Starting from scratch

Starting from scratch
Lisa Skakun didn’t aspire to a career in the banking sector. In fact, when a recruiter came calling to see if she was interested in the job of general counsel at the country’s second largest credit union, she initially told them she probably wasn’t the right fit.
But Coast Capital Savings Credit Union was looking to attract their first general counsel and one with an unbiased view on how a legal department for a financial services company should look. Two years into the job, Skakun took home the Tomorrow’s Leader award in November as part of the Western Canada General Counsel Awards held in Vancouver. She was nominated for the award by Stikeman Elliott LLP and Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP.

Skakun started the company’s legal department from scratch just as the economy was taking a turn south. It wasn’t an easy time, but she decided to embrace the company’s values and model her department after their entrepreneurial spirit and goal of making everything more accessible for business units where possible. Following one of the Coast Capital business values to provide “simple” financial help, Skakun took it to heart when evaluating what her department could contribute to the brand. She worked to make the credit union’s legal documents more user friendly by, for example, paring down its mortgage documentation to eight pages in plain language from the original 37 pages.

“To be seen as a strategic business partner in-house — that is my goal,” says Skakun. “Then it’s to get our outside counsel on board with that, too. They need to be a strategic business partner and deliver their products in an innovative way.”

Extending the brand to the legal department

Skakun has applied the company’s approach to its customers to the way she wants to provide service to her internal clients. “We have a great tool at Coast Capital aimed at providing customers with real and timely financial help — it’s called the ‘Where You’re At Money Chat’ and looks at four areas — manage, save, grow, and protect. We have taken that concept and created the ‘Where We’re At Legal Chat,’” she says.

Under the category of “manage,” the department provides legal advice and project management on a variety of topics. Under “save” it oversees internal and external legal services, costs, and relationship management. Under “grow” the department aims to do everything in alignment with corporate direction and strategy, and under “protect” it has a mandate to identify and oversee legal risk. “So while we track litigation, negotiate contracts, deal with regulatory matters, address legislative changes, assist on human resources issues, work with the board of directors, undertake large documentation projects, etc. — we do all of it in alignment with our corporate strategy and mission, purpose, and values,” she explains.

A love of the deal and an entrepreneurial spirit

After law school Skakun articled at Stikeman Elliott and later returned to Vancouver to work at Farris Vaughan Wills & Murphy LLP. “Eventually it was at the point where I was about to have the ‘do you want to be a partner or not’ discussion when I got a call from a startup,” she says.

She left Farris Vaughan to go in-house at Burnaby, B.C.-based Xantrex Technology Inc., a company in the solar power industry. She was involved in several acquisitions the company made and the eventual sale of the business to global giant Schneider Electric.
“[Xantrex] had grown to a point where it was going to sell or become larger so I took that opportunity on, and it was a great three years of doing acquisitions, then it was sold to Schneider Electric,” she says.

After the sale, Skakun became counsel for Schneider’s Canadian companies. It was a big change and she realized it was probably no longer a good fit for her. “You go from being the direct contact with the board of directors to being one of 250,000 employees worldwide and one of over 1,000 subsidiaries. It wasn’t for me,” she says.

Skakun was thinking about going back into private practice when she received a call from a recruiter asking if she would be available to meet with the chief executive officer from Coast Capital Savings Credit Union. “I told them, ‘I’m not a banking lawyer.’ But they said, ‘No, they don’t want anyone who has been a banking lawyer with pre-conceived notions of the industry or how the job should be done’.”

Building a department and giving back

Her legal department is small, but she has been innovative in bringing together the help she needs to make it work efficiently. In addition to a paralegal, a corporate secretary to the board, and an assistant, Skakun successfully recruited two articling students from the University of Victoria who have been working with her department for the past nine months. During their time with Coast they were seconded for six weeks to external counsel but were about to leave in February to begin the bar admission course. “In their absence, we will have a student seconded from one of our external counsel. The articling process has been a huge success and we plan to continue the program this fall,” says Skakun, who also sees it as a means to give back to the community. “We all know articling positions are scarce and in last year’s economy quite a number of students didn’t get articling positions. It’s been a great process.”
Skakun knows the value of getting hands-on experience. She worked as a paralegal for C.M. Oliver & Co. Ltd. (now part of Canaccord Wealth Management) brokerage house before going to law school. The experience solidified the type of law she wanted to practice.

Getting external counsel to step up

When Skakun arrived at Coast Capital the company was using multiple outside law firms. She issued a request for proposal and narrowed the field to a few firms, then did a presentation to them on how Coast approaches innovation. Her idea was to get them on board with providing different ways to handle legal fees in the future.
“I think you get better service if they understand your business and its challenges and risks. I think some in-house lawyers are hesitant to approach their external counsel about this. It’s about relationship building and part of strengthening it is letting them know your expectations,” she says.
She believes the firms that tackle the issue of providing services differently will be successful in changing the status quo.

“I don’t think anyone has nailed it yet because they don’t have to. I think it will be a mid-tier-size firm that will say, ‘How do we steal work away?’ It’s what the market will bear.”

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