November 15, 2017

Melissa Kennedy of Sun Life Financial on the Importance of Sustainability and Diversity Initiatives in Strengthening Your Legal Department

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In 2014, Melissa Kennedy, Executive Vice-President, Chief Legal Officer & Public Affairs of Canadian insurance company Sun Life Financial, had just started in her position when a relationship manager at a key law firm asked her about her vision for the company's new in-house legal team. "I want you to wake up, see that I'm recruiting, and believe in our ability to attract top talent," she replied.

As a pioneering force in the insurance industry, Kennedy has worked to create a dynamic, innovative legal department at Sun Life, advocating for the advancing position of in-house counsel through expanded diversity and sustainability initiatives. It's a renaissance moment for in-house counsel, Kennedy explains, and she is proud to lead a legal department that provides a strategic voice for a company that serves nearly 37 million clients worldwide. What's step one in this process? "Remaining ahead of the curve," Kennedy answers.

"We've been around for 150 years and our clients want us to be around for 150 more. To do this, we need to remain innovative. Technology has transformed the way we live and we want our clients to know that we're adapting," she explains.

In September, Sun Life announced the launch of its new artificial intelligence software "Ella," which will completely transform how clients interact with the company. Have a question? Skip the help desk and go straight to the Ella platform for answers in real time. To Kennedy, technological developments like these are essential for the company's sustainability.

"Having digital tools and offerings keeps us current. What we want to do for our clients is say, 'As you get married, buy a house, or have a child, we want to help you prepare for the future and have new and innovative ways to do so,'" Kennedy explains. 

From a regulatory perspective, this can sometimes present a challenge. Kennedy notes that certain regions of the world carry differing privacy and cybersecurity considerations. Insurance and asset management is undoubtedly a sensitive operational space and the Sun Life legal team must stay abreast of threats to data protection to maintain client trust in the brand.  

Kennedy takes this process seriously. Having spent time working in the enforcement branch of the Ontario Securities Commission, she has first-hand knowledge of the consequences of policy infringement. So, whenever Sun Life develops a new product or service, she ensures that the legal department is actively involved to mitigate the risk of an unexpected regulatory violation. 

"Our job as legal advisors is to understand what the business is trying to achieve and prepare for any legal and regulatory issues that may arise. The best way to see around corners is by being proactive and by making the legal voice heard during business strategy discussions," she says. 

Overseeing a company with 32,000 employees across 26 countries, Kennedy asserts that she often relies on her legal team to manage operations at a local and regional level. She recommends that any general counsel advising a global business hire the right internal advisors to help maneuver the finer complexities of regulatory policy.  

"I always say, 'Hire people smarter than you.' I have really strong team members who are heads of these particular regions in Asia, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. This has always been key to my success," she explains. 

To facilitate this collaborative spirit, Kennedy played an active role in moving Sun Life's global headquarters in Toronto, Ontario to an environmentally sustainable building with an open office floor plan. She believes in the value of tearing down barriers in promoting collaboration and humility within her team. Regardless of tenure or position, none of the lawyers have an office.  

In this new space, Kennedy remains hopeful that Sun Life will continue to decrease its carbon footprint. As the executive sponsor for sustainability at Sun Life, Kennedy has worked to keep environmentalism top of mind. As of 2016, Sun Life reports that it has reduced its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 9.1 percent, as well as decreasing its global energy consumption by 7.5 percent, compared to 2014. These are projects that Kennedy feels passionate about: policies that underscore Sun Life's commitment to longevity, both for the company and for the community. 

"To me, having a company that is sustainable and helps promote a brighter future is totally aligned with our overall mission. A lot of our clients, no matter where they are, maintain that sustainability is important to them," she says.  

In addition to environmentalism, Kennedy has also been an outspoken proponent for diversity initiatives both within the company and beyond. Together with five other general counsel, she helped create the Legal Leaders for Diversity and Inclusion with the hope of promoting change within the legal community in Canada. The group started with 30 general counsel in 2010, but has since grown to over 100. 

"The basic philosophy was that senior leaders are in a really good position to encourage law firms to promote diversity. We have mentorship programs where CLOs and GCs encourage younger, more diverse candidates to go in-house through a number of different initiatives," she explains. 

But Kennedy takes this a step further, requiring that an annual audit of Sun Life's outside law firm providers be conducted to ensure that a diverse team is working on all of the company's files. As of 2016, women hold 50 percent of positions at Sun Life from middle management and above. What's more, women hold 33 percent of all senior management positions — meaning that a third of the executive table is comprised of women. Kennedy asserts that incorporating diversity initiatives into company practices is simply good business. A company with a diverse client base should have a diverse legal team who shares their values.   

"It's the right thing to do. We have found numerous reports to support that diversity helps your legal department. It helps you to have more diverse views. It helps you arrive at better solutions to difficult problems that we tackle every day," she explains.  

In recognition for her unwavering commitment to these initiatives, Kennedy was recently honored with the Chambers Canada Awards' Outstanding Contribution to the Legal Profession: In-House, as well as being included in WXN's 2016 list for Canada's Top 100 Most Powerful Women. While she is certainly flattered by the acknowledgement, Kennedy asserts that the real satisfaction comes from encouraging progress in her community.  

"I think that our work shines a spotlight for others to know that an executive team member supports diversity," she exclaims. 

Throughout her career, Kennedy has been a trailblazer for the advancing position of in-house counsel. In the pursuit of positive change within her legal department, she has implemented diversity and sustainability initiatives that have since set the standard for companies around the world. Looking to the future, she hopes to continue championing progress both for her own legal team and for incoming generations of in-house counsel in Canada in the pursuit of a better, brighter tomorrow.

"There's always work to be done," she says.

—by Matthew Sullivan, ACC Editorial Coordinator.