Today’s blog post was written by Bozorgi Law PLLC associate, Cristina Laramee Souto:
I recently had the opportunity to interview Meghan Spillane, a partner at Goodwin Procter LLP in the Securities, White Collar Defense & Business Litigation group and its Digital Currency & Blockchain Technology practice in New York City. Her practice focuses on white collar criminal defense, representing companies and individuals in connection with government investigations and prosecutions. She also advises digital currency and blockchain companies in token sales and in responding to government inquiries. Meghan also maintains an active civil practice, representing companies in complex business and financial litigation matters.
Not only is Meghan a fierce advocate in her practice areas, but she is also committed to mentoring junior attorneys. In fact, I was introduced to Meghan through one of her female associate mentees. She is a co-chair of the New York Council of Goodwin’s Women’s Initiative and is a member of Goodwin’s Junior Associate Attorney Development Committee.
Meghan was recently selected as a 2018 Rising Star in White Collar by Law360 and has been recognized consistently by Super Lawyers as a leading White Collar Defense practitioner since 2015.
What drew you towards a career in criminal defense?
I participated in Teach for America in the Bronx before law school. One of the foundational principles of the Teach for America program is to let your experience in the classroom impact and inform your life, no matter what career path you choose. During my time at Teach for America, I discovered that my students were dealing with issues beyond the classroom that were affecting their school experience, including homelessness and family members returning to their lives after a period of incarceration. In particular, it struck me to see young kids themselves going into the court system. My time as a teacher motivated me to pursue a career in law, with a focus on criminal justice. After law school, I went to a firm with a strong criminal practice, where I am also able to have a robust pro bono practice.
When I applied to law school in 2004, I wrote my law school admissions essay about one student in my second grade class who had a profound effect on me. He was so bright, but also so challenging behaviorally, and I could tell that there were things going in his life outside of school that were impacting his ability to succeed in the classroom. After much trying, I realized that I could not “fix” all of the challenges in this young man’s life, nor was that a realistic objective. There needed to be changes on a more systemic level. Twelve years later, in 2016, I was sitting in court waiting to meet a pro bono client who had been indicted in connection with a large gang crackdown in the South Bronx. As I was reading the indictment, my heart sank when I saw the name of the student that I had taught so many years ago as one of my client’s co-defendants. This experience and many others have emphasized the importance of this work. While I cannot change all of the forces impacting a person’s life, I can ensure that individuals have access to experienced, proactive and compassionate legal representation, especially when navigating the criminal justice system.
What do you wish you would have known at the start of your career?
I believe the most important thing I’ve learned over the years is the importance of authenticity. I spent too much time earlier in my career trying to emulate the more senior lawyers (typically men) who I was working for. But the angry emails that I was writing, or the aggressive positions that I was taking in negotiations, never felt quite right to me. Once I learned how to advocate for my clients in a way that was consistent with my personality, I felt more comfortable in my own skin, and was more effective as a result.
Another key lesson I’ve learned is that you have to be your own advocate and ask for what you want. The people around you, the people you consider mentors and sponsors, legitimately want to help you and see you succeed. The best way to get what you want is to point-blank ask for it – whether it’s asking someone to sponsor you on your path to partnership, or getting the opportunity to work on a specific case that will help your career. It is all in your phrasing and approach. Sometimes you have to stand on the shoulders of giants a bit when you are coming up through the ranks. It is also a lot easier to advance and get the opportunities you need if the people with power and influence know that you do good work. So, when you get an opportunity, shine.
How can young female attorneys start to develop business?
I used to think that networking was about giving out business cards at events, and telling people to “call me if you ever have a problem.” It doesn’t work like that. I have learned that the most effective way to network is through your authentic relationships, and also through storytelling. Keep in touch with your law school friends and college friends, foster those connections in meaningful ways, and those relationships will eventually expand toward business development. Maintain and develop your relationships through interactions that are fun and don’t feel stilted, but also find opportunities to talk about your work when you’re socializing. Tell a friend about a recent courtroom victory or a time you’ve been able to get a client out of the bind with a simple phone call. When you tell stories of your successes at work, what you do will stick in someone’s mind. Ask your friends about their jobs too. The better you understand what they do all day, the better position you’re in to make connections and figure out ways you can work together. Be a good listener, and also be generous with your time and advice. Networking is often about doing small favors for one another, like providing a recommendation or making an introduction. At the end of the day, the new business might not come directly from your friend, but from that friend referring someone else to you.
