Co-hosts Zach Coseglia and Hui Chen explore the power of storytelling with Megan Zwiebel, the “untangler of knots” and director of operations and delivery at R&G Insights Lab, who went from working as a litigation attorney to anti-corruption journalist, and now as the person who makes the trains run on time at the Insights Lab. Along the way, she shares insights about uncovering juicy fact patterns in corruption cases, the need for organizations to take narrative control of their identities, and the human beings who read legal briefs.
Zach Coseglia: Hi, everybody—this is Zach, and welcome to the Better Way podcast. I am the co-founder and managing principal of R&G Insights Lab. I'm also the co-host of this podcast, along with my incredible co-host, Hui. Hui, welcome.
Hui Chen Thank you. Welcome, everyone—we have a very exciting session ahead of us.
Zach Coseglia: The topic for today is “telling stories.” Hui, who are we joined by today?
Hui Chen: I'm so excited. She is, first of all, the best colleague ever, Megan Zwiebel. She also interviewed me before, when she was a journalist, more than once. And she had always struck me as one of the journalists I really enjoyed having a conversation with because she was so inquisitive. So, when I learned that she and I were going to be colleagues—in fact, we started on the same day in the Lab—I was ecstatic. So, Megan, welcome.
Zach Coseglia: The tables have turned.
Megan Zwiebel: I know—the interviewer is the interviewee.
Zach Coseglia: It is so true, so true. And so, Megan, who are you?
Megan Zwiebel: I don't think I could do that after lunch—that's not a question I can handle at this time of day: “Who am I?” I'm the director of operations and delivery at the R&G Insights Lab. How deep do you want me to go, Zach?
Zach Coseglia: Why don’t you tell us a little bit more about your unique background as both a lawyer and a writer?
Megan Zwiebel: Yes, I am both of those things. I went to law school, did the normal associate-track thing—was an associate at a New York law firm for eight and a half years, a really long time. I actually had a fairly interesting career as an associate because I worked at a law firm that specialized in litigation, with pretty much no specialties within that. And so my practice was a little all over the place, but it meant I worked on some really fun and interesting things. I was on a secondment in Germany and worked in-house at a bank, but the most fun case I got to work on was a Nazi looted-art case, which not everyone gets to do. All sorts of areas I got to explore all over the place as an associate. And then, from there, after spending that time in the German bank, and seeing a different way of life, I decided I needed a change.
Everyone says, “The way you find jobs is through networks,” and that seems really daunting, and then it happens and you’re like, “This is how this works.” I was talking to my friend who is actually a friend from high school who also went to law school with me—she said, “My friend's looking for someone. She writes, she works for a publication.” I was like, “Okay.” And I interviewed with her friend, who is Nicole di Schino, and she worked for a publication called The Anti-Corruption Report. Nicole and I hit it off instantly. Nicole looked at me and said, “I know this is not exactly what you’re looking for. I know this is a little weird, but you’re going to really like it. I know you’re going to think, ‘Am I a good writer? Am I going to be able to do this?’ You’re going to be great.”
And I took this leap of faith, and had that job for quite a number of years. It was incredible—I learned so much. I didn't know what the FCPA was when I first took that job. I learned everything academically, on the ground, and from talking to experts like Hui and all sorts of other people. I interviewed Zach, too, in that job as well.
So, I was at the Anti-Corruption Report for seven and a half years, and then I came here. Now, I work at the Lab and help make the trains run on time as the director of operations and help build out the efficient delivery program. I also get to do some really cool creative compliance consulting work, which is my favorite and which I love a lot.
Zach Coseglia: The topic for today is “telling stories,” so I want to start by talking about your time as a lawyer, that eight and a half years as a lawyer before you went to the Anti-Corruption Report. How did you feel like you told stories as a lawyer?
