Shedding Light (without the spotlight)

If you’ve never read about Valecia McDowell’s work, she’s doing it right

Published in 2020 North Carolina Super Lawyers Magazine — February 2020

Photo by: Jeff Cravotta

“Doing an investigation is a little bit like being in a Scooby-Doo gang,” says Valecia McDowell, co-head of Moore & Van Allen’s white collar, regulatory defense and investigations practice. “A problem presents at the beginning of the episode: ‘Is there a ghost living in this haunted house?’ Or, ‘Who stole the Scooby snacks?’ Then you put together your team. We need a diversity of perspectives and experiences. And then you start fresh, with no assumptions, and you work toward some kind of conclusion. You want your process to ultimately lead to something that would be useful and actionable for your client.”

Sitting in one of the firm’s conference rooms, 46 floors from the base of the iconic Bank of America tower in uptown Charlotte, McDowell laughs at her Scooby reference—she notes it would play well with her 4-year-old daughter—and sunlight bounces off her gold hoop earrings.

Aglow in natural light, the space’s floor-to-ceiling windows offer an expansive view, from the nearby Duke Energy building, with its recognizable bottle-opener-shaped top, to Crowders Mountain in the distance. McDowell, a 21-year veteran of the firm, is the Velma in the Scooby-Doo scenario: She double-majored in psychology and history at Duke University, with the intent of getting a doctorate in psychology. Throughout undergrad, she worked long hours in various dim-lit laboratories to help pay her tuition and living expenses. She liked the work. “It was important,” she says. But one morning, during the second semester of her senior year, she looked up.

“This lab is in the basement, and there were no windows. Everybody’s sort of trudging in with huge mugs of coffee,” she recalls. “I’m sitting on the computer, not talking to any human beings. … I just didn’t think I could do that my entire life.”

She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, but she knew she wanted windows. 

 

Like the city full of cranes and transplant residents around her, McDowell has watched Moore & Van Allen grow from 75 to 314 attorneys, a team that now spans eight floors in the uptown skyscraper. 

During that time, she’s grown, too.

“I wasn’t great at [law] at the outset,” McDowell recalls of her associate days in the late 1990s. 

Being the only female attorney of color added an additional challenge.

“I think it’s difficult, particularly for lawyers of color, when they first get to law firms, no matter what their backgrounds are,” she says. “You’ve got all the tension of being a brand-new baby lawyer, which is enough tension for anyone. And then you lay on top of that the otherness of being a person of color at a majority [white] law firm.”

She’s since entered an even smaller group: women of color who are partners at the country’s largest firms. 

“I hope that that changes soon,” McDowell says. “There are so many young lawyers of color—particularly, young female lawyers of color—coming out of law schools with the work ethic and talent to do this job well. The real issues will be: Will the law firms support them? And will clients hire them? One without the other doesn’t work.”

McDowell, who only took the LSAT because she thought law might be a steppingstone to politics or something else, didn’t have much of a plan when she entered Duke Law. “I never had any intention of practicing law,” she says. 

She found her way to MVA thanks to Harvey Gantt, Charlotte’s first black mayor, who employed McDowell on his campaign for U.S. senator. While he lost the race, he and McDowell stayed close. He pointed her toward Moore & Van Allen, knowing they hired law students as summer associates. 

“At the end of that summer, I had packed up all of my stuff to drive back to law school, and I get a last-minute phone call from the hiring partner,” McDowell recalls. They invited her in for an interview the next morning, the day she was set to go back to Duke.

She drove her 1989 Nissan Sentra, full of clothes and textbooks and a television set, to the office the next day for the interview. She got the summer associate position, and has never left.

“I’m a lifer,” she says. 

The bulk of her work today is as a leader on MVA’s investigations team—a department she helped implement and develop. From examining fraud in the financial sector to investigating sexual misconduct at the city’s largest corporations, McDowell’s work is often confidential, rarely touted in the media. She likes it that way. “I feel good at the end of the day that a lot of people are getting a better shake than they would have if we hadn’t performed our investigative work,” McDowell says.

She’s worked with a slew of local and international corporations like Bank of America and KUMA Corporation, and her clients span the globe.

