Taking the 360º view

Victoria Stone, European general counsel at Virtu talks to Lynn Strongin Dodds about regulation, mergers and the lessons learned.

Can you please tell me what your day-to-day role is at Virtu? What does the more strategic, big picture role entail?
My responsibilities as European general counsel of Virtu encompass all legal topics within the EMEA jurisdiction. On an average day I could be negotiating contracts with one of our agency brokerage customers or a third-party vendor; advising on the EMEA region implications of a global project or analysing upcoming regulatory legislation within the region – and sometimes it’s all of the above!

One of the first key projects I dove into at Virtu was advising on the optimisation of our business structure in the context of Brexit which involved not only the macro assessment of the regulatory perimeter shift but also – on the micro-level – the regulatory assessment of each element of operations in terms of the financial services being provided.

Prior to joining Virtu, I was in the Financial Regulation Group at the international law firm Slaughter and May, so my ability to analyse financial regulation and advise the business on interpretation and implementation of such rules was one of the key strengths I could bring to the role, and this was particularly useful in the context of the Brexit project.

You joined before the acquisition of ITG was completed, what were the challenges from a legal perspective?
It was 10 days after my role at ITG started that the merger with Virtu completed so it was a baptism of fire in that sense! Whereas, within the financial services space, ITG had predominantly conducted agency brokerage and operated a global multilateral trading facility (POSIT ATS/ MTF), with Virtu came a significant proprietary trading business and the operation of a systematic internaliser in Europe. This introduced new elements of the business with which to get acquainted as well as new colleagues to engage. All of which I’ve enjoyed – particularly the new colleague side!

As part of the initial phase of the merger, we consolidated all the agency brokerage relationships into Virtu ITG Europe Limited (“VIEL”) which meant repapering and negotiating all the legacy Virtu client relationships to face a single ITG entity in Europe. A sure-fire way to get familiar with a firm’s terms of business is to negotiate them with 150 clients over the course of a few months!

What is your role in advising on product innovation and development? Can you discuss your involvement with the launch of POSIT MTF UK and POSIT RFQ?
Many elements require legal consideration when rolling out a new product to the market, particularly within the financial services space. The launch of POSIT MTF UK was part of the broader Brexit project and required legal and regulatory analysis at every stage from conception to launch.

First and foremost, the new product must comply with any regulations concerning the product type – with POSIT RFQ, we needed to consider the legislation governing MTFs and ensure that this new venue segment of POSIT MTF operated in a compliant manner.

Next there are jurisdictional and regulatory considerations – what permissions or licenses must be obtained to be authorised to offer this service – and how do we get them? What laws enable your client-base to engage with the product? Then you must consider the drafting of your marketing material – financial promotion itself is a regulated activity in many jurisdictions.

In addition, launching a new product requires working closely with members of the business teams, from the developers and operations departments to those in sales and marketing, in addition to the risk and compliance functions. Throughout both product-launches we would regularly have cross-department meetings and calls in which plans were put forward and challenged from every angle to ensure the best route was being taken.

Being part of the team launching POSIT MTF UK was particularly satisfying for me as it was a substantive output from a project I had worked on since its conception and it provided unique opportunities to work closely with my colleagues across various departments to see it come to fruition.

In general, what skill sets do you need to do your job? What lessons have you learned over time that have helped you?
I think it helps to have a two-foot view and a 5,000 foot view. As a general counsel of a financial technology and services firm you must have the ability to analyse granular details to ensure every element of every process adheres to the principles of good governance and complies with the very intricate financial services regulations whilst also retaining the ability to assess the overall big picture to ensure it is coherent and as efficient as possible.

In some institutions, legal feels like a very siloed department whose role is to say ‘no’. Fortunately, Virtu shares my view, that for a financial technology and services firm to function harmoniously, the legal department needs to be an integral part of the business and its processes and to think commercially. I try to approach questions from a perspective of “what needs to be put in place for me to say ‘yes’?” It’s fundamental to me that I have good working relationships with everyone in the business so that there is a symbiotic relationship enabling two-way learning; I couldn’t do my job effectively without a grasp of driving factors within the business. I am both a legal advisor and a senior manager who needs to be able to understand the business needs in order to be a reliable and trusted voice within the firm.

Can you please tell me about your career development?
Whilst I was at university, I applied for a legal training contract at Slaughter and May. As part of that process, trainees gain experience over two years in various departments, which for me were corporate, finance, competition and financial regulation.

