Parlaying a degree in history and economics into a senior legal position within the banking industry isn’t as unusual as it may sound, says Gideon Hart, senior vice president and assistant general counsel at Cleveland-based KeyBank.
“Studying history was fun for me,” he says, “but there are a finite number of jobs in that field. Fortunately, that degree honed my writing and analytical skills—both of which are in demand in other business areas.”
During and after his studies at Columbia Law School, Hart rounded out his classroom education with several research assistant posts, and he also held clerkships at the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and United States District Court, Northern District of Ohio.
“Those clerkships exposed me to many types of cases,” he remembers. “I especially liked the ones with regulatory or administrative aspects—the government on one side, a private party on the other.”
After his clerkships, Hart joined WilmerHale’s government regulatory practice, where he worked on cases involving banking and financial regulations. That wasn’t exactly intentional, Hart explains. But his background in litigation was beneficial to other team members, and he found himself drawn into one case after another, all of which built up his experience in banking law.
It was a good fit for him. Many of the skills developed as a history major transferred readily to the practice of law. “I had to figure out legal questions by gathering information, studying existing law, analyzing all of it, and then writing a memo with my view of the answer. It was actually a lot like writing a history term paper or article,” he says.
However, after nearly six years with the firm, Hart was ready for new challenges. “Life at a big law firm can be tiring and unpredictable,” he said. “My wife and I were ready to have kids, and we wanted something with more regular schedules.”
Going in-house had plenty of appeal, so Hart and his wife began examining their options. “I wanted to go to a decently sized bank,” Hart said. “Not as large as the very biggest banks, for example, but one that was large enough to have the level of sophistication and complexity in its regulatory issues.”
They also narrowed their search to certain cities, including Cleveland, his wife’s hometown, and Philadelphia, near his own childhood roots. To his surprise, Cleveland made the final cut. “It was the smallest city on our list, and I didn’t expect it to have a job that fit my target parameters,” he says.
Within a few weeks of applying to join KeyBank, he was on brought on board. The move drastically changed Hart’s work environment. “When you work at a law firm, the other lawyers will often understand exactly what you’re talking about,” Hart explains. “In-house, I work with numerous non-lawyers. I think one of my strengths as an attorney is explaining legal concepts to non-lawyers and banking regulations to non-bank regulatory people so that they are able to fully understand the issue we are talking about.”
Hart is a hands-on advisor, one who’s responsive to his business clients’ needs. He also prefers being involved at the outset of a project. “In early stages, we can troubleshoot issues to avoid problems and usually develop several workable options,” he explains. “Conversely, if a client waits too long to bring us in, there may be only one solution.”
Because KeyBank is federally chartered as a national bank, it’s obligated to follow federal banking regulations. But, because it also operates nationwide, he encounters many scenarios where more localized laws come into play. “That can get challenging and complex,” he says. “Does a particular state law conflict with federal law? Is it preempted by federal law? Should KeyBank comply with both? There aren’t always simple answers.”
Hart also notes that KeyBank is an active participant in the development of affordable housing and that he is also the primary support attorney for this business area. “There’s an acute need for this type of construction,” he says. “It can often be difficult to put together this type of financing, but KeyBank has a talented team that is one of the leaders in the space.”
KeyBank often issues loans while simultaneously making an equity investment in the development. “These homes are offered at below-market rates, and the cost of raw materials escalates—so it gets expensive to construct an apartment building,” Hart adds. “KeyBank’s investment provides the developer with additional capital, and the Low-Income Housing Tax Credits help to finance the investment.”
Outside of KeyBank, Hart has developed a strong reputation as a skilled legal adviser to his clients and partners. “Gideon always impresses with the breadth of his knowledge in counseling a multi-faceted financial institution like KeyBank,” says Greg Lyons, partner at Debevoise & Plimpton. “He also is skilled in engaging with internal and external parties to ensure his business is receiving the best advice in pursuing objectives.”
Hart’s journey from studying history to serving as corporate counsel was influenced by his willingness to survey the landscape—and he recommends that other up-and-comers do the same. “I enjoy mentoring younger attorneys, and I always tell them to stay flexible and be open-minded so they can recognize opportunities as they arise,” he says. “I was fortunate to work at a larger law firm and had some latitude to try different areas within the practice to get a sense of what I liked and didn’t like.”
He continues, “When I started my career, I knew nothing about banking laws or regulations, and it’s certainly not the kind of work I anticipated doing after I finished law school. In fact, I didn’t even really know that practice area even existed. Now, I’m becoming an expert in the field and that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been willing to give it a try.”
The Banking Group at Debevoise & Plimpton LLP advises global and regional banks and other financial institutions on the gamut of regulatory, litigation, and transactional matters, including Volcker Rule matters for the United States and foreign banks, foreign bank regulation, anti-money laundering and sanctions compliance and enforcement issues, Dodd-Frank Act reform, M&A-related regulation, matters involving fintech/banktech and cryptocurrency, and industry-wide advocacy efforts.
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