Becoming a financial services lawyer – the view from Dechert

Financial Services

Cardi B may well have made a splash with her money moves of late, but nobody moves it quite like financial services lawyers, who advise on a whole host of investments, funds and regulations surrounding one of the biggest industries in the world. We chatted to Dechert's financial services experts to find out more about becoming a lawyer in this dynamic practice.

Chambers Associate: What is financial services law?

Allison Fumai, partner: The Financial Services Group at Dechert focuses on the representation of financial institutions in the investment funds space, otherwise known as investment management.

My practice focuses on the representation of registered investment companies and their investment advisers. I regularly advise mutual funds, closed-end funds and exchange-traded funds and their investment advisers on issues relating to the development and launch of new funds, ongoing compliance and regulatory matters, mergers, liquidations and restructuring of funds.

Christine Ayako Schleppegrell, associate: Financial services law is a transactional practice that exists at the intersection of regulatory, corporate, and business law. Depending on regulatory and market trends, the practice can consist of 40% corporate and 60% regulatory work. We help clients navigate state, federal and international regulatory frameworks so that they can conduct their businesses, sell innovative products, and provide services to institutional and individual investors. Also, we collaborate with our clients’ business teams to solve complex problems.

CA: What challenges come with the practice?

Jessica Lees, associate: The financial services industry is governed by a nuanced and constantly changing legal and regulatory landscape. The work is also fast paced and dynamic. We regularly advise clients regarding both U.S. and international legal and regulatory developments, many of which have a profound influence on our clients' daily business. While it takes strong organization, diligent research, and deep expertise, the financial services practice offers a unique opportunity to be involved in the daily activities of the financial services industry.

"The financial services industry is governed by a nuanced and constantly changing legal and regulatory landscape."

AF: One of the most challenging aspects of my practice is helping clients launch novel products in a highly regulated atmosphere. My clients often have great investment ideas or products that do not fit within the current regulatory framework.

Andrew Schaffer, associate: This is not an area of law that is taught to any great extent in law school and there is a lot to learn. Fortunately, senior associates and partners are generally very interested in teaching and mentoring associates.

CA: What are the highs and lows?

AS: I’ve greatly enjoyed working on new projects and taking the lead, particularly with respect to digital assets. The lows are that some projects are less interesting; overall it’s a great mix of different things.

JL: Both the highs and lows of the financial services practice stem from the legal and regulatory landscape. The highs include researching and providing answers to difficult and challenging questions, which provide us with the unique opportunity to advise on real world matters directly impacting our clients' daily business. The lows include a significant amount of document and disclosure review. However, even the lows offer the opportunity to advise our clients on matters that directly impact their day to day operations.

CAS: One of the many 'highs' of this practice area is that there are great opportunities to become an expert in a specific area while also acting as a generalist in a high-demand field. Due to ever evolving rules and regulations, even junior associates have the chance to read a proposed rule, follow it through to the final version, and serve as the point person for client questions through the implementation stage and beyond.

There are few 'lows', but one may be adapting to meet client demands on short timelines. However, I have often found that projects with a quick turnaround frequently involve some of the most interesting questions and afford the greatest learning experiences.

"One of the many 'highs' of this practice area is that there are great opportunities to become an expert in a specific area while also acting as a generalist in a high-demand field."

CA: What is a partner's typical role in matters?

AF: One of the best things about my practice is that I get to work on a variety of matters and there is no 'typical' role that I play. I believe I have a unique perspective having started my career as an associate and risen through the ranks to partner. I have an appreciation for working closely with and managing associates on the more day-to-day and routine aspects of matters, while also working directly with and advising clients on the more a-typical issues that arise. I also spend a significant amount of time making sure I am educated on the latest regulatory developments and trends in the industry.

CA: What do associates do?

CAS: Senior associates coordinate with partners and work directly with clients to identify issues that are important to their businesses as well as those that a regulator may focus on. We also scope out and staff projects, deliver great work product, and answer clients’ follow up questions. If a client has a specific question that requires a deep dive into a particular topic, we put the client in touch with subject matter experts at the firm, including those in other practice groups. Finally, senior associates train and mentor junior associates.

CA: What's the typical experience like for a junior?

JL: Given the breadth of the financial services practice and the number of regulatory and legal developments in this area, junior associates have the opportunity to be substantively involved in a variety of aspects of the practice from the beginning. Junior associates will primarily be involved in reviewing and drafting legal disclosure documents, which are then filed with the appropriate regulator and provided directly to our client’s shareholders and/or potential investors. Junior associates may also have the opportunity to be involved in researching legal issues, liaising with local counsel in various jurisdictions on international matters, undertaking the first review of various contracts and agreements, and drafting client memoranda.

