“I look at our legal department and what we try to do here as a work family,” says Brian Wittneben. “If the family is not communicating with each other, then nobody knows what anyone’s doing. We can’t provide good service to the business if we’re not communicating.”
As general counsel for HilltopSecurities, Wittneben incorporates this notion daily as he oversees the in-house legal department of the diversified financial services firm based in Dallas. A registered broker-dealer and investment advisor, HilltopSecurities’ primary services include public finance, capital markets, wealth management, structured finance, clearing services, and securities lending.
“It’s a pretty complex web of various business lines, which makes legal somewhat complicated because we can be working with any of these groups on a day-to-day basis,” Wittneben says.
To add another layer to that complexity, Wittneben had to foster communication during HilltopSecurities’ merger, when the firm was created through the combination of two separate companies known as FirstSouthwest and Southwest Securities. Located only three blocks from one another on the same street, the two legacy companies were true competitors in public banking, capital markets, clearing, and other services before uniting under common ownership in 2015.
That may have been an overwhelming feat for some, but Wittneben earned his stripes after weathering the dot-com collapse as an outside lawyer in the corporate world, as well as the 2008 financial crisis as an in-house lawyer. “The perspectives are a little different, but the stress is similar,” Wittneben says.
The lessons and experiences from those turbulent periods would become key to his success as general counsel. After the dot-com bubble burst, Wittneben eventually went in-house as associate general counsel for FirstSouthwest. In 2009, he became general counsel.
On a daily basis, Wittneben takes on a variety of tasks ranging from employment law and IT to contracts and litigation. But a vast majority of his time is spent counseling other team members, typically when it comes to decision-making. “In the regulatory space, not everything’s either black or white,” he says. “It’s really about the spectrum of risk based on all the rules and regulations that we’re subject to and knowing how to stay between the lines.”
That’s the area that becomes most time-consuming. Wittneben says that since the financial crisis, his team has had to work with additional layers of regulation, mostly resulting from the Dodd-Frank Act. As a result, they’ve worked with various federal and state regulatory agencies. While the work and business have remained intact, “you have to check ten boxes to prove what you did was appropriate.”
Despite the regulations, the scrutiny, and the nature of the day-to-day business, Wittneben repeatedly highlights three themes that helped him through the merger process the past two years. The first was the idea of teamwork, more specifically, building an autonomous team. Wittneben emphasizes that his schedule could not allow for wasted activity, especially something such as micromanaging.
“We need people who are independently thinking self-starters, who don’t need somebody to sit beside them,” he says. In fact, Wittneben uses a metaphor to further describe HilltopSecurities’ team: instead of employing a brigade of soldiers, their department is more like a special forces team—tight-knit and highly collaborative.
Next, he reiterates the importance of clear, detailed communication, and keeping everyone on the same page. At the start of the merger, he highlighted how there were new relationship dynamics to work through: issues involving trust and control. Reiterating the family metaphor, he compared it to combining two divorced families. The total result had to be greater than just the sum of the two parts.
To ensure the best communication, Wittneben encourages traditional habits, such as having direct interactions and sharing the same physical space. “It’s a lot easier to come to an understanding when you can actually ask meaningful questions and understand where each person is coming from,” Wittneben says.
For example, he notes that there is a shift in email communication habits towards shorter messages—the consequence of rapid-fire social media and text messaging trends. “It’s quicker and more casual,” he says. “That can be a huge challenge in legal, or even compliance, because you want everything to be formal and self-explanatory.”
Finally, Wittneben stresses the importance of maintaining consistency in the business and being open to new ideas. “It’s nearly impossible for you to know everything you need to know,” Wittneben says. “There are so many rules and regulations involved in our business. You learn something new every week. You can’t get to a position where your ego is such that you’re saying, ‘I know everything; I have an answer for everything.’ Because you won’t. And if you do, you’re going to go down a pretty dangerous road.”
Photo: HilltopSecurities Inc.
“Especially in today’s environment, people don’t just work for the check. There has to be more than a check. And so we have to care about each other.”
HilltopSecurities’ mission isn’t to be the biggest; it’s to be the best. And Wittneben’s philosophy of teamwork and collaboration is the formula for success. “What’s exciting is not knowing necessarily everything that’s going to happen that day,” he says. “It’s exciting to have people come to you with issues and genuinely seek out your advice. I want my people to know I care about them, I appreciate them, and we’re all working through this together.”
And at the end of the day, just like a family, Wittneben says it’s all about celebrating the wins and having fun as a team. “Especially in today’s environment, people don’t just work for the check. There has to be more than a check. And so we have to care about each other,” he says.