There is also an interesting sea change that occurs when friends and colleagues start leaving law firms and going in-house. It makes the process of generating business a lot easier. Networking is about building authentic relationships, and making sure those people in your network know what you do, so that you’re front-of-mind when an opportunity arises.
You are one of two female partners in Goodwin’s New York White Collar Defense practice. What can you tell us about that experience?
I am very fortunate to work alongside my good friend and partner, Annie Railton. We were summer associate officemates, and have risen through the ranks at Goodwin together in the white collar practice. Early on in our careers, we began collaborating – troubleshooting through complicated issues, celebrating each other’s successes, and leaning on each other in more challenging times. When we were both up for partner, we agreed to continue to be each other’s champions through the process. As women, especially in an area of practice that is still heavily male-dominated, we must look for opportunities to collaborate, to build each other up, and to help one another reach the next level.
What are some of the issues facing young women practicing in white collar area?
A challenge that I suspect many young women face in white collar practice – and a challenge that I have had to overcome over several years – is the feeling of “missing out” for having not worked at the Department of Justice. Government experience is widely regarded as an important aspect of a white collar practice, both from an professional development, as well as a networking and business development, perspective. While I know several women who have navigated careers in government successfully, the experience ultimately did not make sense for my family and my career. I have come to realize that is okay, and that it will not serve as an impediment to my success.
In place of government experience, I have ten years in serving white collar clients from the defense side. I have formed relationships with many Assistant U.S. Attorneys in the districts where I practice, and have developed a reputation of being responsive and reasonable, being a strong advocate for my clients, and of practicing with integrity. I have participated in many government investigations, and can confidently explain to my clients how the process works, what the next steps will be, and what to reasonably expect. I also have the benefit of extensive trial experience, both in state and federal court. I have come to take ownership over the value I bring to the table, and have come to understand that no experience is necessarily better than another.
You are a partner in the Digital Currency & Blockchain Technology practice. Describe your practice and what is the status of this developing area of the law?
Another issue facing young lawyers is navigating how to make a name or niche for themselves within their practice. My work in our Digital Currency and Blockchain Technology group is an example of how I have done this successfully. My work in this group arose out of a conversation with fellow partners, where I expressed an interest in expanding my practice and an openness to jumping into a role where the firm perceived a need for additional expertise.
My work in this group is largely focused on analyzing models and issue spotting for clients – to point out the potential pitfalls that a company should try to avoid, considering the Securities and Exchange Commission guidance that has been issued thus far. I bring my experience interfacing with SEC and DOJ directly to the Digital Currency & Blockchain Technology team and I think that experience garners a level of trust with the clients. In our practice, we work collaboratively with clients trying to develop business models in the blockchain space.
The practice area has grown over the last year. The first time the SEC issued guidance regarding how the securities laws may impact digital currencies was in the SEC DAO investigative report in July 2017. While the SEC did not recommend any action in the DAO report, its guidance served as a line in the sand, and has informed blockchain-based companies (and the lawyers who advise them) about the features of a digital asset that may create a security interest. In the fall of the last year, many companies were still exploring traditional initial coin offerings (ICOs), but approaching them with more caution and trying to avoid the pitfalls identified in the DAO report. In December of 2017, the SEC issued the Munchee Cease and Desist Order, and articulated in much more detail the features of blockchain platforms and tokens that may implicate the securities laws. The Munchee guidance, coupled with extensive public statements and press releases from the SEC and the CFTC over the past year, has really informed – and evolved – our practice. We are currently advising clients on strategies for structuring token offerings in compliance with the securities laws. We are also helping clients navigate their responses to subpoenas from state and federal securities regulators, who are actively investigating companies who may have engaged in unregistered securities offerings in the token space.
One thing that makes this area of practice challenging (and exciting) is that there is no “one size fits all” approach. We have to work collaboratively with our subject matter experts, the client, and often the regulators themselves, to come up with the best path forward for a particular blockchain project. I think that the SEC thus far is focusing on identifying real fraud in the digital currency and blockchain technology sector. The SEC is trying to separate the wheat from the chaff at this point – distinguishing legitimate use of this novel innovation of distributed ledger technology from those who seek to perpetrate “old fashioned fraud dressed in a new fashioned label.” Everything is evolving. It’s an exciting area of practice.