If success had a recipe, Michael Segal learned the secret ingredient years ago.
A 1983 alumnus of The Ohio State University College of Law and a 1980 graduate of The Ohio State University, Segal has quickly – relatively speaking – advanced to being one of the nation’s leading attorneys in the field of executive compensation.
This year, he was recruited by the prestigious Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz firm in New York City. He was just the third person in the firm’s 42-year history – and the first in the last decade – to lateral in as a partner.
“I am the type of person who, at this point in my career, wakes up every morning and pinches myself,” he said. “I think ‘how did I get here?’”
Segal quickly admits that it wasn’t simple getting to his current firm, which deals almost exclusively with corporate transactions involving
the world’s largest and most profitable companies. Surrounded by colleagues who are graduates from other top law schools, Segal credits a mixture of hard work, understanding the “business of law,” and a touch of luck for getting him where he is today.
Growing up in Bexley, Ohio, a Columbus suburb, Segal used his tennis skills to win an Ohio High School State Championship and a scholarship at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. But he didn’t stay long at the small liberal arts college, partly because a few weeks before leaving for school he met a Bexley girl, Debra. After just one semester at Furman, Segal returned to Columbus and his new girlfriend, and he enrolled at Ohio State.
“That was 32 years ago, and we now have been married 24 years and have two children,” he said with a laugh.
Segal’s wife, a former Miss Ohio, also graduated from Ohio State, where she studied music and theatre.
Segal said that his choice to go to Ohio State College of Law was an easy one because he wanted to stay in the Columbus area, and “Ohio State is obviously the best law school in Ohio.”
The summers following his first and second years of law school, Segal worked at the Schottenstein Zox & Dunn law firm in Columbus.
“In my third year, I didn’t even interview for jobs because I assumed that I had a job with them after graduation,” Segal said. “But then they called after our on-campus interviews were over and said that the economy had slowed down, and they wouldn’t be hiring any of the summer associates that year.”
Slightly panicked, Segal quickly turned to the job posting board at the College and saw a position at the now-defunct law firm of Smith and Schnacke in Dayton. The position was for the employee benefits group, and sought someone interested in a combination of tax and labor law. That seemed attractive to Segal, who had a degree in accounting and a keen interest in both of those fields.
“And it was what I could get at the time,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, I love it now. But then it was what I could get.”
Despite being interviewed by two Smith & Schnacke partners who were University of Michigan School of Law alumni and competing for the job with two recent Michigan Law graduates, Segal landed the spot.
However, after just one year on the job, Segal’s wife urged him to begin looking for jobs in New York, where she wanted to pursue acting. Segal got two interviews, and one job offer, which he accepted.
“I walked out of my first interview there and just walked around New York City for five hours straight, staring at the buildings, the traffic, and the people, and taking in the energy” he said. “I knew this was the place for me.”
He began work at Patterson, BelKnap, Webb & Tyler, which then had one of the largest employee benefits groups in the country. After some time at the firm, an attorney there who Segal described as one of the premiere employee benefits lawyers in the country took him under his wing.
“As a third-year associate, I was the protégé of the top attorney in the field in the country,” he said. “After three more years of that I was pretty much ready to go.”
He also acquired a unique specialty as part of the team that helped develop the large company employee buyout, through which employees would buy their company using a retirement plan called an employee stock ownership plan that would later contribute to his expertise in executive compensation.
After a short stay as a sixth-year associate and the only employee benefits lawyer at O’Sullivan, Graev & Karabell, a small transactional firm in New York City, he moved to Willkie Farr & Gallagher in New York where he became a partner in 1994. In 1998, he accepted a job as partner and co-head of the employee benefits and executive compensation group at New York’s Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.
“When I got to Paul, Weiss, I told my wife that I would never jump firms again,” he said. “I told her that there is no law firm in the country that I would go to … except, the one that never ever makes lateral partner hires. … And then earlier this year the phone rang, and it was that one firm that never ever hires lateral partners.”
Segal is the most senior member of the employee benefits and executive compensation group at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz.
“I work with the most senior people in the largest companies in the country,” he said. “And I work with them regarding their own pay, and something they are exceedingly interested in talking to me about.”
Segal admits that he was not the best student in law school. But he did say that he puts plenty of credence in teaching students the importance of being exposed to the business of law and how to succeed. This fall, Segal visited Moritz to speak to a number of students about his area of practice.
He also has been an invaluable supporter of the Mentoring and More @ Moritz program, which pairs students with attorneys based on common interests.
“A law career can take many directions – academia, public service, in-house counsel, solo practice, or a law firm. I call the last three of these the ‘business of law,’ and it is the path I chose. The way people become successful in any field is to learn what people in the real world do to become successful,” he said. “Law school provides an absolutely necessary background, but I also think it is important to get an early exposure to people who are able to explain first-hand the business of law if your goal is to become successful in the business of law.”
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