Co-founder of LA Women in Public Finance, Harriet Welch, is retiring

Bond lawyer Harriet Welch, one of the founders of the 10-year-old Los Angeles branch of Women in Public Finance, began her legal career just after a lawsuit opened the door for women at Wall Street law firms.

Law firms hired women in droves in 1978, when Welch graduated from the Catholic University School of Law in Washington, DC, because a firm had been sued for discrimination.

“I got into my job at Mudge, Rose Guthrie & Alexander in New York because a woman at another law firm had sued and won,” Welch said. “And then all the Wall Street companies suddenly started hiring women.”

Harriet Welch described as a “force of nature”, by a colleague, plans to retire in January.

Squire Patton Boggs

Welch, who now heads California’s public finance practice in Los Angeles for global law firm Squire Patton Boggs, plans to retire in January. While initially expecting to work as a corporate lawyer, Welch said, she found that her niche worked primarily in private placements for nonprofits, universities and independent schools, as her career developed.

Welch earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from Loyola University in 1975, intending to become a television newscaster, but after working briefly for a television station in New Orleans, she switched from journalism to law.

“I found [television journalism] superficially, “Welch said of his decision to deviate from the law.

Given her lower middle-class background, Welch said she was naive about the challenges women faced in the legal industry when she embarked on a career in the profession. She never considered the additional challenges she might face when it came to becoming a partner.

Thanks to equal rights lawsuits, Welch said, her job at Mudge consisted of 14 men and 14 women. The challenges were steeper in the 1950s and 1960s, when law firms and judges refused to hire women.

Harvard Law School did not enroll women until 1950, according to a Law Crossing article. “Women never accounted for more than 10% of law students before 1973, when the need to occupy law school places during the Vietnam War and Section IX of the 1972 Educational Changes, which prevented gender discrimination in schools receiving federal funding, fully opened law schools for women.”

Some women who later created names for themselves were prevented when they first entered the profession. After completing his third class in the Stanford class in 1952, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was offered a job as legal secretary by one of San Francisco’s leading firms. When Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg first graduated in her class from Columbia in 1959, she could not obtain an office job at the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York.

“I feel humbled and grateful and remarkably lucky,” Welch said. “What do they say, ‘sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.”

Welch got a partnership in the municipal bond and corporate group while at Finley, Kumble, Wagner, Heine, Underberg, Manley, Myerson & Casey in New York in the mid-1980s. She moved to Squire in 2003 from Arter & Hadden, where she was managing partner and head of public finance in California.

Monika Suarez, executive director of public finance, nonprofit and affordable housing finance at Western Alliance Bank, credits Welch in helping her transition from working for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority back to the private sector. Earlier in his career, Suarez had worked as a banker and analyst at Moody’s Investors Service.

“She introduced me to a lot of advisors and underwriters,” Suarez said, adding that Welch also piqued her interest in working with private placements.

Suarez first met Welch at a small gathering to discuss networking opportunities for women in public finances.

“I met her because someone had forwarded an invitation to the gathering Welch had planned to have,” Suarez said. “I was on the younger side, so I was willing to do whatever was necessary to help. I collected lunch orders.”

That meeting would result in the launch of the Los Angeles branch of Women in Public Finance in 2011 with Los Angeles debt manager Natalie Brill; Carmen Vargas, a Barclays director; and Lisa Smith, CEO of Public Finance at MUFG as the other founders.

“It was easier [to network] when I worked in New York City because the city is more condensed and you would often bump into other public finance lawyers or bankers right out for lunch, “Welch said.

She is a difficult act to follow, said Nathan Treu, partner at Squire Patton Boggs, who will welcome many of Welch’s clients. “I’ve been working with her for over six years,” Treu said. “Every time she speaks, I learn something. She is a force of nature.”

Welch has been generous in introducing the Treu to customers. “It’s my lifelong ambition to create the kind of practice that Harriet did,” he said.

Although Welch believes law firms need to reconsider their focus on billable hours, she admits she demands long hours from her employees.

“I owe it,” Welch said, acknowledging that her profession often requires lawyers to log astronomical hours. “I’ve been managing partner. We wanted things done, and we wanted it done now.”

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, she has learned to be flexible.

“I do not care where you are and when you do your work, as long as it is done,” Welch said. “If you need to be with your kids from 3pm to 7pm and want to talk to me at 7pm, that’s fine.”

In 2013, Welch received the National Women in Public Finance Award, “She’s Our Hero,” which recognizes a woman’s successful management of careers, self-development, family issues, and civic engagement.

“I had a child and was a single mother,” Welch said. She does not necessarily expect other women to juggle work and careers the way she did, but she has advised many on how to strike a work-life balance.

The most disruptive force affecting industry today, she says, is not technology or green bonds, but the pandemic.

“It’s hard to get together physically,” Welch said. “Even though it was once a year, the Bond Buyer’s California Public Finance Conference gave us the opportunity to get together.”

Although the pandemic has forced many classes online at California universities, the schools she works with are still thriving.

“We thought some would close their doors, but that has not happened,” she said.

If one thing characterizes Welch’s work style, it is “there are no stupid questions” that have enabled her to protect clients from taking unnecessary risks as financing methods are created.

She recalled when interest rate swaps came into vogue before the crash in 2008. “I was not afraid to ask insurers to explain all the variables involved,” she said.

A recent deal she’s proud of is a leaseback deal involving St. Francis College, a private college in Brooklyn Heights, New York. The college sold its existing property and obsolete building to build a facility that better suits today‚Äôs students.

She advises her clients to consider the value of the land they own. The rise in property prices in Brooklyn made it possible for St. Francis College to build new facilities elsewhere without taking on a burdensome debt. Another long-standing customer is Pepperdine University in Malibu, once a small private Catholic college that has grown to become internationally known over time – and some of this growth came from Welch’s explanation of the value of using tax-exempt debt.

Although Welch’s current practice focuses on higher education and non-profit, she has also worked as a bond advisor to the California Educational Facilities Authority, the California Municipal Finance Authority, Los Angeles City and County, the City of Oakland and the State Public Works Board.

Welch has assured her colleagues and customers that she will only be a phone call away even after she retires.

“She will not be able to just turn off her phone and disappear,” Suarez said. “It’s the hallmark of a successful career because you’re recognized as an expert and resource for people in your industry.”

For Welch’s part, she does not plan to get the non-retirement that Brill and Bond Lawyer Lisa Greer Quateman have had, where they now sit on corporate boards. Brill retired in November 2020 and Quateman in July 2020.

“I plan to write trashy romance novels,” said Welch, who is a member of the Romance Writers of America.

“I will miss her,” Treu said. “I will respect that she has retired, but she said she should call and email me at any time.”

“I think I’ve absorbed her style and knowledge,” Treu said. “I will never be her. She is a phenomenal lawyer and a wonderful person. I am proud to call her a colleague and a friend.”

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