WASHINGTON -- Gwen Baker, an attorney with Venable, LLP, said she enjoyed her work with NAFCU, but really loves diving deeper into credit unions' day-to-day concerns as she does now in the post she has held for one year.
"I loved my work at NAFCU and I loved the trade association side of things but I kind of always wanted to get out there and be in practice. There's only so much that a trade association attorney can do. A trade association attorney can't really practice law so it was just really exciting for me to branch out and expand upon what I was doing there so it's been great. It's everyday, something different. The questions that come through the door often are really challenging and it definitely keeps us on our toes but it's been a lot of fun." She noted that Bank Secrecy Act compliance has been an ongoing concern for credit unions as well as the various Federal Reserve regulations and, of course, NCUA.
However, Baker said, "I think as far as just big picture, I think just the sheer volume of the regulations they have to deal with makes it very challenging to make sure they stay on top of everything and stay in compliance...There's so many different regulatory and legal issues that they have to deal with on a day-to-day basis." At Venable now, she said she deals with matters like a credit union calling up with a member standing in the branch trying to open a trust account, for example, and the credit union is unsure whether it can do that or not.
Reg Z, Truth in Lending, is "always a big one," she added.
But, one of her pet subjects has always been field of membership issues, Baker stated. "I always loved field of membership. I did a lot of work on that when I was at NAFCU...Those are always fun. I really like when those come through the door here and being on this side, I have more time to focus on individual client needs, I can get more in-depth than I ever could at NAFCU as far as working through the requirements of the regulations and working with NCUA and actually seeing the process through to getting the change approved." Right now she's working on a TIP charter for NCUA approval and has also worked on underserved areas and community charter conversions, though not any sort of fix for the recent underserved area rule change NCUA was forced into by the American Bankers Association lawsuit in Utah.
Despite this ruling, Baker said she had not seen a decrease in interest in the community charter since that time. "I think they have slowed down but I haven't seen really a direct impact because of the underserved area issue. I think that's definitely something that would come into play but we haven't seen it here," she said.
Baker also said she had not worked on any new charters since she began at Venable on Nov. 1, 2005, but she expected there could be one coming up in the future. "That would really be fun to just work on a new credit union," she said.
In the past couple of months a few new credit union charters have been announced and the attorney acknowledged there seems to have been more this year than in the past though she was unsure why that might be. "There may have been a few more this year than there have been. I don't know that you're ever going to see a significant increase in it because it really is demanding, particularly as the financial industry gets more complex and competitive, I think it's going to be a little more difficult to start up new institutions," Baker explained. "But it's still happening and I don't think it's going to go away. I'm just not sure that it would be a trend."
There does not seem to be a size correlation with regard to credit unions seeking outside counsel, Baker observed. "It's a mix. We definitely work with a lot of smaller credit unions that it's just something that they really need to outsource to get help in dealing with the various legal issues, but then there are also larger credit unions that either don't have in-house counsel or even if they do, in-house counsel is focusing on other things within the credit union and they're outsourcing certain types of work to law firms." She said she also deals with employee benefits and contract review for credit union clients; Baker is working on some projects for other types of financial institutions as well, but primarily credit unions.
Some credit unions that are not in the Washington, D.C. area may not be familiar with the regulators or the process and find Baker's connections helpful. "Especially the advocacy work I did at NAFCU, I had a lot of contact with individuals in the various agencies as we were able to establish good relationships with people at the agencies and I think that's helpful in this position especially when there's a particular action pending before an agency where they need help."
Baker also provides free advice to credit unions through a monthly podcast in which she participates with other credit union lawyers across the country. She said the group, Current Issues in Credit Unions (www.ciicu.com), has gotten good feedback and is currently inviting special guests, such as NCUA Board Member Gigi Hyland, each month. --firstname.lastname@example.org