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How the 2008 crash led to my career in financial services regulation

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By Anuja Venkataramani on

Gowling WLG principle associate Sushil Kuner discusses cross-border work, ESG and her unique value add for clients

Starting off our conversation, I ask Sushil Kuner, a principal associate at Gowling WLG, about life in the firm’s financial services regulation practice. “My day-to-day is very varied, and that’s partly due to the small size of our team. What this means is that we deal with a broad range of issues individually. So, rather than having sector specialists within the team, we do a dual role of supporting other practice groups within the firm, as well as working with our own diverse client base,” she tells me.

Kuner goes on to explain that the clients she works with include financial institutions (such as banks and insurers) and asset managers, as well as those who aren’t in financial services themselves, but offer financial products, like large auto manufacturers. “This comes about because during the consumer journey these businesses increasingly offer finance options to customers and are often regulated for consumer-credit related activities. We also act for a range of housing developers where regulatory considerations around things like shared ownership schemes, help to buy and second charge mortgages are often required,” she details.

The benefit of this structure is that it allows a good deal of diversity in terms of the issues Kuner’s able to deal with each day, so things are kept interesting and challenging. “It keeps us on our toes, especially because regulatory is constantly evolving in any case. Think crypto assets, for example, around which there is a fairly new and ever-developing regime,” she points out.

I took Kuner’s mention of crypto as an opportunity to ask for her perspective on the issues that students should keep an eye out for around artificial intelligence (AI), the metaverse and cryptocurrencies. She cautions, “each one of these aspects is a huge area, and moreover, I look at them largely from a financial services regulatory angle. So, keep in mind that you can consider each from a range of perspectives. With AI, for instance, aside from financial services regulatory, two very different, but equally interesting, legal issues surround intellectual property (IP) rights and data privacy,” Kuner notes. Meanwhile, you could be using crypto assets to make purchases in the metaverse, but once again, the financial services regulation is just one facet in a whole array of legal issues that could arise, for example, tax considerations, she points out.

Kuner also went on to speak about her experience of working with the firm’s US and India-based clients and the skills needed to work on matters with a strong cross-border dimension. “Sticking with the theme of crypto assets, the nature of the sector is that businesses operating in this space can be based anywhere in world. Now, if they want to do business with UK consumers, they come to us to ask for perimeter guidance”, she explains. This entails assessing their business model to see if they are conducting activities regulated within the UK, and if so, helping them navigate this process to establish themselves in the UK.

The application deadline for Gowling WLG’s 2024 Summer Vacation Scheme (London and Birmingham) is 22 November 2023

While Kuner acknowledges that a large majority of clients do speak English, the language barrier is, however, not completely eliminated when working with international clients. “The trickiness comes in because you have to be much clearer and more articulate – for instance, when you’re having to break down complex terms that you might be familiar with, but a client isn’t, particularly in other jurisdictions,” she tells me. Understandably, this is a key skill to ensure alignment of interests and objectives, as well as managing client expectations.

Kuner also draws my attention to an additional dimension of cross-border client work at a global law firm — project management. “We’ll sometimes have a US-based client that wants to start doing business in Europe. Now, we make it clear at the outset that we only advise on English law, but the client can then ask us if we can project manage their enterprise. So, once we produce an initial memo based on English law, we would share that with our counterparts in other jurisdictions and seek their legal opinion,” she details. “This enables the client to see how the positions differ between different jurisdictions.”

We then chatted about Kuner’s career journey, she urged the next generation of lawyers not to “pigeonhole themselves early on” and “be open to possibilities”. She qualified as a corporate lawyer in 2007 pre-credit crash; “the wrong time to qualify into corporate,” she tells me. After two years of buoyant activity, with back-to-back completions, she was faced with dwindling work and law firms across the board making redundancies. Kuner decided to move to Canada on a one-year working visa where she joined a Big Four firm’s Vancouver office.

“If there’s one thing I would tell students, it’s to not have tunnel vision and think ‘I’m a lawyer, I can only do a legal job at a law firm’. Seeing the events of the crash unfold really opened up my eyes to financial services — so when I came back after the one-year working visa expired, I applied for a role at the Financial Services Authority, as the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) was then called,” she details.

While Kuner started off on a six-month placement, she ended up staying for 8 years, moving around various teams. “I wrote key external industry-facing documents in the FCA’s Supervision division, and also spent four years as a case lawyer and lead investigator in its Enforcement division”, Kuner explains. Unsurprisingly, these experiences are now invaluable to her career at Gowling WLG, as her insights into the FCA’s processes give her a unique value-add when it comes to advising clients. “If you haven’t worked at the FCA before, and you’re regulated by it, it can be a scary beast. But because I’ve got that understanding of its strategic priorities and how it makes its decisions, I’m able to bring that added perspective, and it’s certainly something that clients appreciate”, she tells me.

Approaching the end of the interview, I was also curious to get Kuner’s insights on the role played by financial services in Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) considerations, given the increasing emphasis on these in recent years.

“The regulatory angle on ESG in financial services is huge,” she says. “The UK government has been making it clear since around 2018 that financial services are a key driver in the net zero transition — after all, they help determine where capital is deployed.

Kuner continues: “With that in mind, the regulators have put in place a number of initiatives with respect to disclosure, addressing listed issuers, large asset management firms and big capital owners. This is effectively a whole new disclosure regime which requires these players to report on their climate-related metrics and policies. With investors and consumers being more interested in firms’ ESG policies to ensure that their capital is being steered in a meaningful direction, the role of financial services regulation in relation to ESG is significant.”

The application deadline for Gowling WLG’s 2024 Summer Vacation Scheme (London and Birmingham) is 22 November 2023

Gowling WLG’s Sushil Kuner will be speaking at ‘The Big Commercial Awareness Themes of 2023-24 — with DWF, Goodwin Procter, Gowling WLG, Lewis Silkin, Squire Patton Boggs and ULaw’, a virtual student event taking place THIS AFTERNOON (6 November). Apply now to attend.

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