When she took one of those career aptitude tests at Mill Valley High School in California's Marin County, Veronica McGregor was only partially surprised at the results which said she would be best as an actress...or a lawyer. The actress part she could understand; after all, she avidly participated in Mill Valley's strong theater program. But the lawyer part? That was hard to understand and she dismissed it out of hand. Years later, reflecting on the relationship between the acting and legal careers years, she supposes that the conventional view of lawyers at the time was shaped by the public's impression of high profile trial lawyers (even fictional ones like Atticus Finch and Perry Mason) for whom the ability to project oneself in a powerful way was an important asset. She didn't know at the time what she now knows-that most lawyers are not litigators but are, like her, people who work diligently outside the public eye to help organizations and individuals navigate a complex federal and state legal framework. Nor could she realize that her eventual choice of the legal profession would ultimately lead her to actually saving human lives. But that was to come later.
An (Almost Accidental) Decision to go to Law School
First, she began her college career at San Francisco State University where she originally majored, of course, in theater. In order to pay her way through college, she took a job at Greenbriar Capital. The firm had laid off their in-house counsel, so whenever legal work came in the door it was given to Veronica to see if she could make sense of it. One day, something arrived on her desk that was very complicated, but after exhaustive research she figured it out and went to the president to present her recommendation on what the firm should do. The president's response was, "Wow! How did you figure that out?" And then, "Have you considered going to law school?"
Though pleased at the response, Veronica's first reaction was, "It sounded like a whole lot of study to me," and at first she was hesitant. But after contemplating it further, and remembering that aptitude test in high school, she decided to go for it. She examined her college transcript and found that since she had already taken several courses in the area, a psychology major would be her quickest route to an undergraduate degree. "Psychology was merely a means to an end," she says, "so I could get my degree and go on to law school." She finished her degree at night, working as a paralegal at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher to support herself, and upon graduation applied to and was accepted at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law in downtown San Francisco, one of the top-rated law schools in the United States. Because this was a full-time program, her husband supported her through law school and she received a lot of encouragement from the partners at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.
As she says, "I came out of law school knowing I did not want to do litigation." From a friend, she heard about an opening at Morrison and Foerster-a prestigious, quintessentially San Francisco law firm-so she applied, was interviewed, and got the job. While at "MoFo" she was mentored by Roland Brandel who is one of the leading experts in the laws around newly emerging electronic money payment systems. "I got to learn from the best," she says, and so she went on to specialize in this groundbreaking field, working with clients who were pioneering new ways to process money transfers in an increasingly wired world.
The Road to a Niche Specialty
Most of the state and federal laws governing payment systems were enacted in a bricks-and-mortar environment that featured physical boundaries between states and countries. However, money is increasingly being transferred in the virtual world of cyberspace which, at best, has nebulous boundaries for which existing statutes and rules can be cumbersome. Veronica's work, therefore, involves advising clients businesses on how to navigate the patchwork of state and federal laws and regulations they are going to encounter as they design innovative payment systems to meet the demands of an online world. This has made her a niche practitioner, a payment specialist who focuses on the laws and regulations concerning moving money through cyberspace. For example, she did all the regulatory work for a brand new credit card system being introduced by a newly formed company who seeks to create alternative payment systems that change the way people pay for things. As she describes it, it is cutting edge stuff. "I'm always trying to figure out how a new business model can be fit into the existing structure of laws and regulations-how to take a new business and help shape it. A client might come to me and say they want to do X, Y and Z and I might tell them that they can do X and Z, but they're going to have to tweak Y or they will run afoul of such and such a law." In other words, the job is part business architecture and a great deal of satisfaction comes from participating in the creation of something new in commerce that helps people and businesses thrive in a changing world.
Veronica was at Morrison and Foerster for seven years in their financial services practice area, especially in the more edgy, emerging payment mechanisms found in e-commerce and wireless banking, when Seattle-based Perkins Coie recruited her for their San Francisco office. They were looking for someone with her experience and it turned out that there were very few people who had her kind of resume-the true definition of a niche practitioner.
The Rewards of Pro Bono Work
But that is not all Veronica does. At Morrison and Foerster and now at Perkins Coie, she has done pro bono work in the area of amnesty. She represents people who are facing prosecution or, indeed, persecution, from their typically oppressive governments and who are seeking to escape to the United States. Among the people she has represented are a journalist from an Asian country (whose particulars are still too sensitive to write about) and a Mongolian woman who incurred the wrath of her government by exposing its corruption. Veronica says that this work is extremely rewarding because they often are actual life and death situations where you either succeed or someone will pay a very high price. "It's soul work," she says. "It's the kind of work where you go home at night and say to yourself, 'Wow, I just saved somebody's life!'" It is something she would encourage all lawyers to do if they have the capacity and if their firms, like Morrison and Foerster and Perkins Coie, support such pro bono work.
It is certainly a long way from a high school aptitude test that predicted actress or lawyer. But career journeys are like that: they seldom follow the paths that you anticipate at the beginning, but they often end up taking you to a better place. After all, how could any aptitude test be so specific as to say "lawyer who saves lives"?