helpful. It gave me a sense of maturity, and not just in age. Because the roles I had prior to law school were relatively senior for someone of my age, I learned responsibility early on. I’m always fixing things. And that’s what lawyers
are very good at. Fixing things. So, I think I had I developed a good sense of maturity and what to do when something goes wrong. Because, inevitably, something is always going to go wrong.
exj: We have certainly heard that from several of the lawyers, who have moved to business, that we have interviewed. Issue spotting. They were talking about issue spotting in reverse if you will. Where their law school background has helped them see all different angles of opportunities not just all the different angles of a problem.
JS: Sure, and sometimes those opportunities are the way out of the problem that you’re encountering. So, you must keep an open mind.
exj: A number of our readers may want to make a transition from practicing law to banking or investment banking. If they are, let’s say a young associate, in a law firm what advice would you give them about finding that first position in a bank or at an investment bank?
JS: My advice for people who want to get into something like that is to not actively pursue it all that much. Rather, do a very good job for your clients because they are the ones who are going to recognize the skill and the dedication that you provide. They’ll think of you when they need somebody for an open role. It’s very difficult to approach a client, who doesn’t have an open role, and convince them that they need to hire you. Let them figure it out. When an open role does come up, they’ll think of you because you’ve provided such good service to them in the past.
exj: That makes perfect sense. Earlier in the week, we had been speaking to a General Counsel whose first job in house was in marketing not law. He was an Assistant Brand Manager on a major packaged goods account. He had no marketing experience. But the company could see he’d been a terrific lawyer at his law firm.
They were betting he could put the skills he learned in law school, and as a lawyer, to work in brand management.
This is a big part of our mission at ex judicata. We are working with HR heads around the country to look at JDs as problem solvers and strategic thinkers that can be slotted into many different types of jobs in their organizations. Everything from sales to marketing to risk management. What do you think of this concept of attorneys who are not practicing law, not just going into compliance or something else quasi legal, but rather many other kinds of jobs in a company or not-for-profit.
JS: Yes, I think that’s an excellent use of a law degree. You don’t have to be a lawyer just because you went to law school. Going to law school teaches you how to think in a certain way and how to problem solve. And that doesn’t require you to be a lawyer. That’s just one option. I think many paths are open to people who go to law school without necessarily being a lawyer.
exj: That’s it exactly, John. I’m glad to hear that you agree. And, to help lawyers who want to transition to business we’ll be offering courses to help bolster their backgrounds to take jobs in corporate America. Our first one will be on understanding financial statements taught by a Notre Dame Law School professor. Because so many attorneys moving to business jobs have had no real exposure to numbers, to basic accounting.
It will be asynchronous learning to start. We’ll then move into live webcasts. Are there any other topics that you think could be valuable for an attorney that is making a transition to the corporate world?
JS: Part of the beauty of being a lawyer is that just about any other kind of learning that you are interested in will be helpful to you somewhere in some place. There’s lots of different kinds of companies. There’s lots of different types of experiences. If you find things that you’re interested in, there’s always somebody who needs somebody who knows how to do what you’ve learned. So, I think attorneys should pursue outside learning in all things they’re interested in. They then can do very well by understanding and applying their legal skills to these subjects that have interested them.
exj: John, do you have any other lawyers at your firm that are non-practicing JDS?
exj: We have. My firm is 30 people, and we have three lawyers, including myself. The person who took over for me as a Chief Operating Officer is I would say, a non-practicing lawyer, but she is also still a licensed lawyer in New York. She worked at Wachtell and then at Fortress. Now she works at our firm.
And then the General Counsel for our firm. I don’t believe he ever worked at a law firm. He was hired into Marathon Asset Management very early on and progressed through several legal positions to a General Counsel position in another firm before we hired him.
exj: It’s quite fascinating. We’re trying to offer, in this column on our website, many different types of aspirational stories showing the wide range of opportunities non-practicing attorneys have seized upon becoming very successful.
So, for example, one woman was the General Counsel of Audible. Once it was acquired by Amazon, she knew she wanted out. She completely pivoted and launched a bakery, which now has 5 physical locations, and her products are in Whole Foods.
She was terrific. Another woman, who was the General Counsel of Starbucks, literally now has a band and she has just started to win awards for her songwriting.
Those two come under the category of non-traditional types of moves out of the practice of law. And, then there are the more traditional moves out of the practice of law. For example, we’ve sat down with several senior people in the insurance industry. The insurance sector has been hiring non-practicing JDs in a host of different roles for decades. They, and the big accounting firms, are really the only two industries which have understood what the rest of Corporate America is just now starting to realize. Hopefully, with the help of ex judicata.
The insurance executives told us when they want to hire JDs for roles such as brokers, product development people or risk management leads, they first try word of mouth. And if that doesn’t work, they then use a recruiter. A job board is way less expensive than a recruiter by a large magnitude. So, it’s been very affirming to see executives in the insurance industry want to post positions on our job board.
JS: I think you guys are working on a phenomenal idea. Because my son wants to go to law school, but I don’t want him to be a lawyer. But I don’t want to discourage him from going to law school.
exj: Absolutely. He’ll get a lot out of the education as we’ve been discussing.
John, thank you so much for your time. We appreciate it.