“She’s like Olivia Pope [from Scandal],” says Breana Jeter, senior counsel at Wells Fargo in Charlotte and a former Moore & Van Allen colleague. “She is a fixer. Valecia has a very keen ability to spot a problem, almost instinctively, and be able to triage the problem and crisis-manage.”

While financial fraud takes up much of her time, she’s been involved in a slew of #MeToo cases lately. 

“It’s time for that conduct to stop,” she says. “I’m grateful to have clients that understand and appreciate that. And I will say, in fairness in the #MeToo space, there’s also a lot of false accusations happening. … So making sure that you’ve got lawyers who have the skillset to be able to discern the difference is important.”

She had to do just that in 2011, in a rare case that went public. A Charlotte city employee accused city council member Warren Turner of making sexually inappropriate comments, and the city turned to McDowell to lead the probe.

In the high-profile investigation, McDowell confirmed there was sufficient evidence that the harassment did occur on at least two occasions; she found other accusations to be unsubstantiated. Turner was not reelected. “The press really wanted answers, and some of them were [standing] outside my house,” she says. “That kind of work is always really difficult to do, particularly in your own community.”

While McDowell’s family moved around a lot growing up—about 13 times before the first grade, thanks to a father in the Navy—she considers Charlotte her hometown. For a while, her family bounced around Charlotte neighborhoods based on affordability and her mother’s job as a teaching assistant. “We didn’t have a ton of money,” McDowell says. “I think the net result was that I learned to navigate lots of different environments quickly.”

She had an early love for the arts. 

“I grew up in our community without a lot of money, and I wasn’t a sports kid. The thing that made me want to get up and go to school day in and day out was my involvement in theater,” McDowell says. “It taught me discipline. It taught me teamwork … It just kept me plugged in and engaged.” 

It’s an ongoing romance: She’s now chair of Charlotte’s Arts & Science Council (ASC), and advocates for more public funding for the arts.

“The arts breed creativity,” she says. “We spend all of this time in our community talking about economic and social mobility, but nobody is willing to break down what that means. What it really means for kids is to imagine an existence that is fundamentally different than the existence that they have, or their parents, or the people in their neighborhood have. That requires creativity. And people who don’t have a lot of money? Those are the people who need creativity the most.”

She remembers a dose of creativity on the part of a Duke Law dean that helped her get her J.D. 

Between countless jobs as an undergraduate student, McDowell worked late most nights, which presented a problem: park in an approved spot, which would require a mile-and-a-half solo walk at 2 a.m., or park in an illegal spot close to her building? Choosing personal safety over parking rules, she soon racked up over $2,500 in parking fines. “I thought, ‘I’ll just deal with this later,” McDowell says. 

Just before graduation, “later” became now. She had to pay or not graduate. McDowell told Liz Gustafson, a law school administrator, about the dilemma and said she’d have to defer law school a year to pay off the tickets. Gustafson called the bursar to get the debt expunged, but the school refused, so Gustafson and then-dean Pamela Gann, paid the fines themselves, out of their petty cash.

“I was really surprised and incredibly grateful,” McDowell says, choking up. “Up to that point in my life, without question, it was the largest gift anyone had ever given me. It changed my perspective on how people can impact other people’s lives. I didn’t process it that way initially, but over the years, I keep coming back to that.”

Currently, McDowell's time is wrapped up in an ongoing investigation into two businesses owned by Greg Lindberg of Eli Global. In early 2019, Lindberg, who is one of the largest political donors in North Carolina, was indicted on bribery charges. McDowell represents the two businesses who have ties to his expansive empire. 

“She’s just one of the folks willing to put herself out there as a trailblazer, but also as a day-to-day leader,” says Rob Harrington, a business litigation attorney for Robinson Bradshaw in Charlotte who has worked with McDowell in local civic organizations, like the ASC. “She cares a great deal about the community she grew up in.”

From the firm’s conference room window, McDowell can see not only miles and miles of the surrounding community, but also the neighboring towers in Charlotte’s skyline, which hold hundreds and hundreds of businesses, many of which have called on her for remediation and investigative services.

“When I look across my career and I think of ways in which I’ve moved the needle in a positive way, a lot of that comes to places either where we’ve remediated or we’ve encouraged a client to an outcome they might not have otherwise reached,” she says. “That’s how systems change, right?” 

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