Kevin Johnson spent nearly 20 years in the banking and financial services industry, so when he went back to law school, he knew exactly what kind of law he wanted to practice and where he wanted to work. He’s now an attorney in the Administrative Law Division of the National Credit Union Administration, with a focus on privacy law. Prior to this, he worked as a banking consultant and served as the Financial Services Director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta in the Birmingham branch.
He’s been very involved with the ABA, serving as the National Chair of the ABA Law Student Division, for which he received the ABA Law Student Division Gold Key Award, in honor of his high degree of service, dedication and leadership.
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For many years, you worked in the banking and financial services industry as a consultant. And, prior to that with the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta as a Financial Service Director. What prompted you to go back to school and get a law degree?
I originally worked for commercial banks in various capacities. And, after a number of years I decided to take an opportunity with the Federal Reserve Bank. One of the things that led me to seek a law degree was the fact that I was responsible for operations at the Fed that correlated directly to a number of banking laws and regulations. I found myself always consulting the regulations that guided the Fed in its operations and its philosophical approach to banking and financial services. After a number of years of this, I thought: if you can’t beat them, you might as well join them.
During law school, you worked as an intern at the National Credit Union Administration. Why did you choose this government entity and how were you able to secure a position at such a well-known agency?
It actually came about while I was at an ABA meeting. Someone suggested to me that I apply to the NCUA, which I promptly did. I received a call while I was in class in law school, and they offered me the opportunity to fly up to D.C. and spend the summer working as the only legal intern that year.
What did you like about it, because after law school, you accepted a full-time position at that agency?
I was in my element. I focused my entire law degree and my career on banking and financial services, because I knew that’s what I wanted to do. My intent was always to go back to a financial institution regulator. On my list I had the Fed, the NCUA, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and the FDIC. The NCUA happened to be the one that gave me the opportunity when I came up here for the summer. They gave me lots of very meaningful work. I developed serious relationships with my colleagues, I felt comfortable here, and I was treated as a valued member of the team. That had a lot to do with my making the decision to come back.
You’re currently an attorney in the Office of General Counsel, with a focus on privacy law. Can you expand on what you’re doing in this area of law?
For all federal executive agencies, certain laws and regulations exist in regards to how we collect, maintain, share, protect, and destroy the information that we collect from the public. As you can imagine, a lot of that data is extremely sensitive, from Social Security numbers to banking information, all of the different categories of personally, identifiable information.
I serve my agency as a privacy attorney, helping to build and maintain an effective and efficient privacy program that allows us to continue collecting this information, but also doing so in a way that is compliant with the laws and the regs. And that it’s protected from the increased cyber threats that exist in our environment today.
The crux of my work is basically helping to maintain the privacy program and make sure that we’re compliant with the Privacy Act of 1974, the E-Government Act of 2002, and the whole host of other Office of Management and Budget guidance, presidential directives, and executive orders.
It feels like this would be a constantly shifting landscape. Is that right?
That’s absolutely right. When I started in privacy, our agency as well as the other financial institution regulators, were coming off the financial crisis that kicked off the recession. I was asked if I wanted to become involved with the privacy side of things. I jumped at the chance, because I had already developed a keen interest in privacy, and privacy-related issues. Little did I know that it was going to take off the way it has. It has led to so many different opportunities and a wonderful learning experience.
Prior to being in the administrative law division, you served as a trial attorney at NCUA. What kind of cases did you handle?
I spent a little more than a year in enforcement litigation before I switched over to the admin. law and the privacy area. While I was in enforcement and litigation, I mostly dealt with issues such as financial services prohibitions. Basically that involves working with individuals who, for whatever reason, our agency felt were no longer fit to serve in this particular industry. If you look at our website, and if you filter through the correspondence that comes out of this agency, we regularly report on individuals who, for whatever reason, whether it was wrongdoing or convictions of a certain type, can no longer serve in the financial services industry. I also worked with conservatorships of failing or failed credit unions. I also did some work with the fraud hotline, chasing down issues that came to us, people reporting different things that go on in the credit union system that need our attention.
How has your background in finance helped you as an attorney?
It helped me hit the ground running. It was also one of the major factors that contributed to me being hired at NCUA. The folks here didn’t have to train me on certain aspects of financial services because not only did I have the knowledge, but I had been involved in many issues that we face. As a result, I was able to contribute to the team at a higher level at a much faster pace.
