A former federal prosecutor, a veteran compliance officer, and a partner at an elite global law firm. It may sound like a dream team for defending companies facing government investigations, but in fact, it’s one man: Mike Ward.
“I am so grateful for the many different skills and analytical frameworks that I learned over the past 14 years from the business side.”
Ward, who joined V&E’s San Francisco office as a partner earlier this year, has an uncommonly varied background: He clerked for a federal court of appeals judge in New Mexico for a year and then spent nearly five years as an associate at a large firm — first on the East Coast, then on the West. He journeyed back to his native Minnesota to work as a federal prosecutor for 16 years. Next, driven by a passion for business, Ward went in-house at Target Corporation, where he oversaw internal investigations and set up its first compliance program. Entrepreneurial at heart, and energized by learning new companies, their business models and compliance risks, he went on to build compliance programs at McKesson, Adobe, Cisco and Juniper Networks before landing at V&E.
“I’m blessed to have these two very important experiences — that is, being a compliance officer and being a former prosecutor,” he said. “It’s unique to have both.” His past positions, Ward said, give him perspective and knowledge that inform and enrich his work and client service at V&E. He added that he actually learned the most valuable lessons about being an effective compliance lawyer from business leaders and board members.
“There is a saying I love that goes something like ‘to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.’ And we lawyers often fall prey to that type of thinking,” he said. “That’s why I am so grateful for the many different skills and analytical frameworks that I learned over the past 14 years from the business side — things like which employee incentives and disincentives work and which will be ignored, and how to drive changes and implement controls that are successful rather than merely adding a burden. It’s a real education that I am fortunate to bring to my work for our clients.”
For Ward, it all started in college, where as an economics major, he took a class on the subject of antitrust economics. Fascinated by the legal aspects of the course, Ward decided to attend law school with the vague notion of becoming an antitrust lawyer. After he clerked for the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals, 10th Circuit in New Mexico, he went on to focus on antitrust mergers and acquisitions work at a prestigious New York-based law firm before moving to that firm’s San Francisco office. As a young associate, he quickly learned what would become a guiding principle throughout his career: the importance of mastering both small details and the big picture.
“Some people are really good at the small details and lose sight of big picture, and some people are really good at the big picture but not details,” he said. “The best lawyers are able to focus on both.”
Ward noted that those skills are especially important in trial work, which he did in spades in his home state of Minnesota. Seeking the “Perry Mason trial experience,” Ward joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota in Minneapolis in 1990.
“It was a fantastic experience for me to be able to pursue public service in my home state,” he said. “Minneapolis is a great place to be a prosecutor. It has a really diverse federal criminal docket, including sophisticated white collar crime, some public corruption, violent crime, and even cases involving several federal jurisdiction Indian reservations.”
In Minneapolis, Ward eventually specialized in public corruption in city, state and tribal governments, including successfully prosecuting a sitting Minnesota state senator, the first such conviction in the North Star State’s history. Ward also won the National Director’s Award for Outstanding Performance, an honor only awarded to a few prosecutors each year, for his work in successfully prosecuting several defendants in a murder and interstate gun trafficking case. One of those defendants had been acquitted in an earlier state trial, but Ward got a waiver from the U.S. Attorney General to try the defendants in federal court.
Ward, by outlining to a jury the defendant’s broader involvement in an interstate gun trafficking ring, achieved the conviction that eluded state prosecutors.
“One of the defendants had succeeded in state court by claiming the other defendant had used his gun to shoot and kill a gun store clerk. We were able to persuade the federal jury that this was an incredulous defense,” he said. “By providing the broader context of the defendant’s active involvement in the interstate gun trafficking ring, we were able to discredit his claim that he was surprised by the robbery and had not willingly taken part in the double homicide.”
“When a person looking at the facts has the right context, rather than an incomplete or incorrect context, they can reach very different conclusions,” Ward added. “That big picture or context is everything. And you have to nail down the details and develop the evidence that supports that big picture.”
During his time as a prosecutor, Ward often had companies in his crosshairs.
“I would often wag my finger at companies who had violated the law. I would tell them how they weren’t performing compliance functions properly,” he recalled.
But his perspective changed somewhat when he started the next leg of his professional journey: leaving the U.S. Attorney’s office to work as a compliance officer at one of the country’s largest retailers. Ward said with a laugh, “I wish I knew then what I know now. First, compliance has changed and matured so much as a field. But, second, as a young lawyer and prosecutor who had never worked inside a company, I really could not know what I didn’t know.”
“I try to remember that now, when I am dealing with prosecutors or enforcement officials who might have a misperception of what our clients’ motives were or how to interpret a company’s actions,” he added. “We need to ensure that we understand what prosecutors don’t know yet and make sure that they do.”
And there’s a lot to know.
“Compliance has really evolved, with compliance programs now featuring multidisciplinary teams. It’s not just lawyers and paralegals — we have data scientists, communications specialists, computer software developers,” Ward said. “We’re developing dashboards and managing compliance programs like a business.”
The hard work of building those programs and better understanding the scale, speed and internal dynamics of working in a large enterprise opened Ward’s eyes to the challenges that he didn’t quite appreciate as a prosecutor.
“You can always assume you understand something, but until you walk in their shoes, until you understand what challenges they have, you really don’t know,” he said. “I would not have been nearly as well prepared to help V&E clients if I had left the U.S. attorney’s office and gone straight to a law firm.”
Ward’s experience with V&E began well before he walked through its doors as a partner. As chief risk and compliance officer at the technology company Juniper Networks, Ward worked alongside V&E attorneys like San Francisco-based partner Matt Jacobs when the company hired the firm in 2014 for a major government investigations matter.
“Having worked with the firm for five years, the interpersonal and cultural fit were very obvious,” Ward said.
What was also obvious was Ward’s success in collaborating with the V&E team. They achieved a favorable outcome after impressing the government with extensive cooperation and remedial measures.
“What a lot of companies have done in the past is, that the investigation would happen, and then the compliance remediation would occur after the investigation,” Ward said. “What we saw is that there’s no time for delay — that the remediation needs to start while the investigation is still underway and as soon as the problems are revealed, so that when you get to the end of the investigation, the government can consider and give you tangible credit for the extraordinary remediation you’ve already done.”
Now, as a V&E partner, Ward is charting a course to bring clients’ compliance programs “to the next level” so they can achieve similar outcomes or avoid investigations altogether.
“This is a period of time when companies really are being provided a lot of incentives to up their compliance game,” he said. “I’m here to help them do it.”