Risk-Taking Ability is the Key to Gain Expertise in Security Law
by Regan Morris
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<<When opportunity knocks, Michael McAlevey listens. At 41, McAlevey is chief corporate and securities counsel for General Electric Co., which employs more than a thousand attorneys worldwide. Based at GE headquarters in Fairfield, CT, McAlevey credits his success to hard work, mentors, and knowing when to answer opportunity knocking.
McAlevey became an expert in securities law from the experience gained from private practice and a high-profile government job with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). During college, he planned to major in accounting and finance and pursue a career on Wall Street. But during a 100-level English course at Washington and Lee University, a professor noticed McAlevey's work and encouraged him to major in English, taking finance classes on the side. McAlevey majored in English and philosophy, and that professor became a lifelong mentor.
"If I hadn't been picked out and given a broader view of the world, I probably would have gone straight to finance, and I probably would have gone straight to Wall Street because that's where lots of people go to make lots of money," he said.
McAlevey places strong importance on mentors and urges people to seek them out. His mentor at GE is Benjamin Heineman, Jr., GE's senior vice president for law and policy.
"I have been fortunate in my career that at critical junctures, whether in college or in the private practice of law or when I was in government or even here at GE, that people have taken an interest in me and I've been receptive to them taking an interest in me and willing to learn from them," McAlevey said. "I don't know everything. I'm very young. I've still got a long way to go. But mentors are people who really can simplify life."
Originally from Miami, McAlevey attended the University of Virginia School of Law. He was concerned about paying off hefty student loans and eager to get into private practice. But instead, he clerked for a year in Mobile, AL, for Judge Emmett Cox in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
"The reason I took that clerkship was that someone told me it would be really interesting and I would never regret doing that," he said. "Again, it was not a path straight to riches, it was something that would be interesting, and I decided to try it. And it was a great thing."
The clerkship had nothing to do with finance law. McAlevey said most of the cases involved the death penalty and criminal conspiracies.
McAlevey next joined Alston & Bird in Atlanta as a corporate lawyer. He made partner within six years and stayed at the firm for two more years. He paid off his student loans within three years and said even though the interest rates were low, "I was uncomfortable carrying that debt."
He said he never intended to stay in private practice for so long and take the partnership route. He intended to go into business or finance, but discovered he enjoyed practicing law.
"I was a business lawyer at Alston & Bird in Atlanta. I was doing a lot of financing and public financings, which meant that I had an enormous amount of experience dealing with the SEC from the outside," he said. "Then I got an opportunity to go and work at a very senior level in the SEC, and again I decided that although it wasn't the most lucrative thing to do, the stars were lining up for me."
At that time, McAlevey's wife was not working, and they had two young children not yet in school. They had family in the Washington, DC, area and decided the substantial pay cut from partnership to government work was worth it.
"I knew that I probably would not stay in the private practice of law my entire career," he said. "I knew that being in a senior position at the SEC would be an important accelerant to my career and develop a real functional expertise in securities law, which I thought was very important for a lawyer—to be an expert in at least one area."
The SEC experience was exactly what GE was looking for. After almost three years with the SEC, McAlevey returned to Alston & Bird, this time in the Washington office. Six months later, GE called. The company wanted to create a new position to focus on corporate and securities compliance. It wanted McAlevey to do the job.
"Ben Heineman, who was the then-general counsel of the company, convinced me that it was really a logical progression for me if I was interested in business and interested in big time finance and how things happen on a global scale," he said.
McAlevey is responsible for the enormous company's global securities compliance. He is responsible for transactions when GE raises money in the public markets by issuing debt or equity.
"I chair the disclosure committee here at GE, so I'm involved in every judgment of importance that we make when it comes to how we communicate with Wall Street and our shareholders," he said. "I insure that we have procedures in place to deal with securities law risk, you know, insider trading compliance, mutual fund business, broker/dealer functions. We are really a diversified financial services company; we look a lot like a Wall Street company."
McAlevey, who has also taught a class on mergers and acquisitions at Georgetown Law School, said his clean, crisp writing style (perhaps gained from his liberal arts education) has been key to his success. Too many attorneys do not think before they write and send convoluted messages, he said.
His advice to all attorneys is to think before you write, and then write the conclusion at the top of the message before you send it.
"Crisp, clean writing is not all that common. It's very hard to come by," he said.
If an attorney writes pages and pages about an issue, no one has time to read it. Even with sophisticated securities law, McAlevey says it's always possible to be concise.
"If I am asking a senior executive for something or advising them about something, I limit myself to one screen page. And if I need to, [I] attach an appendix and say the detailed analysis that supports this conclusion is in the attachment, but here is [the short answer]," he said.
"You've got to be able to do it in one page because busy people do not have the time to read somebody winding up to deliver the pitch. It's pretty hard; it's very hard, but that's what we're paid to do. We're paid to give advice; we're paid to give simple, clear advice that people who aren't experts in a particular area can understand."