Kara Stein

Hometown: Lynchburg, Virginia
Current Job: Commissioner, Securities and Exchange Commission
Education: Yale College, 1986
YLS graduation year: 1991
Activities at YLS: Yale Law Women, co-founder of the Yale Journal of Law & Feminism, member of the Yale Journal of International Law, and various clinical programs.


Did you take time off before law school?

Yes. I highly recommend taking a year off between college and law school. I went and lived on a kibbutz in Israel for a year, which was a fantastic experience.

Then, I started out in the YLS class of 1990. I became inspired by a friend in my class who had decided to travel around the world between his second and third years of law school. I thought that was a cool idea and wanted to do something similar. I was originally planning to go to India for a year, but one of my friends from Yale Law Women—an LLM from Nigeria—convinced me that I should go to Nigeria and teach at her faculty of law. They have a six-year law degree there, so I was supervising 18-year-olds at the very beginning of their training. It was a great experience, and I came back even more inspired to do public service after seeing so many lawyers in Nigeria trying to make their country work. I came back a lot more focused and knowing that I wanted to do something in the public interest.

I split the summer before my third year in law school between a homeless shelter and a legal aid organization in Dallas. After that, I applied for a Skadden Fellowship, which was then a new program. They granted me a two-year fellowship, and I went back to the homeless shelter in Dallas to provide on-site legal services and set up a pro bono program for legal services that were not part of the regular legal aid program. I had law firms in Dallas sign up to provide criminal or bankruptcy services along with various other types of legal assistance.

Could you give us a general overview of your career path?

After the Skadden Fellowship, I got a clinical teaching fellowship at Georgetown Law School and then took a tenure-track clinical professorship at Dayton Law School. After about a year, I decided I really wasn’t ready to teach because I felt like I hadn’t actually practiced law enough. I left and worked at WilmerHale in D.C. for two years in both their communications and litigation groups. This is where I was first exposed to banking and securities work.

Then, for the next 16 years, I worked on Capitol Hill. I started out working as a legislative assistant to Senator Chris Dodd on his Judiciary Committee and housing issues, as well as some civil rights issues. I then saw that Senator Jack Reed from Rhode Island, a relatively junior Senator, had two positions open: one as his legal counsel and one as an advisor on banking issues. I decided to apply for both, but I didn’t know which one I really wanted. He ended up letting me take on some of the banking issues in addition to serving as legal counsel. I kind of got my dream job. I worked with him for almost 14 years on different types of financial services issues. I never thought I’d be there that long, but he was an unbelievably wonderful person to work with. As he gained seniority, he became the leader of various subcommittees, and I, in turn, ended up becoming the staff director of many of those subcommittees.

The last one was the Subcommittee on Securities, Insurance, and Investment, where we were directly overseeing the SEC. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, I had an unbelievable, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work on the Wall Street reform legislation that became known as Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. I spent two years of my life almost constantly writing or helping to write different parts of that legislation, which ultimately passed Congress. In doing so, I met people from all over the country, including many of the regulators, industry professionals, and academics who were trying to make the financial system more resilient. At the end of the process, someone suggested my name to the President as a potential SEC Commissioner. I went through a long interview process, and ultimately the President nominated me—and the Senate confirmed me—in August 2013.

What was the Senate confirmation like? 

It was amazing to be confirmed in the Senate. It was such an honor.

What’s a typical day like as an SEC Commissioner?

There’s no typical day. That’s one of the wonderful things about the job. Maybe there’s a rhythm to a typical week, though. Every Thursday, the five Commissioners have a closed meeting in which we vote on enforcement matters. We’re basically deciding whether we’re going to authorize a civil case against a financial services firm, a stockbroker, et cetera. I also vote on whether we should settle a case after negotiations. I’m typically asked to vote on 15 to 20 cases at each meeting.

This week, we had an open Commissioners meeting during which we proposed a new rule on how to improve disclosure at alternative trading venues, which are basically private electronic trading venues where people trade stocks. We have to define which securities can be on these platforms and how we’re going to regulate them. We proposed rules to increase transparency about what is happening on those trading venues. We typically do rulemaking like this about once a month in an open meeting.

In addition, almost every day I meet with my staff or other staff at the Commission brief me about matters on which they are working. I also meet with a lot of market participants and give a fair number of speeches. I try to meet with people in the industry, especially women in finance, to understand what, if anything, can be done to encourage more women to work in finance or as executives of public companies.

How did your private sector experience help prepare you for government work? 

I think working in the private sector—especially in the kind of work that I did—helped me gain a deeper empathy for what financial services companies are dealing with in a fairly regulated industry. I think it also made me understand better the stress that often comes from litigation, on all sides of a case. The experience has made me want to resolve things long before they get to litigation. By the time we’re litigating at the SEC, for example, the fraud has already happened, the money is gone, and the investors have been harmed. It’s much more satisfying to prevent the fraud from happening in the first place. I think you start trying to problem solve more about what can get the industry to patrol itself and help itself comply with the law. You develop empathy for this business world the people are in, but at the same time you understand as a Commissioner that there are lots of bad things happening in this space as well.


