After studying French literature at the University of Victoria, obtaining her law degree from Osgoode Hall law school in Toronto, and practicing commercial litigation and injury law for several years, Azmina Karim-Bondy joined the legal department at Vancouver-based Seaboard Life Insurance Company in 1994. Within six years, she worked her way up to senior litigation counsel, and her rapid ascent paved the way for future success.
Taking a short break to serve as legal counsel at SAFECO Life Insurance Company in Seattle, Washington, Karim-Bondy returned to Vancouver in 2002 to join Industrial Alliance Pacific (IAP), the successor to Seaboard Life. Here, Tanzanian-born Karim-Bondy explains why she knew she wanted a career in law by the time she turned 16, what drove her to transition from private practice to in-house counsel, and how she tackles the constantly growing demands of her current post as chief legal counsel at IAP.
Azmina Karim-Bondy: I decided in 10th grade that I wanted to become a lawyer. I am not sure exactly what inspired me to make that decision, whether it was from watching LA Law on TV or whether it was due to a process of elimination—as I knew I did not want to be a doctor and deal with blood, and I knew I did not want to be an accountant and deal with numbers all day. I always enjoyed dealing with people and talking to people, so I thought being a lawyer would be the right fit for me.
What motivated you to make the move from private practice to in-house counsel?
After having been in private practice for a number of years and having been involved in a lawsuit that was in trial for over one year, I thought becoming in-house counsel would lead to a more balanced life. When a position came open at Seaboard for litigation counsel, I grabbed the opportunity, as most in-house positions at that time tended to be for solicitors rather than litigators.
Tell me about your role as chief legal counsel for IAP.
As we are an insurance company, we are highly regulated. One of my principal tasks is dealing with and negotiating with our regulators with respect to business issues that arise, acquisitions, mergers, and other issues that require regulatory approval. In the past year, for example, this included making an appearance and testifying before the Legal and Constitutional Committee of the Senate of Canada, as we needed to have a private bill enacted by Parliament.
What about IAP’s focus today inspires you?
IAP is very much focused on customer service and making sure that people are treated fairly. I like that about this company because I know that many insurance companies get a bad reputation for constantly denying claims. Having worked with the senior management and the claims area over the years, I know this company cares about its customers and strives to do the right thing. The company also gives generously in its corporate capacity to the community by sponsoring community events, the arts, and cancer runs. As the chair of the corporate-sponsorship committee, I get quite involved in this area and find it very rewarding when I am asked to attend an event and present a cheque to an organization that is in need of funds to help others.
What philosophy drives IAP’s litigation process?
Our philosophy is to try to avoid extensive discovery and interim pretrial procedures, as we have usually thoroughly investigated our claims before rendering a decision. Consequently, these procedures are rarely useful and only lead to greater cost. However, we believe it is important to present all the facts and our position in a convincing manner to plaintiff’s counsel at the outset, in order to move quickly toward achieving a speedy resolution, if appropriate.
How has IAP and the industry adjusted to changes over the years?
IAP has grown significantly over the years, since the days when I started, in 1994—when it was Seaboard Life and had a few business lines—to today—where it has become a member of the IA group, the fourth-largest insurance company in Canada. I have seen new and alternative lines of business emerge as the company endeavours to have a competitive edge over other insurers in the market. For me, this has meant learning about new business lines and the regulatory requirements of those business lines to ensure that we are always in compliance with the law.
How do you respond to the demands of being a chief legal counsel in today’s business climate?
There are many demands on the business to stay afloat and to be innovative to keep market share. The challenge for the legal department is to keep abreast of the changes in the law and to assist in coming up with creative solutions within the context of the legal framework. This is particularly true given the technological revolution and the use of social media in the business world. As lawyers, we have to make sure that we understand how the technology is used in the business context, embrace it, but yet ensure that we protect the company from litigation risk.
As the chief legal counsel, you have to be ready for change and to adapt to change. Whether it be in new markets, initiatives, or the use of technology, you have to be prepared to constantly learn and apply what you learn to the changing environment.