The veteran GC leads us on a journey through the student finance and lending industry to a joint legal and executive management position at SoFi
Moving from a huge organization to a boutique law practice would be an unsettling career move for many attorneys; adding in stints with a federal agency and a national provider of student financing—before coming to rest at a startup company—could
induce a case of professional vertigo.
But for Rob Lavet, General Counsel (GC) for Social Finance (SoFi), a leading peer-to-peer lender that offers student loan refinancing to highly qualified graduates, it was great preparation for the challenges of his current position.
An Indirect Path
“As a young lawyer, I gained actual trial experience with the U.S. Justice Department,” Lavet said. Later he became a Partner in the Washington, D.C., law firm of Cole Corette & Abrutyn, where he specialized in corporate and securities litigation.
In 1992, a chance encounter with one of his tennis partners prompted him to join Sallie Mae, a Fortune 300 company and the largest provider of education finance, where in 2005 he became Senior Vice President and GC.
In 2007, a planned leveraged buyout of Sallie Mae tanked in the midst of the financial crisis. Lavet calls the proposed $25-billion
transaction “a landmark deal that never happened.” That gave him the impetus to change directions again, while staying involved in education. In 2008, Lavet joined the boutique law firm of Powers, Pyles, Sutter & Verville P.C. (PPSV).
“I worked with many startup clients then,” he recalled, “including SoFi when it was just four students at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.” After SoFi raised $80 million in its B round in Fall 2012 and began looking to build out its executive management team, Lavet was ready to move. “For a start-up, SoFi was building a top-tier management team and had ambitious plans in a space I thought had great potential.”
Despite its humble beginnings, the company has become a major player in student loan refinancing, helping borrowers save significantly over the lifetime of their loans.
“When SoFi started in 2012, no one else in the marketplace was helping graduates to refinance student loans,” Lavet said. “We’re in a great position, and getting up to scale fast. Other start-ups are getting into the student loan refinance market, but they don’t have the traction that SoFi does.”
And it’s quite a bit of traction—sort of like steel-belted radial snow tires, with double studs and chains. Lavet says SoFi expects to originate $1 billion in re-fi loans this year alone. It also is expanding to meet the needs of its highly qualified borrowers with mortgages and personal loans later this year.
For Lavet, much of the change has been in the details. “After 16 years at Sallie Mae and four years at PPSV—where I represented banks engaged in student lending and universities involved in the Title IV program—I had a good understanding of the regulatory landscape, including the emerging role of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
“But I had to quickly focus on getting up to speed on corporate governance and rules relating to private placements of securities by non-public companies,” Lavet noted. Developing a solid compliance infrastructure from scratch was essential. “As a start-up, you need to have good controls and procedures in place. The institutional lenders that provide financing to SoFi will scrutinize them closely.”
As GC for Sallie Mae, he managed a Legal Department of about 75 people in multiple locations. At SoFi, the legal team is small; the opportunity to be part of the executive management team and help drive the business strategy, however, was a big draw.
And so Lavet finds himself involved in practically every aspect of the business—contract reviews, financing transactions, business development, even marketing—and that’s the way he likes it.
“When you’re in private practice, you tend to specialize; when you’re in house, you’re an integral part of the business team,” he said. “I prefer doing different things; it keeps you from getting stale.”
An in-house counsel position also presents opportunities to develop long-term outside relationships, a luxury Lavet couldn’t afford before.
“Clients usually retain a law firm for a limited window because you’re a business expense,” he said. “When a particular case or matter is concluded, your services are no longer needed. But you’ll sometimes desire to build a relationship with a client, and that’s something much more difficult in private practice.”
His transition from heading a large legal team to running a department of two was eased by his four years as a Principal of PPSV, the mid-sized firm where he represented numerous participants in the education finance industry.
Have To Hustle
“As a partner in a private practice, you’re expected to generate business, so I honed my sales skills at PPSV as well,” Lavet added.
These skills come into play when Lavet wears his business development hat. He’s met with more than 30 law firms to describe SoFi’s products and how they could benefit the firm’s associates. At other times, Lavet will bring together SoFi staff and companies, including some of his former clients, seeking co-marketing opportunities and driving increased referral traffic to SoFi.
Be Your Best Self
Whether you’re working for a mega-corporation or a small business, Lavet’s suggestions for success are worth heeding.
“Regardless of your starting level, focus on doing your job better than anyone else. And don’t be afraid to explore. At first, you’re hired for your particular expertise. But you can increase your value by learning everything you can about the organization, even if it doesn’t apply to your own duties,” he said.
Having a life outside of the office can pay off too. (Remember, Lavet’s Sallie Mae lead came from a tennis partner!) “Professional associations offer great networking opportunities,” he said, “and the members provide large knowledge bases.”
Lavet was President of the Corporate Counsel Association for the Washington, D.C., area and served for six years on the Board of Directors of the Association of Corporate Counsel, a global organization for in-house counsel. The ability to run issues and ideas by your peers in such professional groups is a great benefit.
Strengthen your ties to the community by joining local nonprofit groups, Lavet further advised. “Apart from the personal gratification, the people you meet and the connections you make will give you bigger opportunities to advance. Career advancement is somewhat serendipitous. You never know where your next job is coming from or how meeting new people can impact your career.”
Frederick Jerant is a freelance writer based in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Rob's Key Partners:Foley & Lardner LLP (Term securitization financing) | Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP (Corporate Counsel)
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