What is your favorite memory from YLS? 

One of my favorite memories is helping to start a new law journal [the Journal of Law & Feminism]. We were so excited about trying to figure out what types of articles we’d like to inspire and what kinds of conversations we wanted to start. There were lots of wonderful people that we embarked on that journey with, and there were several other journals that started in that same year. We had sort of a law journal movement going—providing journal work that we’d be excited about and that would make a difference.

What skills do you rely on now that the law school did not emphasize enough?  

I think I actually do rely on skills that law school taught me. A big part of that is being a critical thinker, being creative, being able to think outside the box. I’ve always felt like my training at the law school was not just about learning what the law is. Instead, we were always having conversations about what the law should be. I think that’s been invaluable, especially as a lawyer who ended up working in the legislative branch and trying to figure out how to improve the law. It was all about thinking outside the box. I think Yale Law School does a great job at that.


What do you view as your biggest accomplishment? 

I’m really proud of helping to work on Dodd-Frank and making a positive change in securities and investment law, which in many ways hadn’t been changed in nearly 80 years—since the Great Depression. I’m also really proud of a homelessness bill on which I worked. It took me ten years to build consensus on how to reauthorize a housing assistance program, but ultimately I was able to help make some major changes in that area. I think people are finally talking about our ability to have a real impact on homelessness. Of course I’m also really proud of being at the SEC. Every day, I get to try to make positive change here. I think one of the lessons that I would give is to keep doing things that you’re proud of doing. You’re going to be good at the things you care about, so keep doing them and you’ll have a very rewarding career.

How have you balanced your work and home life?

Sometimes better than others. I do have two children and a wonderful husband. I really do work hard to do things with my kids in addition to my work. It’s about making their needs equal to your own. You have to make choices. For example, if it’s your daughter’s birthday, you choose not to travel that week, even if there’s a conference that people want you to speak at. You have to say, “It’s my daughter’s birthday, so I’m just not going to go to the conference.” It’s about making choices that reinforce both your career and your family life. Keep juggling, because it’s worth it.


What advice would you give a current law student?

 Take securities law classes! Just kidding … I didn’t take many classes that might have helped me in my future career because I didn’t know what my career would be. I think I took one Corporations class that I absolutely loved and I also enjoyed Contracts, but I never took Administrative Law or a securities regulation class. I would recommend taking classes from a variety of sectors to try to figure out what might be the thing that rocks your world and gets you most excited. I wish someone had told me to take a few more “meat and potatoes” classes. I did take great classes, but I didn’t have any lawyers in my family and nobody advised me on what to take. In retrospect, I wish I had taken a greater variety of classes.

Who are your inspirations? 

My mom. At the end of the day, she’s always been there for me and has always given me a vision of being able to do anything I wanted to do. She herself was a real estate broker and a businesswoman. I don’t think my parents expected that I would get into an Ivy League School, but when I did, she just said, “OK, I’m going to go out and sell more houses” in order to pay for it. Her attitude was always very “can do.” She would just go out and make things happen. Her belief in me eventually became a belief in myself.

What differences do you see in the challenges that men and women face in the legal profession? 

We all need the space to create that personal life. I think that’s the challenge for everyone—both men and women—right now: to have the type of career you want to have and still be able to have that space for your personal life. Finding a place where you can do both of those is so important. Women are more demanding in many ways of having that space, and I think change will come when the men want that balance as well.

When I was in law school, a group of us had a campaign going during law firm interviews. We asked all the firms what their paternity and maternity leave policies were, what their benefits for gay and lesbian couples were, questions like that in order to make sure there was a space for all kinds of people. We wanted to know, “If I come to your firm, how am I going to be able to balance these things?” I think you all have a fair amount of ability to change those outcomes if you have a vision of what you want to change. I think it’s much better now than it was then, and my sense is that it keeps getting better. Still, there are confidence problems. Many women self-select out of jobs before they even apply because they only have 95 percent of the qualifications listed, while men with 60 percent of the qualifications don’t think twice about applying. Women are still self-selecting out of partnership tracks and not taking certain jobs. I say, go for it and then figure out how to make it work for you as you go along.

What fights or challenges are the most pressing for young female lawyers? What issues should we focus on tackling?

I would love to see more women in finance. When I talk to women in this field, they’ve usually just fallen into finance. A lot of them had an accounting background and somehow ended up running a mutual fund or being a trader, but they never thought they’d be the person doing that job. Part of this is about making sure women are able to envision this career. I think some of that encouragement starts earlier in high school and college. But certainly in law school, there are parts of the industry and practice where you can have these incredibly fulfilling careers but you are not necessarily thinking about them when you’re in college or law school. I think there are pretty interesting career opportunities for women in the financial services sector and we should be encouraging more women to take advantage of these really rewarding careers.