Fresh out of law school, in 1976, Lynne Barr joined the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System as a staff attorney. It was a job that set her remarkable trajectory for the next 40 years. Barr is now one of the premier lawyers in the consumer financial services field. In 2010, she won the prestigious Senator William Proxmire Lifetime Achievement Award, given to a lawyer who has made a significant contribution to this field. Best Lawyers of America named her Lawyer of the Year in 2017, recognizing her work in the banking industry.
Over the years, she’s been very active in the ABA, serving as Chair of the Consumer Financial Services, Chair of the Business Law Section, a delegate to the House of Delegates, and former Editor-in-Chief of The Business Lawyer, among other roles. She has been recently nominated by the Business Law Section to serve on the Board of Governors of the ABA.
She’s just retired as a partner at Goodwin Procter and now serves of counsel.
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Prior to becoming a lawyer, you considered anthropology and also serving as a police officer. What appealed to you about these career paths?
I majored in anthropology in college and, in particular, physical anthropology, which is basically the study of primates. By the time I got to my senior year, I decided I didn’t want to be in academia. I had a job in the Sociology Department of a big university and decided academia was not necessarily for me.
I was living in D.C. at the time and thinking about going to law school, but I also thought it might be interesting to be a police officer. The DC Metropolitan Police had just announced that women could become police detectives, which appealed to me at the time. But I got into law school at GW and gave up my dream of being a big city detective!
I was not one of those people who always wanted to be a lawyer, but I think my interest in human behavior and how it evolved led me to the law, as I think we spend a lot of time as lawyers analyzing and reacting to human behavior.
You went to the National Law Center at George Washington University Law School and graduated with honors in 1975. Were there many female law students or professors or partners at the time? If not, did you rethink your career choice?
There were very few female law professors; I think I recall only one at GW when I was there. But I was part of the first wave of women being admitted to law schools in relatively large numbers (about 25 percent). We certainly had our share of challenges in law school, but it wasn’t until I started a job search that I realized there were not only very few female role models in the law, there were very few women at all!
What were the consequences of not having role models?
I was lucky in that my oldest sister was a doctor. She had a gone to medical school where she was only one of three women in her class. She was a role model for me, because she had successfully navigated that career choice and was doing very well in her career. I came from a family where there was never any distinction between what the girls in the family were going to do and what our brother was going to do. Our parents basically said you can be anything you want to be; just work at it.
During your first year of law school, you worked at the university’s medical center. How did you manage that?
I needed to work because I needed the money. So, I went to law school at night. The night program at GW then and now is an interesting program, with a very diverse student body, most of whom work full time. We had a doctor, quite a few military people, and even a few CIA and defense intelligence analysts in my class They brought a different outlook to the study of law.
After law school, you worked as a staff attorney at the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve Systemin the Division of Consumer and Community Affairs. I’ve read that you considered this experience valuable.
By the time I graduated from law school, my older daughter was two. I’d done really quite well at law school and was quite high up in my class, but I could not get a job. Judges and law firms with which I interviewed could not comprehend hiring a woman in some cases and certainly could not comprehend hiring a mother.
But I was hired at the Fed to work in what was then called the Division of Consumer Affairs. We actually had more women lawyers than men, which I can say, quite confidently, is the only time in my career where that was the case. It was largely because the head of the division was a woman.
It was an amazing experience. We felt we had a mission, which was to write consumer protection regulations, mostly in the area of credit. One of the things that we were very clearly taught was that we were supposed to listen to all sides—not just consumers and not just the industry—and apply the laws fairly. It was rigorous work and great training as a lawyer. We did a lot of writing —very careful writing, not just rules but also interpretive letters. I was 26 years old, so it was a very heady experience to sit down and brief the Chairman of the Fed on something that you had written, present it to all of the Governors, and then talk to the press and give speeches about it.
I initially worked mostly on Regulation Z issues, but also did some work on the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and Regulation B. I helped draft what became Regulation M, when the Consumer Leasing Act passed. When the Electronic Fund Transfer Act passed, I was one of the principal lawyers who drafted Regulation E. It was truly a life-changing experience for me, since a big part of my practice since then has been involved with electronic financial services. I was lucky to become involved at a time when the field and the law were first emerging and consumers began to use ATMs and the automated clearinghouse. Working at the Fed was the best way anyone could possibly start a career in the law.
In 1986, you joined Goodwin Procter and have been there ever since. You were until recently Chair of the Banking and Consumer Financial Services Practices. What are the most pressing issues facing the banking and financial industry right now?
There are three or four things that are critical issues for the banking industry. One of the problems for the industry is our very low interest rate environment, which we’ve had over the last 10 years. It’s made it very difficult for banks to make money in the traditional way and bring value to shareholders and depositors. As a result, financial institutions have had to rely on non-interest income, and that has led them to offer a lot of other fee-based products and services. That was one of the factors, although not by any means the only factor, that led to the crisis of 2008. That struggle still continues. Over the course of 40 years of practicing law, I’ve experienced three or four times in which Congress and states have overreacted, imposing new regulations to control the excesses. As a result, banks, in particular, but also other types of financial companies are facing a regulatory environment that makes providing adequate return to investors even more difficult. The very largest banks in the country now have thousands of compliance officers. When small community banks say they spend a huge amount of money, time and effort on compliance-related matters, you know there’s a drain on the industry. That drain has led to the growth of what we’re calling the alternative marketplace financial institute or financial services. The tension between how those types of marketplace lenders and what I call emerging payment companies operate and how banks operate is ongoing.