Megan Zwiebel: Like I said, I was a litigator. “Litigating”—a lot of people think that means, “going to court.” No, that never happens. What “litigating” actually is is just writing briefs, and briefs are just telling a story and making an argument. I had the good fortune of working with and being mentored by some incredible writers while I was there, and learned so much about how to organize information and convey that information in a compelling way. I still use one of the notes I got there, which was talking about how, when you’re writing a brief, is that, “Your table of contents should be enough to win you the case.” That the judge should be able to be lazy and only read the table of contents, know exactly what your argument is and know that you’re right, outlining things into a really organized structure, and having compelling headlines that tell your story, even at that high level, is what’s really going to get you there. And so, so much of that practice was storytelling—so much of it was about getting familiar with the facts, synthesizing them, putting that into a story, and then being able to present that story in briefs that went to the Third Circuit or went to the Supreme Court. I didn’t write the Supreme Court brief—I feel like I always have to put that out, that there was Supreme Court counsel, but I was a master of the facts on that. And so, even behind the scenes, I was telling the story of, “No, no, this is the part you want to tell. These are the documents that are going to get us there.” There’s so much storytelling involved in litigation, if you’re doing it well or right.
Hui Chen: This is so interesting to me, because I did start my career as an in-court litigator. No matter how complicated the case was, you need to make 12 people who are sitting in the jury box understand your theory and buy into your theory. And one of the ways that I started was being made to sit with a bunch of other law clerks and summarize trial transcripts in getting ready for appeal. So I remember being very angry at that time, thinking, “I should surely be doing more interesting things than sitting in a dark room and summarizing trial transcripts.” I wish the supervisor had told us that this is one of the best trainings you can get.
You did the litigator thing, and then you did your journalist thing: How do you compare your typical lawyer way of narrating with what journalists do? What can they learn from each other?
Megan Zwiebel: I think the best lawyers, or at least the best brief-writers, write like journalists. That might be a small subsection of lawyers.
Zach Coseglia: Very, very small.
Megan Zwiebel: Right. Like I said, I had the luck to work with a few of them, and it was incredible to read. And I would get mad—I’d read their stuff and then I’d read someone else’s stuff, and I thought, “Why is everyone else terrible at this?” But I think that lawyers get bogged-down in the sense of what legal writing is “supposed” to sound like. When you’re talking about a civil commercial practice, your audience is a judge, or a clerk, more accurately, and they are human beings. And so, they watch television, they read the newspaper, they read all sorts of other things that are probably a lot more enjoyable to them than a really poorly worded brief, and that, if you could stick out as just a good piece of writing, they’re going to enjoy it more. Even if they just enjoy it, they’re going to be more amenable to your case just from the simple act of enjoying it, I think. If you make it entertaining, if you make it clear, if you make it concise, if you get to the point, that’s going to help you win for sure.
Hui Chen: Oftentimes, people forget that they're not subject-matter experts necessarily on whatever topic. So, somebody could have become a judge after a career of being a prosecutor or public defender, and never touched an antitrust case in their lives—and suddenly, now they’re on the bench and you have to explain that to them. So, even when you’re talking to what you think is truly a legal expert, they’re not necessarily subject-matter experts in what you’re trying to present, and I do think lawyers very often forget that.
Megan Zwiebel: Totally. And it’s one of my biggest foundational principles when I worked at the Anti-Corruption Report, too, is I’m very big on scaffolding—starting at the baby steps. Yes, even when you are talking to experts—sure, a handful of your audience might be a little bored by it, but I’m going to guess, generally speaking, people understand a lot less than they think they do, and so you start off with the scaffolding—the first principles, always—and then build from there. And I think that’s so true for legal writing as well. I remember Sandra Day O’Connor talking about how someone asked her what she wished she had known or something, and she said, “I really wish I had a lot more technical understanding of IP.” It was interesting—this is a Supreme Court judge talking about how she did not understand the things that people were bringing to her. And it means that, yes, it would have been helpful if she maybe had an engineering degree, but it also means that they weren’t doing a good job of making their case. Sandra Day O’Connor should come out at the end and feel like a total expert on whatever you put in front of her, if you’re doing it right, but that means you have to start with the baby steps: You have to start with Engineering 101, and then move on and move on and move on—you have to lay that groundwork to make your writing effective.