"Junior associates will primarily be involved in reviewing and drafting legal disclosure documents, which are then filed with the appropriate regulator."

AS: Roles tend to increase as you grow in seniority; however, even first years can expect to have significant client contact and work directly with partners on some matters.

CA: Where can new associates expect to be in five years?

CAS: They can expect to have had great training in various aspects of financial services law including registered fund, private fund, investment adviser, and broker-dealer work as well as international financial products. In addition, they will likely be working toward becoming a subject matter expert on a certain topic or area of the law.

CA: How does your work overlap with that conducted in other practice groups?

JL: Given the nature of the financial industry, a given matter may implicate many different practice groups and areas. Accordingly, when we receive a question from a client, we consider all angles of the inquiry, which may include tax, employee benefits, general corporate and securities, and even litigation issues. We regularly work with attorneys outside of the financial services practice group to ensure that we consider all of the nuances of a particular client’s business and needs.

CAS: The Financial Services group at Dechert works closely with several other practice groups including the Corporate, Employee Benefits, Tax, and Leveraged Finance groups. For example, our clients often have questions about the sale of financial products to retirement investors, which can implicate the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. Since our Employee Benefits attorneys are experts on this and other topics, we rely on them to provide comprehensive client service, especially when regulatory developments in these other fields impact our clients’ businesses.

AF: Clients look to us for support across the entire fund life cycle, from development and formation, to marketing, operations and transactions. We provide advice related to fund management and governance, as well as assist with the full range of regulatory and compliance issues. Our firm also assists with investigations and litigations involving regulatory entities around the world.

CA: What qualities make for good financial services lawyers?

AF: I would say good financial services lawyers exhibit similar qualities to good lawyers in general: thought leadership, excellent oral and written communication skills, responsiveness and the ability to put themselves in the client’s shoes.

JL: A good financial services lawyer is practical, innovative and client focused. The financial services practice requires adapting to legal and regulatory developments and an awareness and application of many different practice areas. A good financial services lawyer is also one who is deeply invested in understanding client needs and expectations and is tenacious in his or her pursuit of each client’s best interests.

"Clients look to us for support across the entire fund life cycle, from development and formation, to marketing, operations and transactions."

CAS: Attorneys should be curious about financial regulation and its downstream effects, all the way from large corporations to individual investors. Also, those who are interested in tackling the task of tailoring a general rule (intended to apply to all business types) to a client’s specific model are often successful in this practice.

CA: What distinguishes the Dechert team from its peers?

CAS: Dechert has a robust training program for our junior associates so that they are well-positioned to take on challenging client work at an early stage. In addition, the firm has support at every level: mid-level associates can look to senior associates and junior partners for guidance, and senior associates can look to junior and senior partners for mentorship.

JL: Dechert truly practices a 'one firm' policy where its domestic and international teams regularly work together to solve client inquiries by combining deep, on-the-ground expertise with long-term experience in financial services matters.

AF: Dechert’s financial services practice is among the largest in the industry, and we’ve been innovating in this area for more than 40 years. I'd also point to our global platform. We are the first (and leading) law firm with lawyers in all four of the EU’s leading centers for international investment funds: Dublin, Frankfurt, London and Luxembourg.

CA: How do you see the market evolving in the future?

AF: Some of the issues we are seeing coming to the forefront are related to exchange-traded fund reform and the regulation of financial technologies and digital assets such as cryptocurrencies, Bitcoin and blockchain.

CAS: I anticipate increasing challenges for our clients as multiple entities attempt to regulate the same business activities and financial products. An example is the recent proliferation of fiduciary and best interest standards at the state and federal level, in response to the Department of Labor fiduciary rule. In terms of the legal market and demand for financial services, I think (and hope) that our clients will continue to ask the hard questions, which we welcome.

"...visiting any financial regulator’s website (such as the SEC or FINRA) would be helpful."

CA: How can students get a head-start if they're interested in financial services law?

JL: If students are interested in financial services law, they should consider taking courses including Securities Regulation and/or Mutual Funds. Additionally, it is beneficial to keep up with the financial industry newspapers, blogs and various legal publications.

CAS: Students interested in this field should read the finance section of any newspaper and see if the issues discussed are of interest. While these are high-level summaries of the more nuanced issues we deal with every day, seeing what new issues are of concern is a solid starting place. Also, visiting any financial regulator’s website (such as the SEC or FINRA) would be helpful.

AS: It helps to follow financial news because many of the financial companies that appear daily in the Wall Street Journal and other financial publications are our clients. Also, reach out to someone working in the practice to understand what we do on a day-to-day basis.

AF: Dechert’s website is a great resource as well since our lawyers are thought leaders on many of the important issues that have defined the financial services industry over the years. Many law schools also offer courses on securities regulation, banking regulation and investment company regulation which would also be helpful.

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