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Boston lawyer taking leadership role at SEC

Keith Higgins was a third-year associate at his Boston law firm when he pitched in on Reebok International Ltd.’s initial public stock offering in 1985. And when the Canton sneaker giant was sold to Adidas 20 years later, he was the head of the legal team on the deal.

After three decades at Ropes & Gray, where he is dean of Boston lawyers in the IPO and securities arena, Higgins is headed to Washington, where he will be responsible for protecting investors instead of advising corporate chiefs. Higgins, 61, next month becomes director of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Division of Corporation Finance, with a staff of 500.

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“I occasionally have a wonkish quality,’’ said Higgins in a recent interview, mulling his shift from the corporate world to the public sector. While he has built his career representing companies, he says he hopes to “find common ground’’ protecting investor interests and making sure companies can access capital to conduct business and grow.

“It is a little bit like switching sides. He’s been on the side of people trying to raise capital,’’ said David Chapin, managing partner at the firm. “It’ll be a different perspective for him.”

His colleagues at Ropes say it is a loss to see him go, even as they enjoy having one of their own tapped for a big job at the SEC.

The division Higgins will lead at the nation’s top securities regulator oversees 10,000 publicly traded US companies. It reviews millions of public filings — such as the Facebook Inc. IPO documents that prompted the SEC to ask how the social networking company was going to make money on mobile users. The SEC pressed Facebook for greater disclosure to investors of risks on the horizon.

In his new post, Higgins also will advise SEC commissioners on rulemaking regarding public companies and disclosure issues. He will implement elements of the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul, as well as the JOBS Act, or the “Jumpstart our Business Startups’’ bill, aimed at helping emerging companies get access to funding.

Higgins, a political independent, will have to learn to function in a bureaucracy and grow accustomed to working for a boss. Mary Jo White, a former federal prosecutor appointed SEC chief by President Obama in January, was approved by the Senate last month. In a statement, she called Higgins “a widely respected expert on the securities laws with a wealth of knowledge and experience.”

It may be an eye-opening experience when Higgins leaves his perch on the 46th floor of the Prudential Tower, where clients include big companies like toy maker Hasbro Inc., online business-card printer Vistaprint Ltd., and ambulance operator American Medical Response. He is aware that he has not exactly gotten his hands dirty with fraudsters.

“We’re lucky enough to be dealing with clients at the highest level,’’ said Julie Jones, one of Higgins’s partners. But, “We know there are bad guys out there.’’

Not that Higgins has never met a rogue. He advised Kendall Healthcare Products in its 1994 sale to Tyco International, when the conglomerate was expanding aggressively. Tyco’s former chief executive, Dennis Kozlowski, is in prison after being convicted of looting more $600 million from the company.

Higgins saw the highs and lows of the Internet bubble, having worked on the successful IPO for Akamai Technologies Inc., a Cambridge Internet bandwidth supplier, as well as Genuity Inc., a Woburn fiber optics company whose $1.9 billion IPO fell flat in 2000. Genuity was bankrupt by 2002.

From Higgins’s perspective, even that experience was not all bad. “Despite what turned out to be a disaster, no securities lawsuits were ever filed against Genuity,’’ he said.

Beth Healy can be reached at bhealy@globe.com.
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