Zach Coseglia: One of the things that you just said that just hits for me so hard is the most basic concept or proposition, which is that the people who are reading these things are human beings. If we deconstruct that thought, there has never been a piece of writing written, in all of human history, that was written for someone other than a human being. And yet, a lot of the stuff that I’ve read throughout my life and career, and I’m sure that you’ve read throughout your life and career, and a lot of the stuff that kind of dominates in the legal profession, is not always seemingly written like there is a real human being on the other end, on the receiving end of that. It just hits with me really hard.
Megan Zwiebel: Also, it’s not even just that it’s a human being. I think this is true for legal writing, but I think it actually applies in terms of compliance training, and that kind of thing, is that people have an archetype in their mind, a character in their mind, about who they think “a judge is,” and they think of an old-timey man from the 19th century in a wig and a robe. And he does nothing but read old-timey cases, and therefore, you have to have a lot of “therefores” and “with regards to” and that’s what they want to hear. The judge you’re talking to almost certainly has children or grandchildren who watch a lot of Paw Patrol, they probably watch a lot of reality TV—even if they don’t watch that, they read the same newspapers that you read that definitely don’t talk like that. There are these archetypes, and I think that plays into compliance and compliance training, as well, is that there’s this idea that, “You're talking to a worker—they are really involved in the company,” and that’s their persona: You’re talking to the persona instead of the person, and I think that’s a mistake.
Zach Coseglia: In the timeline, you’re a journalist at the Anti-Corruption Report. What was that experience like? What was that transition like?
Megan Zwiebel: It was the loveliest transition ever, actually. I was so fortunate to be working with Nicole—we were such a good team, she was such a good boss, and she made it just such a lovely transition logistically. And then, I’m sure I’ve told this story everywhere before, but I went to my first compliance conference—I looked around and thought, “This is where all the nice lawyers are.” It was this complete revelation to be working in this space with people who actively care about “ethics”; that actively care about “doing the right thing”; who talk about “culture,” and take it seriously. I was like, “I'm not a weirdo. This is amazing!”
Zach Coseglia: How was the storytelling that you were doing at the Anti-Corruption Report as a journalist different from what you were doing as a litigator?
Megan Zwiebel: I got to choose what to write about—it was driven by my curiosity, and not by what a client needed, or what a client had done (what “mistakes had been made”), and instead, I just would sit and say, “What’s interesting? What’s going on?” I would come up with a topic that I wanted to know more about, I'd figure out some people who could tell me more about it, and I’d have great conversations with them. And so, it was really curiosity-driven, which was a really lovely change. I think it changed the whole tenor of the writing, too, because then I got to control the whole thing from start to finish, and have my own voice.
Hui Chen: So, Megan, I’m very curious. I’ve always been very puzzled by the compliance world’s obsession with anti-corruption. I’m curious as to your thoughts as to why there is such an obsession with this particular type of compliance?
Megan Zwiebel: I think it comes from two sides—two almost-opposite sides. One, there’s the practical side, that in compliance-related fields, anti-corruption was one of the first where there was this very targeted enforcement environment. Companies were getting bonked big for corruption issues, and so nothing focuses the mind like…
Hui Chen: For foreign corruption issues—not anything domestic. Domestic corruption doesn’t seem to get any coverage.
