Karen McDonough – USI Consulting Group
Karen McDonough gets paid to think about retirement, all day every day.
Not her own, mind you rather the multi-billion-dollar retirement and employee benefits industry that her employer, USI Consulting Group (USICG), caters to.
As the chief legal officer explains, the retirement and benefits industry is in a constant state of flux: She and her team are continuously balancing and learning new rules and regulations and communicating those—in plain English, without legalese—to clients, staff and business partners. And all of this while USI Consulting Group continues an aggressive rate of expansion.
“Even though it might sound boring, there’s never a dull day,” McDonough says. “It’s fast-paced, multi-disciplined. I’m always learning something new.”
An exciting time, a thriving enterprise
USI Consulting Group (USICG) is a wholly-owned subsidiary of USI Insurance Services, one of the largest privately-held insurance brokers in the world. The group’s experts provide specialized consulting in retirement and employee benefit plan design, administration, investments, regulatory and compliance matters, and employee communication.
With more than $21 billion in assets under advisement, the Glastonbury, Connecticut-based USICG is assertively increasing its head count across the country, McDonough explains, with continued expansion expected in 2020 through organic growth, increased sales, and mergers and acquisitions.
“That’s been exciting,” she says. “There’s always new business, a lot of activity going on. It makes our days very busy.”
With the business “thriving and opening” through different channels, McDonough and her team constantly address new and increasing challenges related to regulation, compliance, policies and procedures. Not to mention the legal implications involved in integrating newly-acquired companies, she notes.
Most crucially, McDonough and her team provide consultation to clients—employers who sponsor retirement plans. Their legal advice is related to tax-qualified and non-qualified retirement plans, health and welfare plans, and the legal issues impacting their operation—including compliance with the Internal Revenue Code and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA).
McDonough also helps design benefit plans and drafts and amends plan documents and trust agreements. She and her team counsel internal resources such as actuaries, record-keepers and advisors, mostly around compliance matters.
And as USICG continues to expand its physical footprint, the company is concurrently expanding its services. One of the goals, McDonough explains, is to widen and enhance the types of investment advice advisors can provide. She has hired an outside counsel to assist in establishing these processes and the procedures around them.
“There are different levels of investment advice; they’re all highly regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Labor,” she explains. “Our goal is to offer a higher level of investment advice.”
A multi-disciplined role
McDonough has been in the retirement and employee benefits industry for her entire career, the last 10 years with USICG.
Her first job out of college—she earned a bachelor’s degree in educational psychology from the University of Connecticut—was an administrative position in benefits and retirement with Connecticut’s Office of the State Comptroller, and her boss, seeing her potential and passion, encouraged her to attend law school. She worked full time and attended law school in the evenings, earning her degree from Western New England College School of Law.
“I was constantly immersed in statutes and regulations; I really enjoyed it,” she says.
After law school she continued working for the State Comptroller as division counsel for the Retirement and Benefit Services Division. She spent a total of 19 years with the state, at which point, “It was time to make a change,” she says of moving first to private practice as a benefits attorney with Robinson+Cole and then to USICG. She notes that different rules apply to government plans than to corporate plans. “I wanted to know more and to be involved more on the corporate side.”
She was also intrigued by the idea of working with investment advisors, record-keepers and actuaries, and serving in a general counsel capacity—a role she ascended to in 2013—while honing her skills in corporate law.
“At first it was very challenging,” she says of corporate law, “but now it’s something I really love doing.”
Today she leads a legal team of five other women—unusual, yes, she says, but it “just kind of worked out that way”—and gives regular talks and seminars related to fiduciary training as well as the rules, regulations, laws and litigation that impact USICG’s services and clients.
“The multi-discipline aspect was really attractive,” McDonough says. “I like the collaboration; how our legal team fits into that. I love the job, and I love the people, especially the smart, hardworking legal team that I work with.”
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