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BMO Financial Group

Sometimes, innovation comes in deconstructing what isn’t working
BMO Financial Group

By Jennifer Brown

Category: Tomorrow's Leader
Department size: Large 
Company: BMO Financial Group

When a process isn’t serving a business well, sometimes, it’s best to step back and look at what’s missing in achieving the best end result. At BMO Financial Group, a young in-house lawyer determined that, in some cases,  legal was becoming the biggest obstruction to getting things done.

“At BMO, we discovered that the legal department can sometimes be a bottleneck for the business,” says Preston James MacNeil, counsel to the Canadian personal banking and regulatory team at BMO Financial Group. “I wanted to help the business achieve their objectives faster, which would ultimately help our customers in a way that is still upholding the spirit of the law and the letter of the law, but in a way that was more agile for the business.”

MacNeil was called to the bar in 2014 and started working in-house at BMO last August. At BMO, he supports the personal banking business, in particular personal lending.

Shortly after he arrived at the bank, MacNeil and a team in the legal group worked with their business partners to plan a new process. In tackling the bottleneck issue, they took a two-pronged approach. The first was to create a process whereby not everything needed to go to legal for approval.

“We found that the legal department was reviewing things not necessarily legal in nature and, therefore, the best value add that we have was not being taken advantage of,” he says. 

He created a system where legal gave a standard to the business to follow. “If the change being made to a document or an agreement rises to a certain level, then certainly the legal team needs to look at it,” he says.

The second approach was that, when it comes to legal reviewing a document, if it can be provided to the department in the most final version of the product, then the legal department’s review can be much faster. A checklist booklet was created for non-lawyers.

“In the banking space, some of our products are heavily regulated, but often those regulations are boxes to be checked off — things the business is more than well equipped to deal with,” says MacNeil. “If they can go through that checklist before it gets to us, we are really just reviewing, not drafting or making substantive changes.”

Collaboration face to face

MacNeil says his philosophy is that lawyers need to interact with their business partners whenever possible to achieve the best outcome. “When I came to my in-house role from being external counsel, I went about drafting changes to an agreement the same way I did at the firm — I would make my changes and send it over to the business and there would be a flurry of emails from all of the stakeholders because some of the changes I made didn’t make sense from a risk perspective or business perspective. I quickly realized this siloed approach doesn’t work as an in-house lawyer. You have to roll up your sleeves, meet with your business and draft with everyone at the table,” he says.

He started holding in-house drafting sessions where stakeholders would come to the room and he could explain why legal wanted a change or why they couldn’t accept a change. “It made everyone feel heard and made people understand where other people are coming from and, ultimately, it got things done much faster with a lot less email traffic.”

“Because Preston is not used to the way things are done in BMO’s Legal and Compliance Group, he can question why certain processes are followed and how they can be improved to drive efficiency and better serve our customers,” wrote Simon Fish, BMO Financial Group’s executive vice president and general counsel, in the nomination for MacNeil.

Innovatio judge Dean Scaletta noted: “Much of what Preston has tackled early in his BMO career are things that have bedevilled in-house counsel for years such as numerous rote, and ultimately meaningless ‘approvals by legal’ that are built into countless corporate processes; ‘reply-all’ emails that clog lawyer’s inboxes for discernable reason and not discernable purpose; repeated requests for ‘legal advice’ on routine matters, often by the same individuals on the same issue.”

While the change in process is recent, early results show that it’s effective. Legal has seen a reduction in the amount of materials being reviewed. Additionally, the types of materials being looked at are those requiring legal expertise.