Tasked with making sure companies comply with laws and regulations, corporate legal teams have developed a reputation for raising a red flag. Corporate culture, however, is changing, inviting departments that used to be kept separate and apart to work more with company managers, executives, and even those in the C-suite. For Lauren Thedford, associate general counsel at Highland Capital Management LP, such inclusivity is an important part of providing value.
“Unlike the typical legal team that just says no, our legal team is business oriented,” she says. “We try to take a deeper dive when considering the ultimate business goal and how to make it happen. I like to think other teams at Highland view us as a partner rather than a roadblock. We understand the funds and why we may not be able to do something one way but can still reach the ultimate goal by considering other options. We’re a collaborative group, working together to support the business objectives.”
Based in Dallas and founded in 1993, Highland Capital Management is a multibillion-dollar global alternative investment manager with more than $12 billion in assets under management. Thedford, too, is a Texan, from the Dallas suburb of Carrollton. She’s the younger of two children born to Richard Thedford, an administrator for the Plano Independent School District, and Karen LaCroix, a human resources executive. Thedford considers her mother her earliest mentor, having watched her juggle a full-time position while still caring for her children.
“I saw how she asserted herself and dealt with difficult issues,” Thedford says. “Maybe her HR background helped, but she was a great sounding board as well. When something happened and I needed feedback, she’d let me know if I was out of line.”
Thedford also looked up to her college volleyball coach at West Texas A&M University, Tony Graystone, who not only instilled a respect for the game but also values such as loyalty, pride, discipline, and teamwork—all of which have elevated her work at Highland.
Becoming an in-house lawyer, however, was not her childhood dream but rather a logical choice. She knew she wanted to go to graduate school, and as a political science major (and Spanish minor), she thought studying law made the most sense. So, she applied and was accepted to Southern Methodist University School of Law, from which she graduated cum laude in 2014.
Now at Highland, she helps the company comply with federal regulations for the twenty-five mutual funds on its investment platform and facilitates reporting to the board of directors. In the five years she’s been with the company, she says, she’s been able to improve Highland’s efficiency, assist with its reorganization, and expand its business by helping launch new funds, including a suite of interval funds rolled out this year.
“An interval fund is a type of closed-ended fund that is not publicly listed,” she says. “Closed-ended funds offer liquidity on a quarterly basis and may invest in longer-term investments. We’ve launched three and have four more funds in registration.”
Working with managers, executives, and board members keeps her on her toes, but it’s also what appeals to her about the work. “While I’m a lawyer, I also have a business hat on,” she says. “The position I’m in has me quarterbacking a number of different providers that all need to come together to have a transaction succeed. I work with administrators, transfer agents, outside counsel, auditors—I get to see things from a high level, not in the weeds, and that has helped me to succeed at Highland.”
Her outside colleagues are consistently impressed with her broad approach. “From the first time I worked with Lauren, I could tell that she was a no-nonsense attorney who looked for proactive solutions to any challenge,” says Paul J. Torre, president of governance, proxy, and ownership services at AST. “I have enjoyed working with Lauren over the years, and I look forward to working with her for many years to come.”
At the same time, her former college days playing volleyball now inform the way she manages her team, which goes beyond concern for the company’s bottom line. For example, she and her Highland coworkers fundraise each November as the Hairy Highlanders, a group at the company promoting Men’s Health Awareness Month. Men at Highland grow mustaches for the month, and the best and worst ones are recognized at an annual fundraising party. Highland cofounder Mark Okada matches all employee donations, which allowed the team in 2017 to donate a total of $86,458 to the Movember Foundation, a national organization that raises awareness about men’s health concerns, including prostate and testicular cancer prevention.
“It is exciting to see what we can accomplish if we all work together,” Thedford says. “Mr. Okada found a way to get everyone on board and make it something fun to be part of.”
The cause closest her heart, however, is the fight against Alzheimer’s through organizations such as the Alzheimer’s Association. She helps the Blondes vs. Brunettes (BvB) Dallas foundation, which supports research and awareness of Alzheimer’s. Thedford’s father suffered from the disease before his death last year. In total, BvB Dallas has contributed $4 million to Alzheimer’s research since 2009.
Thedford hopes to get more involved in the nonprofit sector in the future, perhaps by serving on a board or city commission. Meanwhile, she finds fulfillment at her job each day. “I get to do something that I’m excited and passionate about,” she says. “It’s challenging, but I enjoy the fast-paced and creative aspects of the job, especially working with a talented group of people to pursue novel transactions that benefit the business.”
Highland Capital partner AST is a full-service, tech-enabled professional-services firm that helps companies and shareholders across North America through the use of secure corporate data, analytics, advisory services, and a strategic approach to every interaction.
AST was originally founded as a transfer agent in 1971. Through organic growth and strategic acquisitions, the firm pioneered a new model of integrated services in the industry. Its affiliates now include AST Trust Company (in Canada); D. F. King & Co. Inc.; and Donlin, Recano & Company Inc. Together, they lead the industry with a comprehensive portfolio that includes transfer-agent and registrar services, corporate-governance and advisory services, issuer and mutual fund proxy services, equity-plan solutions, restructuring services, and class-action and mission-critical services.
AST Fund Solutions is a strategic partner with expert teams that leverage a suite of specialized, end-to-end proxy-advisory services to customize solutions and execute project-management services that include scalable tabulation capabilities and in-house solicitation centers. The group provides tailored solutions for open-end, closed-end, BDC, ETF, MLPs, and annual and special meetings and contested events.
AST is also one of the first in the industry to introduce a blockchain-based solution for proxy voting, promising greater security, faster transactions, and enhanced issuer and voter UX.