Voice of Experience: Sarah Lee, Managing Director, Global Head of Fixed Income Derivatives Legal, Bank of America Merrill Lynch

By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

“I do really believe that once you get to a certain level of seniority, it is important to encompass into your role the development of other women,” said Sarah Lee, Managing Director, Global Head of Fixed Income Derivatives Legal, Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Lee, who has spent her career developing award-winning expertise in derivatives law, is also passionate about the importance of passing on guidance and opportunities to other women.

She continued, “Mentoring… is critical for getting women into senior roles in the industry – and as women who are senior, we must bear that in mind.”

A Passion for Derivatives

A UK native, Lee graduated with a law degree from Kingston University and then attended law school in Chester. She started her career at the English law firm Wilde Sapte (now SNR Denton), and during her time there was assigned to a position in Tokyo. Lee recalled, “It was where I learned I had a keen interest in the derivatives field.”

Lee returned to London and worked for her first mentor at Wilde Sapte. “From him I learned not only what it means to be a good lawyer, but how important it is to have integrity and earn the respect of your colleagues.”

Because of her interest in derivatives, Lee was sent on a secondment to what was then called NationsBank. “It was initially a ten-day assignment. Now NationsBank is known as Bank of America Merrill Lynch, and fifteen years later, I’m still here,” she said with a laugh.

In London, Lee spent six years as a lawyer on the trading floor, and covered a wide range of responsibilities. “There were only two of us,” she explained.

She continued, “I always had the desire to work in New York. When a job arose to head up the legal support for credit derivatives, I jumped at the chance.” Since moving to New York, Lee’s role has grown – she was promoted last year to Global Head of Fixed Income Derivatives Legal for the Bank.

Recently, the International Law Office and the Association of Corporate Counsel presented Lee with a Global Counsel Award as Individual of the Year in Regulatory (Financial Services). Lee was chosen out of 3,300 nominees. “I’m honored… it was an amazing experience for me,” she said.

Working Through Historic Changes

Lee said her career has been both fascinating and rewarding, particularly given the historic regulatory changes impacting the financial markets.

Lee, who also managed Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s close-out of Lehman Brothers, explained, “I’ve experienced events you would not expect… but it has led me to one of the main areas of my work today – regulatory reform.”

“My key area – global regulatory reform – is a fascinating area to be in as a lawyer. We are seeing historic changes. It’s rewarding to be leading the legal support in implementing these changes,” she continued.

Additionally, she said, being knee-deep in the changes that are occurring in the industry has given her invaluable experience going forward. She explained, “I’ve been fortunate in that it’s enabled me to gain new insights into how the financial markets work and what the future will be like.”

Challenges for Professional Women

One of the things Lee wishes she had understood better when beginning her career was the power of relationship-building. “Women generally do not give enough weight to the need to network and have sponsorship,” she explained. “We put all of our efforts to excelling in our jobs – but we need to balance that with networking. I believe we should be adding this factor to our work ethic at an early stage in our careers.”

“The industry I work in is still certainly male dominated, but the opportunities for women have improved over the years, and continue to do so. I think the biggest challenge is creating opportunities for yourself and taking them,” Lee explained.

Her three pieces of advice for young women entering the industry are, “Take every opportunity, enjoy what you do, and treat people as you would like to be treated.”

Women who have advanced in their careers have a responsibility to help women climbing the ladder below them, she continued. “I think it is beholden on women in the industry to help mentor and coach women early in their careers – so we can continue to create those opportunities for women in the field.”

“Our organization respects and values diversity and inclusion, from race to religion, gender to ethnicity, viewpoint to background. So my desire to foster opportunities for women is a very natural component of our organizational culture,” she said. Bank of America Merrill Lynch has groups dedicated to diversity and inclusion both in the business lines and other divisions of the bank including legal. She continued, “My manager is very focused and supportive in this area.”

Lee has partnered with Lily Chang, Associate General Counsel, a legal department representative on the bank’s Diversity and Inclusion Business Council – to develop diversity goals, that their group can be held accountable to achieving for the year. She said, our manager strongly believes in setting firm goals towards diversity so we have a target to meet and can be held accountable to our commitments. These goals include setting up a mentoring program which they plan to launch later this year, sponsoring and participating in events that promote diversity and committing to certain spending goals with minority and women owned law firms.

In Her Personal Time

“I’ve always been keen to try out new things,” Lee said, and living in New York City has provided her with plenty of opportunities. While she’s tried DJ school and learning to ride horseback in Central Park, she said her true passion will always be sailing. “I have been sailing since I was a teenager, and hope to become a sailing instructor in my retirement,” she explained.

She continued, “It’s been a great help to have this hobby as it allows me to de-stress from the rigors of my daily job. To me, there’s nothing more relaxing than being out at sea on a boat, away from the hustle and bustle of New York.”

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