NYLS is spotlighting the distinguished alumni who will be honored at its 2018 Gala.
After graduating from NYLS, McMahon joined Con Edison, which supplies electric, gas, and steam energy to New York City and Westchester. There, he rose through the ranks to become Senior Vice President and General Counsel and, later, Executive Vice President. He became known for his forthright style and commitment to the company.
McMahon recalled a contentious meeting with Con Ed colleagues during a restructuring phase for the company. Expressing his aversion to groupthink, McMahon said, “I’m going to keep expressing my views until the chairman of the board of this company tells me not to.” The next day, his boss praised him for being candid and gave him a $10,000 raise. “I am there to do the right thing,” he says, recalling his approach.
McMahon’s independent style made him a natural leader, but it was his empathy that earned him trust from local communities. At Con Ed and in his next position, as President and CEO of Orange & Rockland Utilities Inc., a Con Ed subsidiary that operates in parts of New York and New Jersey, he built strong partnerships with public officials and consumers.
“In any business, you’ve got to understand what moves public views,” he says, “and you have to be empathetic about the burdens you’re putting on people when you collect their bill.”
McMahon later served on the Board of Directors of the Washington-based energy company Puget Sound Energy, as CEO of the Long Island Power Authority, and as Senior Advisor to Macquarie Infrastructure and Real Assets, the world’s largest infrastructure asset manager. He is a board member of Duquesne Light Holdings, Inc., an energy company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
“Anywhere you go, you meet great characters,” he says. “I’ve been lucky to work with and learn from smart people.”
Looking back, McMahon says he was an indifferent student in high school or college, but at NYLS, he became a voracious reader and researcher.
“I learned that what you put into law school you got out of it,” he says. “I put blood, sweat, and tears in.”
When a job opportunity at Con Ed presented itself at the end of law school, McMahon eagerly took it. He was hired by John Thornton, a former Chief Financial Officer for the company and the Chair of NYLS’s Board of Trustees at the time. Thornton was a tough and demanding boss, and McMahon threw himself into his new job. A liberal arts major in college, he doggedly researched engineering and math at Con Ed, determined to keep up with his colleagues. One day an especially critical superior admitted to him, “You’re the best researcher I’ve ever had.”
McMahon says that the creativity inherent to practicing law has always sparked joy for him. Despite his long study hours, he considered law school “fun” and adores his NYLS classmates, many of whom he still counts as friends.
Ever the maverick, he recalls a unique learning moment from his 1L Torts class. Late one night, tired from studying, McMahon began to absentmindedly draw in his notebook. From his drawings, he discerned a connection between two seemingly different cases.
The next day, the notoriously sharp professor called on four students to distinguish the cases, but none could. Next, he called on McMahon, who was ready with the right answer.
“Light bulbs go off, no pun intended,” he says.
AUDIO: John D. McMahon ’76 talks with Marcey Grigsby ’06, Vice President for Institutional Advancement, about a memory from one of his Torts class at NYLS.