Most financial industry types prefer to stick to straight-and-narrow career paths. But Noah Hanft, MasterCard's general counsel and chief franchise officer, has never been afraid to veer off course.

Hanft, 61, is retiring from MasterCard (MA) on March 31 after 27 years there. Rather than break out the fly-fishing gear, he's departing to head the International Institute for Conflict Prevention and Resolution — a nonprofit that helps some of the world's largest companies, including BP, General Electric, IBM and MasterCard itself, resolve commercial disputes.

While the switch from corporate law to conflict mediation might seem like a big leap for a stalwart of the credit card industry, Hanft says it's right in line with his personal philosophy.

"My advice to people generally is, go where your interests are," Hanft says. "Make sure that you don't typecast yourself or narrow yourself based on a set of experiences that you've had."

Hanft's job history is a testament to the power of this advice. He began his career as a criminal defense attorney at the Legal Aid Society, where he currently serves as a board member, and went on to log time as an intellectual property rights lawyer at Ladas & Parry in New York. He rose through the ranks at MasterCard after joining the company's law department in 1984 — but still took a brief foray into AT&T's startup credit card business, serving as senior vice president and assistant general counsel from 1990 to 1993.

After nearly three decades at MasterCard, Hanft was ready for a change. He realized that his years at the company — along with his pro bono work as a mediator for the U.S. District Court in Manhattan — had imbued him with a passion for alternative dispute resolution, which allows the parties involved in a legal disagreement to find ways to settle cases outside the courtroom.

The CPR institute, which provides member organizations with research and training on the mediation process, was the perfect place to pursue that interest.

"I truly believe companies have a real opportunity to put aside a lot of costly litigation — which is obviously burdensome and distracting — through alternative dispute resolution," Hanft says. He notes that mediation has resolved virtually all of MasterCard's disputes — including the lengthy swipe-fee class action that a group of U.S. merchants filed against Visa, MasterCard and the banks that issue their cards in 2005. A federal judge approved the $5.7 billion settlement deal in December.

"As you can imagine, the challenge and the complexity of that case created real hurdles for getting resolution done," Hanft says. "The mediation process gave rise to a lot of back and forth between the two parties, a lot of understanding about each side's motivation and needs. It helped us in formulating a resolution that, in the long run, will serve the industry."

Mediation wasn't enough to satisfy everyone, however. Some merchant groups that were not involved in settlement talks objected to the deal. The settlement does "nothing to reduce swipe fees or keep them from rising in the future," Mallory Duncan, the general counsel for the National Retail Federation, wrote in response to the December ruling. A three-judge panel rejected the merchants' appeal last week.

The new job also gives Hanft a chance to help society and the economy, he argues.

"I think about just the sheer number of jobs that would be available if companies weren't paying hundreds of millions and billions of legal fees in protracted litigation," Hanft says. "Frankly I'm at a point, after working with such a successful company over so many years, that I'm looking for ways that I can productively give back."

The institute, meanwhile, was looking for a leader like Hanft. His "proven leadership in the legal community and in his career" and "long history of involvement in complicated disputes and thinking about effective ways of managing and resolving them" convinced the nonprofit that he was the right person for the job, says Chairman John Kiernan.

When Hanft leaves MasterCard at the end of the month, he'll be replaced by another veteran of the company's law department — Tim Murphy, who previously served as chief product officer. While it may be tough to relinquish his old role, Hanft says it's the right time to move on.

"There's a natural attraction to stay with the industry and company you love," he says. "But life is short. It's interesting to try different things."

Given Hanft's intellectual curiosity, it's no surprise that a La-Z-Boy-style retirement is the last thing on his mind. "This is the next chapter," he says of his new role at the institute. "But I wouldn't say it is the last chapter."

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