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God, Country, Lehman

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The turning point in my three-month career at Lehman Brothers happened well before I began with the company in July of 2008.

I'd been hired into Lehman's analyst class about a month before the sudden failure of Bear Stearns signaled an epic bull-market run on Wall Street was coming to an end.

Amid the turmoil of Bear's collapse that March, I felt it would be smart to email one of the executives who had hired me to let them know I was still very much invested in Lehman.

"I wish I could be there to roll up my sleeves and help out. I look forward to the opportunity to contribute my best efforts to the Firm," I wrote from my college email address.

It was a smart move. Why not be on the record as standing tall when circumstances at Lehman took a turn for the worse that summer?

Better yet, I got a note back. Five years later, it stands as one of the better insights I have into what went awry at Lehman.

"It's all hands on deck but we have been through this before. We have the best senior management on the street and they will not let anything happen to this Firm without a fight," the exec wrote.

"God, Country, Lehman," he added.

At the time, Lehman was one of a few banks on Wall Street still reporting solid profits. Except for Goldman Sachs (GS - Get Report), it was considered the choice firm for a fast start in finance. Rank-and-file employees made it a point to impress upon new recruits that the next step for Lehman was Wall Street's top spot.

As larger competitors like Merrill Lynch, Citigroup (C - Get Report) and UBS (UBS) took billions in mortgage-related writedowns and management heads rolled, Lehman, led by longtime CEO Richard S. Fuld, could boast that it was gaining ground.

Fuld had freed Lehman from American Express (AXP), and he'd led the firm through the Asian financial crisis and the failure of hedge fund Long Term Capital Management. After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks destroyed Lehman's World Trade Center offices and crippled its staff, Fuld rallied the firm and moved it to a now iconic midtown Manhattan skyscraper.

When Bear Stearns collapsed in about a week's time, however, the aura surrounding Lehman evaporated. On March 17, the day of Bear's fire-sale to JPMorgan (JPM - Get Report), Lehman's shares fell as much as 40%. Some investors such as David Einhorn of Greenlight Capital had questioned Lehman's balance sheet and now, it seemed, people were taking notice.

A day later, Lehman reported an unexpectedly high first-quarter profit that signaled, once again, the firm would eat the lunch others had lost on Wall Street.

Shares in Lehman surged 46%.

That Spring, Fuld was profiled by the New York Times as possibly the type of Wall Street veteran who could pull Lehman through a growing tumult in the bond markets. Lehman's new CFO, Erin Callan, also became a financial media darling after the firm's resilient first-quarter results and a successful capital raise that included a multi-billion dollar investment from C.V. Starr and $4 billion in new equity.

Wall Street Meltdown: Five Years Later:

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