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2020 In-House Counsel Awards: John C. Pauls

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Executive Vice President and General Counsel, UMB Financial Corporation

John C. PaulsSome might consider banking a sedate area of law. John Pauls isn’t one of those people.

“The rules are always changing,” Pauls said. “You are trying to protect the bank. You are trying to protect the depositor. You are trying to make money for your shareholders. It is a balancing act.”

Any financial institution that wants to pull off that act effectively needs someone like Pauls, a central Kansas native who has served as general counsel at UMB Bank for the past four-and-a-half years. He certainly knows a thing or two about the rules — in fact, he used to enforce them as an FDIC bank examiner.

After marrying, he chose to head back to school at the University of Kansas, where he earned a law degree. He also worked for a few years at a Topeka firm, where he represented small banks.

Beginning as a compliance officer working with trusts, he’s been with UMB for more than a quarter-century, most of it in the corporate legal department.

“The department has grown pretty substantially over the last six or seven years. I now have 25 attorneys,” said Pauls, whose grandfather was a banker. “Four of them are in Wisconsin, so I run a group in Wisconsin that manages our mutual fund-servicing group.”

From regulations to technology, the banking environment is in constant flux, Pauls said. Current events sometimes play a role as well. For instance, the recent pandemic created a flood of special loans from the Small Business Administration.

“Working with the commercial group to get that implemented and operational was a big challenge, and that was something we had to do on the fly with regulations coming out the night before the program went live,” he said. “There was a lot of scrambling that went along with that.”

Pauls said his work started with general banking law, but in time he was drawn more and more to assisting with corporate governance matters.

“That was about the time that Enron went under and Sarbanes-Oxley was passed,” he recalled. “That kind of changed my career, and my focus became more corporate governance, but I still did a lot of bank regulatory work and answering questions from branches.”

At the end of the day, Pauls said he still believes his job is about having good colleagues to whom responsibility can be delegated.

“The team I have working for me right now is fabulous,” he said. “They are great people. They are all highly motivated people. They’re all excellent attorneys, very knowledgeable and able to relate to our internal client, which is important. They also work great together as a team. That makes it easy for me when I can trust the people that I work with and I know they do their job.”

It also is about working in a strong corporate culture.

“Our CEO Mariner Kemper makes the comment that we always want to do what’s right, and it is a pleasure to work for an organization that has that as a motto — being right, not popular,” he said. “If that’s the attitude of the people that you are working with, that makes it easier as a lawyer to advise them.”