You worked at the Federal Reserve in Atlanta, including serving as the Director of Operations. What stands out for you from that experience?
The leadership aspect of my career blossomed there. It gave me a better understanding of how to lead people, how to lead through change and adversity, how to lead during times when some very important decisions have to be made. I developed and I solidified my management style there. It was a difficult environment to lead in, but at the same time, very rewarding.
What advice would you give to someone who has to lead during a challenging time?
The main thing I took away was that each member of my team is an individual, and different things motivate different people. Before leadership at the Fed, I’d used a blanket approach. I handled everybody pretty much the same way. I didn’t take the time out to really understand or tap into the individuality of each member of my team. At the Fed, I started getting to know each person, understanding what motivates each individual, treating each individual in a way that’s beneficial to both the organization and to that person. I was able to get much better results using that approach.
What advice would you give to a young attorney who’s just starting out?
I’m currently mentoring a number of young attorneys. Figure out what your interests are. The quicker you narrow your desired areas of practice, the better off you’ll be, because you’ll be able to focus on developing the expertise in whatever those areas of interest happen to be.
Is it a matter of trying different things?
I don’t know if it is as much trying different things as it is knowing yourself and knowing what makes you tick. My advice comes more from an introspective approach. Know what you’re interested in, know what things make you tick, what things excite you, and then, project outward from that point.
You’ve been very involved with the ABA, including serving as the National Chair of the ABA Law Student Division. What made you want to get involved and how have you benefited?
Before I went back to law school, I realized, of course, that I had been out of school for a while. I considered myself a nontraditional student. So, I was apprehensive about going back to law school after having been out of school for so long. I did some research on the organizations that provided resources to help students like me to reacclimate themselves to full-time study. I came across this organization called the Council on Legal Education Opportunity (CLEO). They take in students who are accepted to law school and they start building a foundation, before you start school.
I attended a program in Atlanta, and was taught legal writing, and reading and analyzing cases, how to organize your materials, and how to read statutes. It was excellent. When I got back to Birmingham after that particular program, I did some research because I was so impressed. I found out that the American Bar Association is one of the major benefactors of CLEO.
From there, I started researching the ABA and, lo and behold, I found out it’s one of the largest professional organizations in the world. I knew I needed to get involved. Then I found out they had a law student division. I made my decision to get involved with the ABA before I even enrolled in law school.
As soon as I enrolled at the University Alabama School of Law, I paid my $25 fee, and I became a member of the ABA as a law student. From that point, I got involved anyway I could as a student. I participated in conference calls. I participated in opportunities to help draft comment letters on certain banking regulations. At that time I was, of course, a member of the Banking Law Committee. I assisted with a lot of those things, and it was just very beneficial for me to work with and to correspond with attorneys who were actually doing what I aspired to do.
Did it help you stay motivated during law school because you saw what was out there?
Absolutely. When I got the opportunity to apply for a CLEO scholarship, sponsored by the ABA Business Law Section, I jumped at the chance. I won the scholarship. Basically, this scholarship provided an opportunity for me to attend the Spring Meeting, where I was assigned two mentors. That’s where I transitioned into hyperdrive, if you will, as far as being involved in the ABA.
You’ve received many awards. Is there one that stands out for you?
Probably the most meaningful is the Gold Key Award from the Law Student Division after I served my year as Chair. That was a really, really huge honor.
What do you do for fun?
My wife and I have five beautiful children. They range in age from 11 all the way down to two and half. We have two-and-a-half-year old twins, so they are my hobby. I do have a son who is a golfer, so I spend a lot of time playing golf and shuttling him around to his golfing activities and tournaments. I did my undergraduate work at University of South Carolina, in Columbia, South Carolina, and I attended law school at the University of Alabama School of Law in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, so there are a lot of SEC sports that happen around our household, centered around those two programs.
Anything else you’d like to add?
My involvement in the American Bar Association has paid off for me in an infinite number of ways. From colleagues and the relationships I’ve developed to the meaningful work that we’ve done within our section and within the association as a whole. I’ve enjoyed the opportunities to mentor other students who are eager to learn and eager to navigate the legal industry. I would recommend it to anyone.
Thank you so much!