Trailblazer Series Welcomes Jonathan Weil '95

Trailblazer Series Jonathan Weil
Award-winning journalist and SMU Dedman Law alumnus Jonathan Weil ’95, returned to campus on April 11, 2024 as a special guest for the Trailblazer Speaker Series. Weil shared his unconventional journey through law school to cover finance for The Wall Street Journal.

He earned a degree in journalism from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1991 and a J.D. from SMU Dedman School of Law in 1995. Two years later, he started with The Wall Street Journal as a Texas edition reporter and then moved to New York City in 2000 to report on accounting news for five years.

Weil left journalism for several years, working with investment firms CPMG Inc. and Kynikos Associates as an analyst and with Glass Lewis & Co. as a managing director. But journalism has always been his first love, he said.

Weil garnered significant recognition as a columnist for Bloomberg News where he won the Excellence in Financial Journalism Award four times from the New York State Society of Certified Public Accountants and two Best in Business Journalism awards from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.

Weil sat down with Professor Marc Steinberg, the Rupert and Lillian Radford Chair in Law at SMU Dedman Law. Weil took Steinberg’s securities regulation course in the 1990s, and their professional lives briefly intersected indirectly in the early 2000s when Steinberg was retained as an expert witness in the Enron case. The origins of the suspicion surrounding Enron have been attributed to Weil’s groundbreaking reporting when he became the first journalist to challenge Enron’s accounting practices in his 2000 article, “Energy Traders Cite Gains, But Some Math Is Missing.”

“I started at my high school paper when I was 16 and then my college paper at the University of Colorado as a sophomore,” said Weil. “I worked for local papers and got an internship with The Wall Street Journal after college, and I always wanted to go to law school.”

He decided early on in law school that he would not actually practice law but would instead use his law education to pursue his journalistic passion. He always knew that a law degree from SMU Dedman School of Law helped him find his niche in financial reporting.

“That freed me up in my mind to take all the classes I had avoided – anything that seemed like it involved business or numbers, the type of stuff I had kind of shied away from – and that ended up setting me down a path I might not have otherwise gone down.”

Right after law school, having passed the bar and looking to dip his toe into financial reporting with his new legal acumen, he took an internship at The Dallas Morning News where his education from SMU Dedman School of Law helped him navigate a complex litigation story involving popular movie theater chain Cinemark. One specific question that Weil raised about the legalities of a disputed handshake agreement stumped the lawyers. Weil had his story.

He remembered the editor asking him, “How did you know to ask that question?” Weil replied: “Professor Steinberg’s class.”

He soon went to work for The Wall Street Journal. As a junior reporter making the transition from the Journal’s regional Texas edition to the New York newsroom, Weil made his permanent stamp as a journalist when he published the first story on financial problems at Enron. After struggling for weeks to get an interview with representatives from the company, they eventually capitulated and gave him a “dog and pony show,” as Weil described it.

Enron was unable to sufficiently answer Weil’s penetrating questions, and he broke the story on what would become one of the most infamous financial scandals in American history. Columbia Journalism Review, Barron’s, and the New Yorker magazine have credited him as the first reporter to challenge the company’s accounting.

“I was focusing just on the numbers – how they were planning to make a profit,” he recalled. “What we didn’t know at that time, until a year later when it blew up, was that there had been crimes. You couldn’t see that in the financial statements.”

Professor Steinberg added, “The plaintiffs lawyers did a remarkable job. In that case, they recovered over $8 billion for investors. I was an expert witness on behalf of the University of California, the lead plaintiff in that case. Attorney’s fees were over $700 million.”

Weil looked back on his time as an investigative columnist for Bloomberg from 2007 to 2014 as another watershed moment in his career. It was in this period, amid global financial turmoil, that he received many of his journalistic accolades.

“It turned out there was one constant from ’07 to September ’08. The financial crisis was breaking out. I don’t think I’ll ever have another run like that again because Lehman Brothers, Merrill, WaMu, IndyMac, Countrywide, Wachovia – pretty much every bank that blew up – had several problems on their numbers,” said Weil.

“What people forget, in part because nobody went to jail, is that the reason the financial crisis happened is that, in part, professional investors could read the financial statements of these companies and see that they weren’t credible and that they were lying. And that’s why it’s so infuriating to a lot of people that nobody senior went to jail.”

Weil left Bloomberg in 2014 to work for hedge funds. He then revived his journalism career in late 2022 when he re-joined the Journal.

“I had always wanted to go back at some point because it’s what I enjoy. What I do is fun. I will keep doing this as long as I can, as long as it’s fun. I don’t know if that’s a year, if it’s 10 years, or 30, but it’s fun now. I’ve got a bunch of great stories in the hopper that I can’t wait to get done.”

When putting stories together, Weil said he reads companies’ financial reports and proxy statements, starting with the footnotes. Stories often come through relationships built up over the years, and follow-up involves making phone calls and getting the facts straight.

You strive for truth, but usually you have to settle for accuracy,” he said. When he’s done writing a draft, he said, “I print out a copy, take out a red pen, and I go through every single word of that piece that requires any fact check. It doesn’t matter how small the detail is. Then a lot of other people will read the story before it goes to press. We have a lot of editors.”

Looking back on the value of his law degree from SMU Dedman Law, Weil said the education taught him how to parse financial and legal language.

When asked by an audience member what one should or should not say to an investigative reporter like himself, Weil said, “Set the ground rules right up front. It’s a good habit if you’re ever talking to a reporter, especially someone you don’t know.”

People throw around the terms ‘on the record,’ ‘off the record,’ and ‘background,’ but they often fail to define their terms, said Weil.

“If somebody wants to talk to me on background, I say, ‘Okay, that’s fine. Let me clarify what I mean by background. It means I don’t tell anybody outside my news organization that I’m having a conversation with you.’ In that respect, I’m not telling the person that I’m never going to repeat what you say to me.”

Weil rarely allows anyone to talk to him off the record because he doesn’t want information that he can’t use in his story. And, if it’s information that he already knew and planned to publish, he could find himself being accused of having broken the agreement.

“Otherwise, anything that anybody says to me, and I take it down accurately, I can go publish it. That’s what on the record means. Life is on the record.”

Asked about the challenges of being a reporter in the current political environment, Weil spoke of his colleague Evan Gershkovich of the Journal who remains in Russian prison on charges of espionage that could result in a 20-year sentence. The charges have been widely condemned by international organizations and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“Evan has been there for a year for doing his job as a reporter, so that’s one of the challenges that reporters have to face,” said Weil. “We’re doing everything we can to get him home. There have always been difficulties, but I think there are millions of people who feel emboldened to go target journalists around the world.”

He said he occasionally encounters strong-arm intimidation tactics when reporting a story, and the way to deal with an adversarial situation is to simply focus on the reporting.

“You take notes. You listen. You make sure the other folks don’t have an excuse to pretend that you’re not listening. If they send threatening lawyer letters, you take them seriously. Just do your job. If you got the story right and the facts right, just keep pressing ahead, publishing away.”

A student in the audience asked for any advice Weil might give to those who are interested in following a non-traditional post-law school career.

“Take every class that you can think of that you would otherwise not take because you’re afraid of not getting an A. Whatever is the most complicated, challenging stuff in your mind that you’ve always been interested in taking but have always been on the fence about – just take it.”