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August 5, 2009 12:17 PM

Former Steve Madden CEO Joins McCarter & English

Posted by Matt Straquadine

As we reported a few weeks back, Jamie Karson has joined McCarter & English’s New York office as special counsel in the corporate, securities and financial institutions practice group. But Karson didn’t move from a rival firm. He stepped in from a more nontraditional role: CEO of Steve Madden.

From 2001 to 2008, Karson ran one of the largest shoe retailers in the U.S., including the three years founder Steve Madden was in jail for securities fraud. We caught up with Karson to talk about his transition from law to the corporate world and back again, and what it was like to fill Steve Madden’s shoes.

You were a partner with Tannenbaum Helpern before joining Steve Madden in 2001. What was it like going from practicing law to heading one of the most successful shoe companies in America?

Hectic. I came in just before 9/11. Being a retail company based in New York City, the change was incredibly challenging and difficult. Business is very different from practicing law.

How did practicing law prepare you to serve as the executive officer of large corporation?

Being a lawyer and being an executive in the C suite, there’s an integrity both require, and law teaches you that. It gives you a wonderful backdrop for learning the business of business. Law teaches you to listen, and in business you have to be a great listener.

During your seven years at Steve Madden, you steered the company through a transitional period, as employees adjusted to Mr. Madden’s departure and later, his return. What was that like?

Our biggest challenge was retaining people. Steve had built a very close-knit group of people dedicated to the success of the business. The company grew while Steve was in jail because the product was great, we managed the brand and managed expenses. But you can’t replace Steve. He’s one of a kind--a brilliant business guy and a brilliant product guy.

You were childhood friends with Steve. How did you become CEO of his company?

Before I became CEO, I was on the board and my firm was doing legal work for the company. At some point Steve suggested I come on as CEO, which seems like a revolutionary thought, but there are other CEOs in the apparel business that were once lawyers. I grew up in the retail business so fashion was in my blood, and Steve understood that.

I didn’t know you had a retail background.

My grandfather was Barneys’ first employee, my parents had couture clothing stores in the New York City area, my uncle had the same type of business in the Hamptons, and we brought them together in the mid-80s. I essentially ran that business while I was an associate at a law firm, before we sold it. I also did a fair amount of work for retailers as a lawyer back then.

You resigned as CEO in March 2008. What have you been doing since joining McCarter & English last month?

I did some consulting for retail and apparel companies, traveled, and basically enjoyed life.

How did you decide to work for McCarter?

Over the years I’ve dealt with a lot of law firms. I had come across McCarter on a number of occasions. I liked their positioning in the market and I liked their quality of service. And I had a friend who worked here, so that’s how it came about.

Why did you decide to return to law after being in the corporate world?

I like being an attorney. It’s something I was proud of when I graduated from law school in 1984. I think like an attorney. I ran the company like an attorney. It’s just how my mind works.

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