If Jennifer Lee could go back in time and pinpoint the precise life event that would later dictate her entire career, it would be the day in the third year of her undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto where her best friend suggested they write the LSATs together. At 20 years old, heading into her final year of school and not quite ready to leave the comforts of academia, she decided to look into post-graduate degrees—and arbitrarily chose law school.
“I had nothing better to do,” she jokes. “But while I was in law school, I became really interested in corporate law and financial markets. Which led me to apply to summer positions with Bay Street law firms.”
As she repeated the summer student interview process at various organizations, she began to feel as if all major Canadian law firms were quite similar—until her interview at Osler.
“The Osler culture was very appealing to me. You really felt a difference. From their style and approach to recruiting, to the people I met, Osler really stood out—everyone made me feel very comfortable and excited about a potential career at this firm.”
She was particularly attracted to the way Osler structured its corporate department, which was different from some of the other firms as well. She liked that she wouldn’t have to specialize right away and could work in all areas of the practice, allowing her to really experience many aspects of law.
Ready for take-off
Jenn joined Osler in 2003 as a summer student, and over the next five years would also article there and earn a position as an associate. While she worked on a number of interesting matters—and with some amazing clients, one of which even bought each member of its legal team a celebratory bottle of Dom Perignon champagne following a deal—it’s the camaraderie of the Osler culture that really stuck with her. She cites the Friday associate coffee club as an example of this.
“I don’t even drink coffee, but on Fridays the corporate associates would buy Starbucks coffee travellers and donuts, and set up a coffee club at a filing desk in the hallway. Partners would drop by and, later, other associates from different departments—it was great. I heard that it went on for years after I left.”
While Jennifer learned a lot in her time at Osler, by 2008 she was ready for a change. She’d heard through a friend of a friend that in-house counsel at TD was exceptional, so she sent her resume in—even though there wasn’t a vacancy at that time. When she got a call a few months later and was offered a position doing corporate work—including M&A—she jumped at the prospect.
She started as legal counsel—focusing on corporate securities and M&A—in 2008, and was eventually offered a rotational opportunity at the senior staff level in 2011. The role was designed to last up to a year and a half, and offered Jenn the chance to work with the Chief Marketing Officer and learn more about the business side of the bank. Following that placement, she moved onto a more strategic special project, then became responsible for all the public company functions through Corporate and Treasury, and eventually landed her current position as Vice President, Risk Management.
A whole new world
The global financial crisis had a huge impact on how banks across the world operate—including how they manage risk. In her role, Jenn’s responsibilities range far beyond traditional risk management and include a strong regulatory focus.
She is currently in charge of recovery and resolution planning—which, in a nutshell, involves devising a detailed contingency plan that would be used in the event of another financial doomsday scenario.
“It has nothing to do with likelihood but it’s part of a global regulatory shift to planning for extreme stress scenarios, however unlikely or unrealistic,” she explains. “I oversee contingency, scenario and operational planning.” To do that effectively, Jenn says she has look at such things such as liquidity, capital, legal, communication and technology requirements, and work cross-functionally with partners across the entire bank. Last year, Jenn estimates her team worked with over 130 people to develop TD’s plan.
The role is quite different than her past positions at TD—largely because it doesn’t really directly involve the law. Her responsibilities are now primarily strategic, regulatory and writing-focused—and they’ve enabled her to see the business in a whole new light.
“This position has allowed me to work with so many different departments—businesses, finance, legal, front and back office. It’s very multidisciplinary,” she says. “It also allows me to build relationships with our regulators, which is a great thing. As a lawyer, it’s important to know how to have these conversations, interpret regulations and develop the necessary rapport. It’s been a wonderful learning experience.”
Because the field is still relatively new—and rapidly evolving—Jennifer’s current job is very fast-paced. And she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“There’s a lot of new guidance and daily developments, so it’s a challenge to keep up with them. You really have to stay up-to-date, read broadly and be prepared for things to change quickly.”
One day at a time
Jennifer’s career has undoubtedly taken some unexpected twists and turns—in fact, very few of her career moves were premeditated. With that in mind, if she had one piece of advice for someone starting out, she’d encourage them to think critically about their interests—and then find the company that will allow them to best develop their skills in that area. For many new lawyers, this likely means starting out at a firm.
“Firms handles a lot of deals. You want to go where there are industry leaders, and where there is variety and exposure to the latest techniques or developments,” she says. “Firms see a wide variety of clients and issues, which is really important when you’re a young lawyer. Plus, you can always consider going in-house later. Working within a business is great and brings some really unique perspectives, but if you are a new lawyer and you’ve only worked for one company, you may not get the same breadth of legal exposure.”
“Whether you’re at a firm or in-house, your practice will evolve—so the first few years in law aren’t entirely representative of the bulk of your career. This profession has a steep learning curve, but if you stick with it, it can be very rewarding. What’s down the line may be better than you initially think.”
While she believes she will find herself practicing law again one day, for now Jenn is focused on her current job—as well as making sure to set aside time in her personal life to spend with her family, travel and, over the last year in particular, renovate her home.
“Coming in-house doesn’t mean you’re working nine-to-five. Any job in any dynamic environment can be unpredictable and requires flexibility,” she says. “That said, TD is a particularly amazing workplace that really does encourage balance.”
Over the years, Jennifer says she has learned to prioritize her time and delegate tasks, which are skills that have helped her enjoy the ride—both personally and professionally.
“A lot of my life is about prioritizing—and being prepared to roll with the punches.”