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While guiding the compliance and creation of new banking products at Capital One, Assistant General Counsel Ryan Nier, a former engineer and 9-year Paul Hastings associate, finds time to create various forms of industrial art. We dropped by Capital One’s stylishly startup San Francisco office to learn about his perspective on balancing outside interests and creative outlets with a demanding legal career. We left energized, as if we had just spent an hour with the ultimate motivational speaker and life coach for lawyers. We hope that you are inspired to find a way to integrate what brings joy into your busy career and in Ryan’s words, “represent and defend your own happiness.”
WHO: Ryan Nier
WHAT: Assistant General Counsel
WHERE: Capital One’s Digital Enterprise
WHY: Ryan is an attorney and a maker - a creative mind whose ability to balance his work, life, and art has us as mesmerized as his creations.
Q: How did you end up a lawyer?
Ryan: I started as a software engineer, coding to survive and pay the bills. But after the bubble burst, I just became disenchanted with the environment and too risk-averse -- right out of college -- to start my own thing. I went to law school because continuing schooling seemed like a good idea at the time. I was always pretty good at arguing with my mom, and she used to end arguments by shouting “go be a lawyer.” I guess I took her advice? I ended up working at Paul Hastings doing IP, privacy, and data security work. Now I’m at Capital One, working with Labs on the newest banking products.
Q : You work with people building innovative products in a highly regulated industry - banking. How do you promote compliance without snuffing innovation?
Ryan: I think the temporal order has to be innovation first, regulatory compliance second. You don’t -- and can’t -- start out with “I want to make an app that’s, like, REG E compliant.” So, my job falls in-between the first the second parts. I’m embedded from the concept stage onward, but I also plug in later on the formal risk review side. There is necessarily some friction between risk management and innovation, but I think that the key to solving that problem is empathy.
Lawyers are paid to solve problems they don’t face. That’s not something we all think about very often, but it makes our jobs an uphill battle. I work to empathize with the product side, as an engineer and former developer, and the legal side, as a risk guy. I also don’t think of myself as “no” person. I think about what it would take to minimize risks and educate the team on those risks. That empowers everyone to develop solutions that are both legal and innovative.
Q: You are a gifted artist. How did you get your start?
Ryan: I’ve always engaged in various flights of fancy: creative writing, woodworking, screenwriting, poetry. My first piece of non-written art was an attempt to decorate my house without resorting to purchasing something mass-produced. I failed in that endeavor, but I made something else.
Each time I attempted a project, I ended up purchasing a new tool and now I have a garage of fun tools and a studio worth of art supplies at my fingertips whenever my creativity sparks. I try to make sure every piece is something new and challenging that I’ve never done before.
Q: What’s your favorite work that you’ve done?
Ryan: I’m working on a big installation that senses where you are and reacts to you with movement and light. I’m over a year in, but it’s not done. In terms of finished stuff, I’m pleased with how the various elements in Permanent ink melded together.
Q: How do you balance art and your demanding legal career? What are your keys to maintaining balance?
Ryan: You need to represent and defend your own happiness. I consider my time like a pie chart. First, I cut out anything that’s not making me happy. Waiting in SF traffic? Gone; I bike. Two-hour restaurant outings? Nope. Doesn’t make me happy. I’d rather crush PBJs while soldering at home. Digging to figure out what actually makes you happy is half the battle.
Second, I chose a job that enables my happiness, both on-the-job and at home. I like what I do, I help build cool stuff, and when I’m not on the job, they respect my time. One of the first things my boss told me was “you seem like a guy with a lot of passions and hobbies -- keep doing them.”
The point of your job is to enable your happiness. It simply has to be the reason why we wake up and do this unnatural thing. The goal of life is not to build the most widgets. And you can’t rely on anyone else, whether in BigLaw or otherwise, to make you happy. So, you need to carefully consider whether your job is actually enabling you to be happy.
Third, I create boundaries. You’re the only one who is responsible for your happiness. No employer is ever going to say “hey, isn’t your friend’s destination wedding this weekend? You need to go to that.” You create boundaries around what makes you happy and protect them. Last, you read the effect and adjust accordingly.
Look, I know this sounds like preachy advice that doesn’t work in real life. But I think that when you dip a toe in and see the results, enforcing those boundaries becomes easier. Go attend your child’s soccer game. And if someone asks why you’re leaving, say “to go to my child’s soccer game.” They’ll respect you more for that than they would if you just slogged away in your own tears.
Do good work, choose your battles, draw clear boundaries, and if your employer insists on invading those boundaries, get a different job. I’m lucky in that I found an employer that supports me. A lot of people feel stuck, but your employer doesn’t own you for life - pretty sure that would be a 13th Amendment violation.
PRO TIP: Your employer may not always act like it, but they WANT you to be happy! When employees are happy, they are in the “flow” and produce better work. It’s a win-win for everyone.