Lee Harkavy, partner with Wyatt Tarrant & Combs LLP, had a dream to work in the world of business and finance, so the native Memphian pursued and completed a Bachelor of Business Administration in financing and accounting at the University of Michigan.
Though he comes from a family of attorneys, Harkavy had no plans to become one himself, and no real course of action to see his business dreams realized after graduation.
He worked for Arthur Andersen and interviewed with other agencies and firms, but along the way, some career advice caught his eye.
“I read an article that said that more CEOs of public companies have law degrees than any other graduate degree out there,” Harkavy said.
To help him succeed in business, he knew he wanted a graduate degree and decided the week before school began to enter Vanderbilt University Law School.
“I viewed it as an entry way into the business world for me,” he said.
Following graduation in 1993, he worked at Wyatt Tarrant in transactions, mergers and acquisitions, and securities for the next five years.
In 1998, client Storage USA asked him to come into the acquisitions department. It would mean leaving the practice of law to enter that world of business and finance. Though he loved the law, he jumped at the opportunity and soon transitioned into running Capital Markets.
When GE Capital bought the company, he was asked to stay on as the senior vice president of business development. In that capacity, he helped facilitate the sale of the company a couple of years later to Salt Lake City-based Extra Space Storage. He was asked to stay on in the same role and to move to Utah.
He stayed on for a year but, unhappy with internal issues and looking to get back to the South, he left and took some time off to regroup and consider where he wanted to be.
“Memphis is where my heart is and I love Memphis and felt like it’s a great place to raise a family.”
It was 2006 and, though the recession hadn’t yet hit, those who traveled in the real estate world could see the writing on the wall.
“I was a little tentative about jumping into this business or that business because I felt like it was a very risky proposition given the economic factors I was aware of,” Harkavy said.
Practicing law again seemed viable and he reached out to his old firm in the spring of 2007, and it readily took him back.
Coming from a law office, he had taken a unique perspective into the world of corporate mergers and acquisitions.
“When I was doing an acquisition or doing a capital market transaction, I knew all sides of how those things worked, both the business side and the legal side, having a legal understanding of the detail of what goes into a transaction and the issues that go into it,” he said.
When it came time to return to the briefs and motions of the legal trade, Harkavy took with him the understanding that “unless you’re in a regulatory field … there aren’t any, quote, legal issues. Lawyers like to say that a lot, but there really aren’t,” he said. “Every issue is a business issue because when you’re doing a deal, all the lawyer’s doing is helping you deal with the allocation for risk.”
His clients now consist of locally based companies with national interests. When the economy took a dive, his workload didn’t necessarily go with it, but merely changed the transactional focus.
“A lot of factors made it difficult for deals to get done in that 2007-2008, period,” Harkavy said. “So there was somewhat of a slowdown, but more of a retrenching” as he helped business owners reinvest in and recapitalize their businesses.
Harkavy is happy to be back with Wyatt Tarrant, a place that feels like home with a “culture that is very friendly and warm, and the people care about each other and all get along really well.”
He enjoys the responsibility of working with clients that he admires and respects.
Harkavy and wife, Laura, have two children – Ethan, 14, and Emily, 13 – and his faith informs much of his civic work outside of the firm. He is president of the board for the Memphis Jewish Federation, is past chair of the Youth Sports Committee for the Memphis Jewish Community Center, and past board member of the Memphis Jewish Home and Anshei Sphard-Beth El Emeth Synagogue.