During my training contract, the UK voted to leave the European Union and I knew this would lead to an historic shift in the market structure of financial markets and concluded there would be a need for lawyers with detailed knowledge of the financial regulatory framework in the UK and Europe. On that basis I made the decision to qualify into the Financial Regulation Group at Slaughter and May.

Whilst at Slaughter and May, I was exposed to a wide variety of clients and legal matters within the financial services space, enabling me to build up a wealth of experience in the UK regulatory perimeter and key pieces of legislation such as MiFID II – all of which I leveraged from the moment I started working at Virtu as a legal counsel in 2019.

Given the global nature of Virtu and the array of financial products and services we offer to clients, I was regularly working with senior management, both in Europe and in the US, on cross-border projects and quickly developed a strong working relationship with management across the firm. Ultimately, my willingness to understand Virtu’s global business, combined with my regulatory experience, enables me to offer business-centric advice and create value within the firm and just over half a year after joining the firm Virtu promoted me to European General Counsel.

Is this the career you envisioned? I see you studied classics, if not what had been the plan?
Actually, I have always wanted to be a lawyer, although initially I had been leaning towards becoming a barrister (one might say I loved to argue, but I prefer the term ‘debate’!). One of my Latin teachers at school, whose wife was a lawyer, gave me some sage advice: “If you want to be a lawyer, don’t study law!” An undergraduate degree in law is not needed to qualify in the UK and I wanted to spend three years at university studying something I loved and topics I could be excited learning about whilst tucked away in libraries for long evenings. So, I chose to study Classics at the University of Cambridge. If you obtain a non-law degree then as part of the training contract for law firms, you study a graduate diploma in law for a year. The beauty of the training contract is that you have two years of practical experience, learning on the job before you qualify as a solicitor and I never felt as though I had missed out on anything by having chosen not to do my undergraduate degree in law, but rather that I had developed my own way of approaching problems.

What made you want to go in-house from a law firm?
The answer to this is two-fold. In terms of the work, although I had developed some very strong relationships with certain of my clients, there was a frustration that my advice was inherently given in isolation – I would advise the bank or other institution on how to proceed but not be part of the implementation process following that advice. I wanted to have more ‘skin in the game’ – to see out the completion of these projects. That is something I am very fond of in my in-house role now.

The other driving factor was having a sustainable career where I could develop as a lawyer and still maintain a work-life balance. Private practice often requires working into the early hours of the morning and I didn’t feel that enabled me to grow in other aspects of my life in the long-term.

Overall, how have things changed in termsof diversity and career progression since you started working? What further progress needs to be made?
The structures in private practice law firms have not inherently changed in centuries and, as they were tailored for men initially, they still require women to fit into that historically created mould to succeed.

Whilst there is significantly more dialogue about increasing diversity at law firms, I don’t see how there can be real progress made on that issue without real structural changes to how law firms operate, particularly as the time it takes from qualification to making partner is growing longer and longer, with many women feeling as though they will not be able to get promoted if they take maternity leave beforehand. There are more female solicitors in the UK than male solicitors, and yet only a third of partners at law firms are women – this to me is stark evidence that the current structures do not facilitate the retention of female talent at law firms.

How does Virtu support and foster success with respect to Diversity and Inclusion?
In 2020, Virtu established an employee-led Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee which seeks to foster an inclusive, equitable and culturally competent and supportive environment within the workplace.

We have various sub-committees that focus on the particulars of awareness and outreach. My colleague in Canada, Megan Miceli, and I are the co-heads of the Gender Equality sub-committee. Our committee is comprised of members from many Virtu offices throughout the globe and we work closely with HR and other elements of the business on projects as well as organising events with the aim of spreading awareness and engendering healthy discussion.

Finance and Tech are both industries where women are currently under-represented, so we are very enthusiastic about trying to make progress in that regard. One of the projects we recently worked on was the roll out of Virtu’s “Winternship” – an internship programme specifically aimed at women who are currently studying degrees with a view to careers in tech, finance and data – to our European offices, after its success in the New York office.

Virtu also now hosts an annual Women in Data Science event, which over the course of three days includes various webinars to facilitate conversations with data-driven women. We’ve also had many exceptional speakers participate in our ‘Virtu Talks’ programme, including comedian and host of the Guilty Feminist podcast, Deborah Frances-White, whose hilarious delivery coupled with practical tips for the work-place garnered a lot of positive feedback from employees across the firm.

©Markets Media Europe 2022

 

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