It’s one of the hottest jobs in law: working in-house at a big bank. You’ll never stress over billable-hour targets, get to reclaim your evenings and enjoy a decent paycheque. “Many lawyers also see it as a chance to do interesting legal work without having to work so hard to find clients,” says Bindu Cudjoe, who was a partner at McMillan LLP before she moved to in-house at Bank of Montreal. These days, Cudjoe is the vice president and deputy general counsel of BMO’s legal team for operations and technology. Here, she gives us the lowdown on what it’s like to work in-house at a major bank.
What’s the biggest difference between working in-house and at a firm?
“As an in-house counsel, your clients are pretty much ready-made,” says Cudjoe. It’s essentially anyone at the bank — from the sales team to the people building new financial products — who need legal help.
What sort of legal problems does an in-house counsel solve?
It runs the gamut, says Cudjoe. If the bank brings in a new business client, for instance, she may get a call from her sales colleague. “If the customer wants to negotiate some clauses in the contract, I’m the one who does the document modifications.”
Banking is also a regulatory-intensive business, so that requires some serious lawyering. Whenever the government introduces a raft of new banking regulations, the legal team has to come up with an action plan to comply with them.
That involves, first, perusing through all the background materials to grasp the implications of the regulations. Then the lawyers meet with the business team to come up with a course of action. “It’s an ongoing conversation,” says Cudjoe. “We don’t just give an answer and say good luck to the business team. Our job is to make sure they understand the new rule and can apply it in a meaningful way.”
Can you give me an example of an interesting project BMO’s in-house team has worked on?
Last year, BMO introduced SmartFolio, an online investment program that uses computer algorithms to automatically rebalance a customer’s portfolio to account for daily market movements. The benefit for customers is they can be more hands-off with their investments.
But before that product could go to market, the business team had to clear plenty of legal hurdles. “For a new product that was so dramatically different, we needed regulators to approve it,” explains Cudjoe. So, before seeking approval, the lawyers on BMO’s compliance team dug around for laws that might have made approval difficult, so they could predict any concerns regulators might have. “We were able to demonstrate to regulators that it’s a good product and we’ve got the safeguards needed to protect our customers.”
So what’s your day-to-day like?
“It’s ever-changing,” says Cudjoe. “Sometimes it’s responding to emails and phone calls with discrete questions. Other times, it’s a bigger issue, and you have to dig in before you respond.”
But usually, her days are packed with meetings with her legal colleagues, the bank’s business people or customers. If they work in her building, she tries to see them in person. “If I’m talking to someone a couple of floors below me, I try to suggest we meet over coffee. You get a much better understanding of the issue that way.” If they’re in a different building or city, she reaches them by phone.
What do you love most about your job?
“I love that I have the ability to drive my company’s success,” Cudjoe answers, after giving the question some thought, “and to help them navigate uncharted waters.”
What sort of person would enjoy this work?
Someone who likes to dabble in a range of areas. “In-house lawyers are often generalists,” says Cudjoe. “You may be advising on an issue you’re not an expert in, but you have to be comfortable enough to say, ‘Well, given that we have a moderate risk tolerance, I’m comfortable to say this is pretty much the right answer.’”
What are the hours like?
In-house lawyers at BMO typically work from 8:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Cudjoe points out that in-house is not as laid-back as people might think. “It’s a full day, and there’s always more to do. But the good thing is, you can always put it down at the end of the day and pick it up again in the morning.”
What about the pay?
Lawyers coming from Bay Street firms should expect a pay cut, says Cudjoe. “You’re no longer a revenue generator — you’re a cost centre.” But, she says, the wage is definitely competitive enough to attract candidates from law firms.
What’s your advice to students who want to work in-house at a big bank?
First, you need to get at least five years of legal experience under your belt, says Cudjoe. “We want our candidates to have good training because we don’t train them once they’re hired.” Second, for a place like a bank, BMO is particularly interested in lawyers who have had work experience with financial regulators. And lastly, she says, you need a strong reputation for being client-focused and customer-oriented.