To the casual observer, credit unions appear to be a relatively quiet corner of the financial services industry. Credit unions may not be as trendy as venture-backed Financial Technology (FinTech) companies or as prestigious as deep-pocketed Wall Street banks. However, credit unions are a stable, mature segment of the financial services industry and a great place to grow a career. They offer a collaborative and progressive approach to banking; instead of stockholders, credit unions are owned only by their members (i.e., account holders) and governed by boards comprised of members who are often volunteers. Over the past decade, there has been an increasing demand for in-house legal expertise as institutions navigate complex regulatory and legal issues. In fact, more than 250 attorneys are serving in-house at credit unions across the United States, and more are needed in both the short- and long-term. Here are some suggestions to consider if you are interested in joining a credit union as counsel.
Become a Credit Union Member
Credit union professionals tend to be passionate about the virtues of credit unions, so credit union membership is helpful if you are serious about pursuing a career in the industry. Joining a credit union is free and takes only a few minutes. Better yet, if you are already a credit union member, consider inquiring about how to apply for a seat on its board. Signaling a genuine interest in credit unions is important.
Network with Credit Union Professionals
The value of networking cannot be overstated. Credit unions are far more collaborative than competitive, and the industry sometimes feels like one big family. Often a good contact at a credit union will lead to connections at other credit unions and even job opportunities. If you don’t personally know any credit union employees, you could start by simply building a relationship with a local branch manager. Establishing even a limited network of credit union professionals is very helpful in job searches.
Work for a Regulatory Agency
Working for a regulatory agency is an excellent way to gain early career credibility. Serving as an examiner provides a firsthand look at how regulators approach an array of issues affecting financial institutions, which is a treasured perspective to credit union leaders. Consider opportunities at state financial regulatory agencies, such as the National Credit Union Administration and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Even a year or two of regulatory experience can be a compelling line on your resume when applying for in-house roles.
Work on a Compliance Team
If you lack legal or regulatory experience for in-house roles, consider compliance-related positions. Like other financial institutions, credit unions are highly regulated and have teams devoted to keeping their institutions in line with state and federal laws. Compliance and legal teams are often interrelated, so working in a compliance role is often a great stepping stone toward an in-house position.
Credit unions have been merging and consolidating at a record pace over the past several years. That trend is likely to continue as small financial institutions find it increasingly difficult to compete in a market that has been reshaped by consumer-centric tech companies like Apple and Amazon. As larger credit unions continue emerging, in-house legal teams will be an essential part of long-term growth and survival strategy. There has perhaps never been a better or more exciting time to join the credit union industry as a legal professional, and it is a career path that is certainly worth your consideration.