Going In-House; Report From Former Canadian KM Lawyer

1 Sep

Guest Post By Kathleen Hogan

As I write this, I see that my new employer, BMO Financial Group, has
posted a Q3 earnings report and declared a dividend. As I’m participating in an employee share ownership program, I say this with certain smugness, of course. My real point, though, is that this was national news and key information for the Canadian economy, and it highlights the biggest difference, thus far, in moving from a law firm KM position to an in-house one: things are different, really different, at a public-facing company.

And I’m not at just any old giant public corporation – I now work at one of Canada’s so-called “big 5” banks. For my non-Canadian friends, this refers only partly to the fact that it’s one of the biggest five banks by size or earnings. It’s also because historically, Canada literally only had five big banks (there are actually many banks, including foreign ones, operating here very successfully).

BMO is so incredibly visible through the branch banking system all across Canada that it’s a part of the Canadian fabric (the same holds true for the other big four). It might even be fair to say that Canadians see the banks as quasi-Canadian property, and we are as offended by profligate bank spending as we are with government wastage. It’s a matter of national pride that Canada’s banking system is considered the soundest in the world.

Suffice it to say, then, that, unlike even large national law firms, banks have a fairly heightened sensitivity to public perceptions. Before joining the industry, I knew this as a Canadian. Now, this flows back to me on a professional level. Decisions involve not just cost and internal politics (nothing different from law firms there), but a consideration of what the shareholders and the public would think.

What does this mean for me? First, it was a huge professional adjustment. I worked mostly in law firms, with the exception of acting as a General Counsel to a group of small private companies. Joining the bank feels much more like joining a business than it does a law firm, even though the legal group I support functions as a captive law firm. We are all in this to support the bank’s business, as opposed to providing legal advice to a client. I really like this – I can see where KM efforts are helping the customer experience.

Second, the bank is a very large structure – 37,000+ employees globally. It will be months yet before I can accurately and reliably identify who does what, and which department is responsible for what. I often wonder if I’m asking the right person the right questions. This is a function of sheer size, and not of the more pejorative aspects of a quasi-bureaucracy. The bank is, in fact, very good at eradicating duplication and preserving ownership of functions and tasks.

Third, if you think law firms aren’t so crazy about technology change, try working in a bank. Again, size is a major factor. But there’s also risk, security, and compliance to worry about. There’s rollout across all those countries and employees. There’s cost on a much greater magnitude than firms deal with. Any new technology has to be considered from an enterprise perspective, and is generally planned as a long-term implementation. The sense I get is that change management issues are rooted in corporate responsibility and strategic planning, as opposed to personal resistance from individual lawyers, as at law firms. I idly wondered, for example, about implementing a DM search tool in the legal group. However, the bank does not typically purchase and implement software on a department-by-department basis. While a search function would be great for my group, it’s an inefficient and costly project from an enterprise standpoint.

I’m still settling in, and will update you in a few months’ time about my role and some specific projects.

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