Hilda Wong is Senior Vice President and General Counsel for First National. Her role is to oversee all aspects of our legal affairs. In this interview, we ask Hilda about her responsibilities, which include customer privacy and regulatory compliance, and the contributions our legal team makes to the success of our business.
Hilda, please tell us about yourself.
I spent two years in undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto and then went to U of T law school. After graduation, I articled and was hired at a Bay Street law firm as an associate. Around the 4-year mark, I saw an ad in a legal publication for a job at a Canadian law firm operating in Hong Kong and Singapore and jumped at the chance to try something new. Long story short, I arrived in Hong Kong right around the time it was handed back to China and spent two years there working on interesting deals and travelling around the region. This experience really helped me to mature as a lawyer. When I came back to Canada I joined another Bay Street law firm working in real estate sand financing, worked my way up to partner level and then, about 10 years ago, I chose to join First National because it offered a new challenge that aligned with my priorities and professional goals.
Tell us about your team.
When I joined First National, there was a part-time general counsel and one other full-time lawyer. Today, I’m a full-time general counsel and we have three other full-time lawyers, a law clerk and a legal assistant. The growth of our department reflects the success of First National. We’ve had to increase our numbers to support the growth of the business. However, we have taken a measured approach to our growth. We continue to refine our delivery of legal services to increase our efficiency and value to the business lines.
What’s the role of the legal department?
We play various roles within First National. We oversee legal and regulatory matters, we’re a service provider to the business, part of risk management and protector of the brand.
Is compliance about going above and beyond what’s required?
In some cases, yes. A good example is our anti-money laundering program. First National is not directly subject to AML legislation but we determined several years ago that this would become an important compliance issue for many of our OSFI regulated investors. We built a program in anticipation of this and when our investors started to ask about AML policies and procedures, we were able to demonstrate that a sound program was in place. We have received positive responses to our program, which has been fulfilling considering we work with some of Canada’s largest and most respected financial institutions, insurance companies and wealth managers.
How do you contribute to first national’s culture of compliance?
Legal obviously plays an important role in creating and promoting a culture of compliance. Our approach is to frame compliance in business terms. In other words, we try to make the connection between compliance and business success. We take a practical view of the topic and consider both the legal requirements and the views of the business lines in developing policies and procedures. Compliance success is a group effort and we are fortunate to enjoy management buy-in and support.
Please talk about your other areas of responsibility.
I’m the Chief Privacy Officer responsible for execution of our privacy program which protects the personal information of our customers and employees and the Chief Anti-Money Laundering Officer is responsible for execution of our anti-money laundering program. In both these roles, I am supported by talented teams. I also assist our Board of Directors on governance and other matters.
Let’s talk about privacy.
As a mortgage lender, we regularly collect sensitive personal financial information from clients and safeguarding that information is something we take very seriously. We are also caretakers of the personal information of our employees. Every employee, including our CEO, completes annual training on security, privacy and anti-money laundering topics. Privacy is also important to our clients and investors and our training programs and IT security systems reflect this.
What do you see ahead for legal affairs?
Continued growth. The compliance environment in Canada is expanding and becoming more complex so I anticipate that an increasing percentage of our work will be directed this way. We will also continue to evolve as First National’s legal needs change and grow.
Any final thoughts?
Working at First National is very rewarding. It is a highly respected company with a culture of excellence, innovation and discipline. I appreciate that Legal is treated as a valued partner to our business teams. Professionally speaking, it’s a great place to be.