Alumni Profile: Steve McManus ’90
Senior Vice President and General Counsel, State Farm Insurance
(Pictured left to right: Gene Schiller ’84, Steve McManus '90 and Ray Sheldon ’79)
Among his many responsibilities as Senior Vice President and General Counsel at State Farm Insurance, Steve McManus ’90 serves as an advisor to senior leaders and as a “thinking partner” to his legal staff. His career advice? “I tell young lawyers: ‘If you have the chance to do something new, it's a great opportunity to grow yourself. Embrace the complexity and learn from it. The ability to learn something new is a gift.’ That’s what I love most about my job," he said.
McManus has been given the gift of having to learn something new throughout his 31-year career at State Farm. The country’s largest insurance company, with 70,000 employees nationwide, State Farm has offered him a wealth of different challenges in his varied career there.
The department he leads today reflects both the company’s expansion over the past 30 years and the increasingly complicated regulatory and litigation environments. “I was the 36th attorney to join the Law Department in 1991,” he said. “Today there are nearly 800 lawyers in the company. Most provide insurance defense representation to policyholders from 38 offices around the country, but there are nearly 200 lawyers in the corporate law division at our headquarters in Bloomington, Illinois.”
McManus attended Seton Hall Law while working full time in State Farm’s Cranford and Wayne offices. He had already earned an MBA, but was intrigued by his interactions with attorneys in handling claim settlements. “I acquired a good lay person's understanding of a very narrow area of the law, found it interesting, and wanted to learn more,” he said.
McManus’s weekday schedule included an 80-mile commute from home to work to Seton Hall. But it was worth the effort. He enjoyed learning areas of the law that he not previously encountered, and was impressed by his teachers, especially Professor John Wefing, who taught Criminal Law. “A professor can make or break your class,” he said. “I really appreciated Professor Wefing’s openness to students – he was extremely approachable. I was already interested in Criminal Law as a subject, and “The Wef” made the class a great experience.”
As McManus’s legal skills developed, his responsibilities at State Farm migrated toward planning and analysis and soon expanded into regulatory work. State Farm’s corporate legal team took notice. “I thought that I would actually head towards private practice after graduation,” he said, “ but I got to know our former general counsel through my work with the New Jersey Department of Insurance, and he invited me to join the Law Department once I passed the bar exam.”
McManus especially appreciated how his Seton Hall Law education taught him to think like a lawyer. “Even while still attending classes, the way I thought about problems was changing,” he said. “Though I have never practiced in a law firm, the way I spot the issues, analyze them and make a decision, all derives from the thousands of case studies you encounter in law school. That mindset serves me as well in a business environment as it does in my job as legal counsel. I learned to appreciate different perspectives.”
McManus’s role in the Law Department entailed a relocation to State Farm’s headquarters in Bloomington, “which was, initially, a bit of a culture shock,” but with two universities in the surrounding area, the city is rich with culture and activity, and Chicago, Indianapolis and St. Louis are within a few hours’ drive. “Still,” he said, “my all-time favorite city is New York. I’m still a Yankees fan at heart.”
McManus is joined in Bloomington by fellow Seton Hall Law alumni Gene Schiller ’84 and Ray Sheldon ’79. They both represented State Farm while in private practice in northern New Jersey and later joined the Law Department. Ray and Gene are representative of the people I’m blessed to work with, they have strong legal skills and are outstanding people.” They are also great ambassadors for Seton Hall Law.”
Over the decades McManus’s job has continually evolved, reflecting the changing regulatory environment and State Farm’s diversification into other businesses, including banking. “There was a litigation explosion in the '90's which increased our need for attorneys. At the time, I was very much a generalist. We would do a lot of counseling, some litigation, some regulatory work,” he explained. “Then after a few years, the issues started getting more complex. The company got into additional lines of business and became more specialized. For many years, I specialized in legislative and regulatory work.”
State Farm gave him different assignments and ever-increasing responsibilities, sending him to Atlanta and Sacramento before bringing him back to Illinois in 2003. McManus takes pleasure in his current multi-faceted role. “First, I defend the legal interests of the corporation, helping to manage legal risk. Then I provide counsel to our senior leadership team, which entails, surprisingly, equal parts legal counseling and business counseling. The primary client is always the corporation, so there are times when my advice might seem at odds with what the business leaders may want. However, I'm blessed that our CEO is an attorney and he understands my role and supports me.”
In fact, straddling the realms of business strategy and legal compliance are among McManus’s greatest strengths. “It helps to clearly understand the business objective and have a plan to accomplish that,” he said. “We work to anticipate regulatory obstacles or impediments and find legally compliant ways to address them, doing all we can to ensure our solutions are business enabling.”
“However,” he stressed, “we don't cut corners. We're not a publicly traded company so a lot of the risk that can arise in trying to meet investor expectations don't exist in this corporation. We take a long-term view and do the right thing to serve our customers.”
Part of McManus’s role is hiring new attorneys to join the Law Department, many of which are recruited through State Farm’s summer associate program. “The same things that help you excel in school help you excel in your career,” he explained. “A record of academic achievement matters, of course because it demonstrates effort, but we also look for intellectual curiosity and passion for the work. It certainly helps if attorneys have a desire to live in central Illinois,” he added with a smile.
Ultimately, McManus derives joy at State Farm from his own eagerness to “embrace the complexity” of his diverse position. “State Farm’s corporate mission is to help people manage the risks of everyday life, recover from the unexpected, and realize their dreams, and that’s what I do every day,” he said. “I never know what issue is going to face me when I answer the phone, or when someone walks in to my office or sends me an email. Thinking through problems with members of my team is very rewarding work. After all of these years, I still find great opportunities to learn new things.”