Megan Zwiebel: No, which is a whole other kettle of fascinating fish, I think. The FCPA unit at the DOJ and also at the SEC—they work in coordination with each other, and they were very aggressive over the past decade or so. Like I said, nothing focuses your mind like the chance that you might actually have the DOJ and SEC knocking at your door, and so I think there’s that. There’s also the motivation that that drives from, top-down, that executives who are not in the compliance space at all are seeing this, worrying about it, and then they’re like, “You! Guess what your job is now? Focus on this.” So, I think there’s that. Then, I think there’s this completely opposite-end-of-the-spectrum element to it, which is that it is fun—it’s actually really interesting stuff. All of the fact patterns that underlie these cases are interesting, they’re cool, they involve literal bags of cash, crazy code words, insane plots, and all this stuff—they’re fun to read about, and they have stories behind them.
Zach Coseglia: They’re good stories.
Megan Zwiebel: Exactly, in a way that I think other areas don’t have. There’s often an element of human misery around health care fraud and that kind of stuff, whereas there’s something really juicy about a lot of these corruption cases. And so, when you put those things together, when you get that you have executives’ minds focused on it, and, there’s the fear element of it, and then you also have these juicy fact patterns—it’s delicious, why wouldn’t you want to pay a lot of attention to it?
Hui Chen: This is so interesting. I’m going to put a different spin on your first reason. Historically, the largest criminal fines, they’re really for environmental crimes—VW and Deepwater Horizon—and also for lots of financial crimes like mortgage fraud. Last time I looked at the top 10, there was not a single FCPA case in there, but I think anti-corruption, or specifically, foreign corruption, is a story that is more easily understood by people and that people could relate to. So, I think if I am just a medium-sized company, with a couple of overseas operations, I can be made to feel like this is something I need to worry about. In some ways, my spin on that is I don’t think the focused enforcement is unique at all—I think the focused enforcement has been better-told as a story than the others.
Megan Zwiebel: Also, the concept of “salience,” though, too. It’s like mortgage fraud isn’t related to a lot of companies, whereas any company that has an international footprint has maybe some foreign corruption risk.
Hui Chen: Right, but the story has been told in such a way. I remember working with a client a couple years ago that had no international operation, none. And they asked me to review their compliance programs, and I said, “So tell me what you think your risk areas are.” So they listed what should be their risk, and then they said, “What do you think about FCPA?” I was just like, “Why?”
Megan Zwiebel: Because they want it to be, because it sounds so fun.
Zach Coseglia: You told us a little bit about how the storytelling that you did at the Anti-Corruption Report was different from what you did as a litigator, but how, if at all, was it the same?
Megan Zwiebel: It’s the same in terms of you’re taking really complicated concepts and putting the information together in the right order, and in the right pieces, so you can convey understanding. That’s the big thing, and it may be sort of silly, but on my LinkedIn profile now, I put as my title “Untangler of Knots.” That’s always what I’ve felt like I was doing, both as a litigator and certainly at the Anti-Corruption Report, is I’d sit with this tangled knot of information, and my job was to pick it apart, carefully.
Zach Coseglia: So I have in my notes, “Untangler of Knots,” because I felt like this was worthy of acknowledgment, not just because I love the story you just told about why you put that in your LinkedIn profile, but because it’s such a representation of the way your mind works, and how much value you bring to our work. Most people put, “Director,” “Advisor,” “Consultant,” but, Megan, you’re like a poet in the way that you describe the work that you do by putting your LinkedIn profile “Untangler of Knots.” I just love that so much.
Hui Chen: When I saw that tagline, “Untangler of Knots,” I immediately think about, “That's how I would describe investigations.” To me, that’s what investigations are all about—it’s all these little messy facts, and data, that you’re supposed to make sense of. So, tell us how you think that approach, that narrative approach, the storytelling approach, can be used towards investigations.
Megan Zwiebel: Yes, I think it’s exactly the same, and there’s a reason that investigative journalists and detectives are the same genre of movie. It’s the same story—everything is a confusion, and then you have to put it into some sort of order. But I think it’s the same process, and being an investigator is essentially being a detective—you think, “What has happened here? What information do I have, and what's in front me”?
Hui Chen: So, let’s talk about a skillset where I think a lot of lawyers doing investigations can learn from journalists. How do you get information out of people so that you can tell the story?
