Legal Jobs in Finance

Financial law departments have expanded in recent years

By Julius Melnitzer

FOR SOME YEARS now, large Canadian financial institutions have been growing their legal departments at a steady rate, creating career opportunities for lawyers, including junior associates.

Royal Bank of Canada, for example, has recently been adding about three lawyers a year to take its law department close to 175 lawyers. To look at it another way, if RBC's law department were a separate entity, it would be one of Canada's 25 largest private firms. Manulife, for its part, has 130 lawyers globally, 60 of them in Canada.

“National and multinational financial institutions can have between 100- and 300-member legal departments,” says Carrie Heller, founder of the Heller Group, a Toronto-based recruitment agency.

Geoff Creighton, General Counsel at IGM Financial Inc. – which owns Investors Group Inc., Mackenzie Financial Corp. and Investment Planning Counsel Inc. – says career opportunities are readily available in the financial-services industry. “Generally speaking, these departments are expanding,” says Creighton. “In our case, we do that either through organic growth or by hiring lawyers with two, three or four years' experience.”

What may be more surprising is that large financial institutions can be attractive for junior lawyers who want to concentrate on a practice. “Financial institutions have become very specialized, offering everything from careers in general corporate commercial law and securities to IT, wealth management and insurance,” says Heller.

But the institutions also offer non-traditional legal roles. “Lawyers at financial institutions are moving into roles as diverse as regulatory compliance, risk management, policy, governance, employee relations and derivative document preparation,” Heller says. “There's a great deal of mobility there.”

In a job market where articling positions are hard to come by, Heller says that there is a “real need” for junior-level associates, both in traditional and non-traditional roles. Large financial institutions, especially banks, often take on articling students, some of whom are retained.

What recruiters tend to see, however, are candidates with at least some post-call experience. “We prefer junior lawyers who ideally have a couple of years' experience at a law firm, because the law firms provide fantastic training and a skill set that is hard to duplicate,” says Martin Guest, General Counsel Canada at Manulife.

That being said, law firm experience isn't always a precondition for hiring junior lawyers. “Some of the banks prefer candidates who have industry experience in-house,” Heller says. “Many like to see candidates with a combination of in-house and law firm experience, but they're hard to come by at the junior level.”

To be sure, first- and second-year associates are not always the preferred demographic. “At this point, my need is for lawyers with four to seven years' experience, because as my role evolves, I need people who can take ownership of a situation,” says Roxana Tavana, head of legal at the Bank of Nova Scotia's Global Asset Management Group.

For one example of the demographic breakdown of a legal department, consider Manitoba Public Insurance. Five of its 18 lawyers have 10 years' or less experience, seven have between 11 and 20 years, three have been practising from 21 to 30 years, and three others have careers spanning over 30 years. While MPI takes articling students, it hasn't kept one on for a number of years. “We haven't been hiring for the last couple of years because the work has flattened out,” says Dean Scaletta, MPI's Director, Information and Litigation.

By contrast, other law departments in Manitoba are expanding. Wawanesa's Winnipeg office has added two new lawyers in the past few months, as has the Workers Compensation Board of Manitoba. “Insurance companies in particular are expanding because it's cheaper to keep work in-house,” says Whitney Borins of Toronto-based Rainmaker Group. “There's considerable demand for students and junior associates.”