It’s a big issue on the FinTech side, too, because a lot of FinTech entrepreneurs are shocked to find out the level of oversight, regulatory compliance and licensing they have to deal with. It’s also a shock to bankers, because they don’t necessarily have the nimbleness to compete with entities like the startups to garner the market share for people who want to do banking in a different way.
On a much more prosaic level, regulatory oversight is a huge challenge, whether it comes from the bureau or from the credential regulators.
So do we have too many banking regulations?
I’ve always said the 2008 crisis wasn’t necessarily a lack of regulation. It was, by and large, a lack of enforcement by the state, by the prudential regulators that precipitated the crisis.
You’ve given many, many speeches over the years, what’s your favorite topic?
The very first speech I had to give as a lawyer was to a group of automobile lessors out in California who had just figured out that there was a law that was going to regulate the way they did consumer leases. It was at a Holiday Inn at Fisherman’s Wharf. There were bottles of wine on every table. I was five months pregnant with my second daughter, so I was the only nondrinker in the room. By the time I got up to give the speech, they were so drunk. It was a nightmare. And they were not happy to hear what I had to say. So, after that, every speech has been easy.
My favorite topic to talk, substantively, is electronic financial services. In October, Veronica McGregor and I did a speech about FinTech—what it meant, how it’s regulated—to the consumer financial services basic court. I love talking about that because it’s an interesting congregation of technology and regulation. I still love talking about Reg E, because I’m sort of a geek. On the non-substantive side, I have given talks about what it means to be a woman attorney, what it means to mentor younger people, and how you go about doing it, and the rewards you get from it.
What advice would you give to a new attorney who’s just starting out?
This is advice I’ve given to a lot of people over many years. It’s partly informed by the way I started my career. And that is don’t have expectations about what it is you need to do when you get out of law school. Not everybody is destined or suited, quite frankly, to work in a big law firm. Big law firms have their good things and bad things about them.
It’s more difficult now than when I started my career to go directly into government service. But working for the government was an incredibly rewarding experience, and ended up being the basis for the rest of my career in terms of certain consumer financial services. You shouldn’t assume that you might not end up with a big law firm just because that’s not where you’re starting, if that’s your goal.
One of my colleagues at Goodwin Procter is unbelievably good; a bankruptcy and loan restructure lawyer who started his career in a tiny little law firm that you would think, “Well, that couldn’t possibly be a road to working in a 900-person law firm.” But it happened for him. You have to be open to those possibilities that may seem like a lateral move or a move that doesn’t appear to give you much opportunity to move your career ahead. It may, in fact, be the place that you should think about going.
The other thing I say to people who are applying to law school is it’s three years out of your life. Go to the best possible law school you can get into. If you have to move to Chicago or postpone going for another year because you haven’t quite gotten into the best possible law firm, do it. Where you go to law school, for better or for worse, does matter, particularly as you try to get your first job.
In 2010, the American College of Consumer Financial Services Lawyers awarded you a Senator William Proxmire Lifetime Achievement Award. What contribution are you most proud of?
That’s a hard question. There are lots of things that I am quite proud of in terms of my legal achievements. I’m going to say something much more sappy. As I look back, I’m most proud of all the people who I’ve worked with over the years, and know that I’ve trained a lot of really good lawyers and mentored a lot of lawyers, particularly women lawyers. I’ve helped them become prominent and excellent attorneys.
Over the years, you’ve been very involved with the ABA. What has been the value of ABA to you?
The ABA has been invaluable to my career quite literally. I started going to what was called Young Lawyers Committee on Consumer Services when I was at the Federal Reserve Board. That was about forty years ago. Then I was invited to be on the committee itself. You’re not going to get the same dollar-for-dollar reward for being active in the Business Law Section. But the ability to network with the people who work in your fields, including the legal luminaries, is invaluable.
Secondly, you have the chance to enhance your own career, because you are also viewed as an expert in the field when you’re doing a presentation to 150 people about a topic that you know about. Certainly, as a referral network, the ABA is very valuable to me. I have maintained, over the years, a list of lawyers in literally every space.
I loved being Chair of the Business Law Section. It was a great opportunity to help business lawyers all over the country do their jobs better. That was true when I edited The Business Lawyer and also served as Chair of the Consumer Financial Services Committee.
Finally, I’ve made so many lasting friends. In fact, some of my closest friendships were forged through ABA connections.
I hear you love France and you have a house there. What do you love about it? Do you speak French? Do you have a favorite French dish?
My husband and I have had a house in France since 2000. We are in a region called the Languedoc, which is very close to the Mediterranean. We love the food and the wine. We love the approach to life, which can be frustrating, when one is trying to do a renovation, or something like that. The approach embraces living life well—dining well, drinking well, and enjoying life. I do speak fluent French. Our house has a dozen olive trees, so we use an olive mill near us to make our own olive oil. Because we live near the Mediterranean, we have a very Mediterranean diet there. Based on last summer, I guess my favorite French dish is a salad that I made with tomatoes, onions—what came out of our little vegetable garden—dressed in our own olive oil and some vinegar, accompanied by a baguette and a glass of Rosé.
I have to ask, you’re currently in Perth, Australia. What are you doing there?
I just retired as a partner, though I’m staying on as a counsel at Goodwin, so we’re spending six weeks here in Australia. We’re on the beach in Perth. Then we’re moving on to Asia.
Thank you so much!