Megan Zwiebel: It’s so funny—it’s so much less hard than I think people think it is. And I think it might be different—I come at it from more the journalistic perspective. I did not have a robust investigation practice when I was an associate, so I don’t have that element of it. But, at least from a journalist’s perspective, people want to talk, people want to share what they know, they want to show themselves to be expert in things, which might sound a little self-aggrandizing or selfish. Then, the third thing that I’ve been perpetually surprised by is people want to help—people really want to help. And if you say, “I don’t understand. Can you help me understand? How did we get from X to Y—how does that happen?” People want to help you. I think there are things that maybe get in the way of that impulse, but if you let yourself give people the opportunity to help, they will almost always rise to that occasion.
Zach Coseglia: Storytelling sounds like this amazing thing. I get behind it, Hui’s behind it, obviously you’re behind it. Is there space, though, for storytelling in the corporate setting? Tell us: Where? Where is it?
Megan Zwiebel: So much of corporate culture, business strategy—everything is storytelling. I apologize if this gets too far afield, but a corporation isn’t a person—it has no identity in and of itself. Its identity is entirely a story that’s told about it—it is just the stories we tell about the corporation, so there’s room, tons of room. In fact, I think a lot of it is missed opportunity as people don’t realize that that’s the case, and so the stories happen haphazardly, that it becomes something that “happens to” the corporation or that “happens to” the company—it’s imposed on it by the outside. Whereas, if it takes control of the narrative, which plenty of companies do (that’s what PR firms are there for, and advertising agencies are there for), they could have more control over how they’re defined as an entity. But I think compliance is an area where they don’t take control of that narrative—that narrative “happens to” them. It happens to them when the DOJ, the SEC or the SFO come knocking on their door, and all of a sudden, there is a narrative imposed on them about what their compliance culture is, and what they are as a company related to ethics, culture and that kind of thing. And instead, companies should be telling that story in the same way they’re telling the brand story—I think it’s just a missed opportunity not to.
Zach Coseglia: Megan, before we get to know you a little bit better, what are your key takeaways from our discussion today?
Megan Zwiebel: I think it’s about the usefulness of narrative in terms of helping people convey complex ideas. When I talk about untangling knots, the way they become untangled is to put them in an order, and the order is a narrative—that’s what makes it both compelling and clear. And so, I think that would be the big takeaway there.
Zach Coseglia: All right. Now we get to know you a little bit better. So, the first few questions you have options of which one you can answer. The first two questions to choose from are: If you could wake up tomorrow and have gained any quality or ability, what would it be? Or, is there a quality about yourself that you’re currently working to improve, and if so, what it is?
Megan Zwiebel: The only image that comes to my mind, which is maybe juvenile, is Hermione Granger and her Time-Turner in Harry Potter. I really wish I could just repeat hours, and be able to do, “First, this hour is work,” and, “Now this hour is tidying,” and, “Now this hour is getting dinner ready,” and, “Now this hour is actually getting to rest.” But, yes, that would be my choice.
Zach Coseglia: We have that to look forward to, hopefully at some point in our lifetime. The next two questions to choose from are: Who is your favorite mentor? Or, who do you wish you could be mentored by?
Megan Zwiebel: This is always so hard, but I was thinking about my favorite mentor would be back at the law firm there was a man named James Cain, who was just such a generous mentor in terms of writing. He was just a totally brilliant brief-writer, took the time to give me useful feedback, which was not always on hand, and really thought through things with me, which was so useful. And then he served as a great mentor when he also left the law firm and went to live on a farm in France—that was such a great living-by-example bit of mentorship, as well.
Zach Coseglia: Amazing. Is he still around?
Megan Zwiebel: Yes, he lives in France.
Zach Coseglia: Is he on the farm?
Megan Zwiebel: He still lives on the farm in France, yes.
Zach Coseglia: That’s amazing.
Hui Chen: I want to go visit.
