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Taking it offshore

|Written By Bill Rogers
Taking it offshore

Justine Plenkiewicz has found a legal career that might seem like an oxymoron. She is chief policy and development officer with the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority. And you may ask yourself, what, they have a monetary authority down there? After all, to many people, the mere mention of the Cayman Islands conjures images of intrigue, shady transactions, and the concealment of ill-gotten gains.

That’s a common misperception, Plenkiewicz says. “A lot of people think offshore financial centres are free-for-alls, with no regulation. That’s actually very far from the truth.” Indeed, part of her job is to make sure the various funds, insurance companies, and banks situated on the idyllic Caribbean islands are operated safely and soundly, and that everything is above board.

Financial entities set up shop here not to hide anything, but rather to take advantage of a very legitimate benefit — tax neutrality. It’s not about skulduggery. “We don’t tolerate money laundering, terrorism financing, or other criminal activities,” she says. “Part of my job is to make sure money launderers and terrorist financiers stay as far away from this place as possible. That’s something I personally work on a lot. I help draft policies and make sure everything meets international standards. We’re keeping a close watch.” The other major advantage is that setting up there is much quicker and less expensive than onshore, which flows from certain entities being subject to a lighter regime.

Recently the Cayman Islands were scrutinized by the Financial Action Task Force, an international body that assesses anti-money-laundering regimes around the globe. (The organization was featured in the James Bond movie Casino Royale, with the character Vesper Lynd working for them to ensure Bond adequately managed MI6’s funds.) The Caymans passed muster, Plenkiewicz says. “We did well.”

So if you’re planning to show up in Grand Cayman with a duffle bag of cash, you might want to think again. “The bank might not even let you open an account,” Plenkiewicz explains. “But if they did, they would first verify your identity, making sure you are who you say you are. Then they might file a suspicious-transaction report, which would cause you to be investigated some time in the near future.”

Plenkiewicz began her legal career at Stikeman Elliott LLP in Toronto. She enjoyed the work but after a few years realized it wasn’t the type of job she wanted long term. “A law firm environment wasn’t where I wanted to spend the rest of my life. I didn’t enjoy all the paperwork.” So she did a master’s in law and economics, a joint program of Erasmus University in Rotterdam and the University of Bologna, which led her to a career back in Ottawa at the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions. “I thought I could marry the two fields — law and economics and corporate law — in my job. That’s how I got to OSFI.”

Then she decided to branch out. “I liked what I was doing,” she says, “but I realized that in my line of work it was important to get international experience. One day I found an ad online for the Cayman Islands position. I applied. I never thought I’d be considered. But I got a call back the next day.”

In December of last year, she flew down to start her new job. “I picked a good winter to escape,” she laughs, adding that her Cayman Islands apartment has become the destination of choice for various friends and family visitors. “It’s very nice here,” she says. “There’s a place called Seven Mile Beach, which is one of the most beautiful in the world.” She also engages in volleyball, triathlon training, and riding her bike around the entire island, which can be accomplished in a day. “I like it down here,” she says. “The pace of life is a lot slower. The people are extremely friendly. It’s very pleasant.”

The most challenging aspect of her job, she says, is learning the specific procedures and processes that exist in the Cayman Islands monetary regime. But the work can be very rewarding, she says. “I like doing research and coming up with a recommendation. It’s really rewarding if it gets accepted and turned into a piece of legislation. If it makes it the whole way, it’s great. I love what I do.”

For those who are looking for a change of pace — and warmer weather — the good news is there are a lot of potential jobs for lawyers in the Caymans. “There are so many opportunities here,” she says. “There’s a big shortage of professionals.”

Indeed, Cayman Brac — one of the three islands, the other two being Grand Cayman and Little Cayman — just saw the opening of its first law firm. There are 2,000 people living on Cayman Brac, and if you want to be one of them, check the legal job listings. Plenkiewicz adds that corporate law is the biggie here, but if you’re into intellectual property, you’re out of luck. “There’s no IP protection here,” she explains. “So you can buy a lot of ‘designer goods’ at low prices.” Just don’t try any financial hanky-panky.  

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