September 16, 2015

MEMBER SPOTLIGHT: An Interview with Nikki Munro

In 2012, Nicole Frush Munro was appointed the ABA’s Consumer Financial Services Committee Chair, the youngest chair in the history of the Committee. Early on, at Hudson Cook, LLP, in Hanover, Maryland, Munro carved out a niche practice, focusing on automobile finance and personal property lending. She writes extensively on the topic for trade publications, gives lectures, and travels around the country, talking to legislators. What's the secret behind her booming practice? "When asked to volunteer, the first thing I do is say 'yes'," says Munro. "The second thing? Do a good job, because you want to serve your colleagues and your clients well."

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 You specialize in consumer financial services law. How did you find this area of law?

I did not take any courses focused on consumer credit or consumer financial services law, other than your core law school course on sales and secured transactions. I had a full-time job throughout law school, and I was planning to be a lobbyist when I graduated. My mom was a state delegate, and so I'd had some experience in the Maryland legislature. When I graduated from law school, a former colleague contacted me. We had been close friends at the firm I was working at the time. She had left to join Hudson Cook as Tom Hudson’s assistant. She called me to let me know Hudson Cook was hiring. It was a firm that was run by very, very good people, and that I could practice law, become successful in my field, and also be a mom. There was flexibility for lawyers at Hudson Cook. So, initially, it wasn’t consumer financial services that drew me, it was Tom Hudson and Hudson Cook.

What is it about the firm that attracts in female lawyers?

I was the first female lawyer to deliver a child at Hudson Cook. The firm was started in 1997, and there were female lawyers, but they had older children. I was able to write my maternity policy. I was given the flexibility to work a modified schedule, so that I never missed a doctor appointment with the kids or a school event. I drop them off most mornings, I am home for dinner most nights, and I am back online in the evenings.

Hudson Cook focused less on face time, and more on producing quality work and servicing your clients. At Hudson Cook, we now have several woman partners who have young children. They are successful lawyers and also great moms.

I'm not saying it's easy, the whole work-life balance thing. But it's doable, if you have some flexibility and supportive partners both at home and at the office.

And as for consumer financial services law?

I have always been detail-oriented, and so consumer financial services is a great fit for my skill set. Typically, when you join Hudson Cook as a new associate, you learn consumer financial service in what we call the state law practice. You learn about loans, retail installment contracts, credit cards, and mortgagees at the state level, and then expand your practice into federal law if you choose to do so.

About 2003–2004, there were issues that arose in automobile finance with a couple of our larger clients, and someone said, “well, who wants to do this?” I raised my hand. And that is how I developed in the auto finance practice, then went on to grow that practice.

The focus of my practice now is automobile finance and leasing, and personal property installment lending.

What are the key issues in this area of law?

In 2008, Hudson Cook, like many folks within this industry, faced significant challenges because of the financial crisis. We reduced our force, but as a strong firm we were able to recover. The result of the financial crisis was the passage of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which was signed by President Obama on July 21, 2010. Dodd-Frank created what is called the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). The bureau is basically a super regulator that is charged with protecting consumers in the areas of consumer financial services law, such as loans, credit contracts, mortgages, student loans, and credit cards.

The bureau is engaged in research, rule writing, supervision, and examination. It has expanded consumer financial services compliance, which is where I focus my practice. I educate the industry on how to comply with federal and state consumer financial services law.

We have a very niche practice, one of a handful of other firms that only practice in the area of consumer financial services law. And as non-litigating compliance lawyers, we do our best to keep people out of court. We also assist with the handling federal and state investigations by regulators, state attorneys general, the Federal Trade Commission, and the CFPB.

You are the author of a chapter in the book CARLAW. What did you write about? What are the issues in this area of law?

I authored a chapter on OFAC, which is the Office of Foreign Assets Control. It's an office within the U.S. Department of Treasury, responsible for promulgating, developing, enforcing, and administering sanctions against hostile targets. OFAC creates a specially designated nationals list in response to an executive order. The executive order says you shall not do business with these specially designated nationals (SDNs). SDNs, or bad guys, are basically people who are engaged in drug trafficking, terrorism, or some other illegal activity.

Businesses have to check on a regular basis whether the people with whom they are doing business are on the specially designated nationals list. If they are, they have to report it to the OFAC, and they are prohibited from doing business with them. It's called scrubbing. You're supposed to scrub someone against the list.

This happens whenever you buy a car?

It's not just applicable to car purchases. When someone pulls someone's consumer report, part of the process for obtaining the report typically includes scrubbing. It's not just limited to extensions of credit either. Everyone in the country is prohibited from doing business with someone on the specially designated nationals list.

You've been with your firm for 15 years. What has been the value of staying at one firm?

I've been able to focus on growing a very niche practice and becoming well-known in a particular industry. Hudson Cook is a well respected leader in the consumer financial services industry. I've learned from some of the best in this practice area. And so, by joining and staying with a very well-respected firm, I have been able to create a name for myself.

What are some of the best ways you've found to build your book of business?

When asked to volunteer, the first thing I do is say “yes.” The second thing? Do a good job, because you want to serve your colleagues and your clients well. If you do those things, people are going to call you back. You are going to be rewarded for good work with more work. That's how I got two of my clients that have been with me for over 10 years.

Writing and speaking also helps get new clients. I attend automobile finance and industry association conferences. I chair the ABA's Consumer Financial Services Committee of the Business Law Section, and last spring, I spoke at the Cyberspace Committee on Collection Technology.