Zach Coseglia: All right. So, the next set of questions is: What is the best place you have worked (which I feel like it’s really not fair for us to keep asking this question to people who work in the Lab)? Or, what is the best job, paid or unpaid, you have ever had?
Megan Zwiebel: I have a list of funny unpaid jobs that I could go, but they weren’t the best—I worked at the zoo briefly, and I was on a cable TV show for a little while. But the best job I ever had or probably ever will have (no offense, guys) was those first few years working with Nicole at the Anti-Corruption Report when it was the two of us, and we were just in total mind meld. She jokes and I joke, because that’s the point, that we just had one brain and we shared a brain between the two of us—we followed our curiosity, spent all of our time together, and made the publication, I think, fantastic, but in the way we wanted it to be fantastic. And that will be very, very hard to beat—though let’s see what the Lab does.
Zach Coseglia: Give me time to get there. And just to be clear, you shared one very large brain? It wasn’t, like, each…
Megan Zwiebel: No, no, it was a really big brain…
Zach Coseglia: I just wanted to see. The next question: What’s your favorite thing to do?
Megan Zwiebel: I was thinking this was a hard one, but I think if I want to be truly honest about my favorite thing to do, it is to lie quietly and read a nice, really engaging fiction book.
Zach Coseglia: How often do you get to do that?
Megan Zwiebel: I make the time, that’s how I get to bed every night. So, I get to do—yes, I squeeze it in there.
Zach Coseglia: What’s your favorite place?
Megan Zwiebel: I think it would be Florence, which is what Hui said, too, so there’s that. But then, if I wanted an alternate answer, if I’m not stealing, would be I have made my bed very comfortable—it has beautiful linen sheets and fluffy pillows, and if you give me a nice book, that would be my favorite place—it ties into the “thing to do.”
Zach Coseglia: What makes you proud?
Megan Zwiebel: I think the thing that makes me proudest at the moment is my parenting. I have put a lot of thought and effort into what it means, what the responsibility is to raise a good human being—particularly, I have a small, little white man who’s growing up, and how to raise him to be thoughtful, kind, hopefully at least aware of his privilege. It’s a lot to ask, and I think I’m proud of how it’s going so far. I’m only four and a half years in, though—we’ll see how it goes.
Zach Coseglia: What email signoff do you use most frequently?
Megan Zwiebel: I probably use “Thanks!” most frequently, but my alternate that I use for more serious is “Warmly,” which I think a lot of people hate, but I think the world could use a little bit more warmth in it, even in a business setting.
Zach Coseglia: Amazing. What trend in your field is most overrated?
Megan Zwiebel: I wrote about this a lot at the Anti-Corruption Report, and I think there’s a lot of chatter about “artificial intelligence” and “machine learning” in compliance, and the world is not there yet. And so, I think it’s not overrated in terms of its someday eventual potential, but it’s overrated in terms of its usefulness right now.
Zach Coseglia: That’s a whole podcast series right there. And, finally, what word would you use to describe your day so far?
Megan Zwiebel: My day’s been a little frenetic—there’s lots of different things all over the place. So, “frenetic” is the word I’m going to use, but this has been a really lovely grounding experience, so I’ll take that.
Zach Coseglia: Well, that is all the time we have. Megan, thank you so much—it’s been really great digging in a little bit deeper with you, and exploring the power of storytelling. Hui, I’m sure we will have Megan back many times. Thank you, Megan. And thank you all for tuning in to the Better Way podcast and exploring all of these “better ways” with us. For more information about this or anything else that’s happening with R&G Insights Lab, please visit our website at www.ropesgray.com/rginsightslab. You can also subscribe to the series wherever you regularly listen to podcasts, including on Apple, Google and Spotify. And if you have thoughts about what we talked about today, the work the Lab does, or just have ideas for better ways we should explore, please don’t hesitate to reach out, we’d love to hear from you. Thanks again for listening.
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