I get most of my clients by word-of-mouth. Several of my most recent clients are referrals from other clients or my colleagues at the ABA.

Do you use the Internet to build your practice?

Some of my articles and presentations appear online, and I do get e-mails related to the topics that I have written about. I have a pretty significant online presence with my work at the ABA. We don't represent consumers, but I get a lot of calls from consumers. I occasionally refer them to the consumer advocates who I've met through the ABA.

Is there one topic you really enjoy talking about?

I have done a few presentations lately for vehicle dealers and finance companies on compliance management systems. The CFPB has focused on the development of compliance management systems as an integrated approach to ensuring compliance. I also enjoy talking about contracts. I know others may think it boring, but I spend a lot of my practice writing contracts for non-lawyers, so consumers can understand them.

I have been doing quite a bit of work on starter interrupt and GPS technology used as a collection tool. I spent a good deal of the last six months or so educating regulators and legislators around the country on the responsible use of starter interrupt and GPS technology: what the devices are, what they are not, and how, if used properly, they can actually help rather than harm consumers.

What is starter interrupt and GPS technology?

Starter interrupt is technology that can disable the starter of a motor vehicle if, for example, an installment buyer does not make timely payments. It's an alternative to repossession. For example, if I gave you a loan and you did not pay, I could physically take the car or I could use starter interrupt technology. With repossession, a buyer must go to a tow facility and recover the vehicle, paying towing and storage costs. Further, a repossession is reflected on the buyer’s consumer report. With starter interrupt technology, the vehicle is not going to start. Typically, it would sit in the driveway until an installment payment is made. Once a payment is made, the car will receive an override – wirelessly or by code. Once the override is sent, the vehicle will start. Other than making the regular payment, there is no additional cost to the buyer.

The starter interrupt is used most frequently to establish communication between the creditor and the consumer. Creditors usually provide a consumer an override code in the event the vehicle is turned off in an inconvenient place, such as at a parking meter, or to use in the event of an emergency. There is a lot of misconceptions about this technology. Some people have said that the technology stops a car while it is operational. It's not true. I have traveled around the country, talking about this technology.

We represent PATA, which is the Payment Assurance Technology Association, and PATA has drafted uniform legislation that could be enacted in any state. The draft legislation talks about the responsible use of the device. For instance, a creditor must disclose the installation and use of the technology, a creditor may not charge for it, and a creditor must offer emergency overrides.

In 2012, you were appointed the ABA’s Consumer Financial Services Committee Chair, the youngest chair in the history of the Committee. What do you enjoy about serving as chair and what are you working on?

I have been in the leadership of the Consumer Financial Services Committee for 12 years. I served as vice-chair for three years of the programming subcommittee, and then chair of the programming subcommittee for three years. I spent three years as vice-chair of the Consumer Financial Services Committee under Terry Franzen. My tenure as chair ends in September.

I have focused my entire leadership on educational programming – ensuring that the programming is top-notch. That is, the programming provides substantive content on timely issues, in such detail as to appeal to our highly educated audience.

The current leaders of the subcommittees do an amazing job presenting issues from varying perspectives. We typically have representatives from industry, government, and a consumer advocate on our panels so that we truly educate our members, which is probably our most important goal. We are one of the top content-producing Committees in the Business Law Section. I am very, very proud of that.

Another goal has been to involve younger lawyers in the Committee. When I started, I was one of three or four lawyers under 35. Now we have one of the most active young lawyer groups in the section. We have young lawyer liaisons that serve on each subcommittee who help produce the content and put on the programs. It gives them experience and allows them to participate with the most experienced lawyers in consumer financial services. We truly have the best in the industry as members. We currently have eight active former chairs.

One of my other focuses has been creating an environment of inclusion versus exclusion. I've encouraged maintaining an environment where people feel welcome. If someone wants a mentor, we give them a mentor. If someone wants to participate, we try to connect them with leaders that are in their particular area of practice. We have active membership leaders who attempt to engage new members so the participation in Committee activities brings them value.

How do you first reach out to a young lawyer to get that person involved?

We have encouraged our senior law firm attendees to bring their associates. We have encouraged the government attendees to bring their young lawyers, and we have a couple of programs where young lawyers can get involved for free. The Young Lawyer Liaison Program has been great, because when a law firm sees that a young lawyer has a position, then the lawyer is more likely to be able to join the in-person meeting. We have also created opportunities to learn at a more basic level. We have a National Institute for Business Law Basics. It is a primer on consumer financial services law. Outside lawyers have joined our ranks through the Institute. I also personally reach out to people.

What has been the value of your involvement with the ABA?

The education that I have received by going to Consumer Financial Services Committee meetings has been invaluable. If you learn from the best, you can become the best. In this practice area, everyone speaks in acronyms. I was told from day one to be a sponge and learn as much as I could. Over time, I started to understand.

The second thing has been the colleagues that I have met in this industry. These colleagues have become not only good resources, but also great friends.

Finally, gaining leadership experience and opportunities. Working with other leaders within the Business Law Section has been tremendous. I think the Business Law Section has the most amazing staff.

What do you do when you are not practicing law or giving speeches or running the Committee?

I try to spend every-other-minute with my family. We like sports and to travel. We bike, go to the beach, and cook out. I run. I’ve run a couple half-marathons and one marathon.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I have been very fortunate because I took over the Consumer Financial Services Committee at a time when consumer financial services was at the forefront of the federal agenda. As far as I am concerned, that is just luck on my part. Yes, I work hard, but I have also had opportunities given to me, for which I'm really grateful.

Thank you so much!