A career in trade finance: Opportunities, challenges and innovation

In this interview, we speak to Lorna Strong, delving into her remarkable career in global trade finance as HSBC's lead global counsel. Lorna is also a key member of the ICC Global Banking Commission. We look at her key achievements and the interesting opportunities she's had along the way, providing valuable insight into the trade finance industry. 

A must-read for all aspiring trade finance professionals looking to learn from an expert about the opportunities, innovation, and skills essential for success in this field. 

Professional background

Welcome Lorna! Could you tell us a bit about your current role and your journey getting here?

My current role is lead global counsel for HSBC’s Global Trade Solutions (GTS) business. We have access to 90% of all global trade flows and in 2023 we facilitated $850bn of trade.
My role is quite diverse, including providing regulatory and legal guidance to GTS, supporting the development of GTS products and customer documentation, and shaping GTS’s response to global incidents including the impact of economic sanctions and the impact of COVID-19 on trade and trade finance. A large part of my role also involves advising, mentoring and training HSBC legal counsel in 50+ jurisdictions.


What does a typical day in your current role look like, and what do you enjoy most in your field?

Daily, I provide advice and find solutions for our senior GTS and wholesale banking executives and sales teams, as well as support local counsel and risk stewards with issues that arise in specific markets or regionally. So, my inbox is always full and likewise my calendar. I believe in a collaborative process, so I make it a practice to obtain input from key stakeholders before moving to solutions.

What I enjoy most is the incredible variety and challenge in each day. While some days may be more challenging than others, I’ve definitely never had a boring one! I’m always learning something new, and always working with new teams or projects from so many different countries. It’s not uncommon for one day to have meetings with colleagues in Asia early morning, followed by a call with a team member in Dubai, jumping in on a project in France, attending a few meetings in London and finishing up with calls with colleagues in the USA.


Were there any specific events or factors that motivated you to pursue this path, more specifically with litigation and legal counsel in the trade finance field?

Before moving to London and into this role in 2014, I was fortunate to work at HSBC Canada and have an extremely varied in-house legal practice. I led the legal support for financial crime and regulatory compliance, HR, payments, procurement and several other areas including litigation management.   That is where my first exposure to trade finance arose. I was managing a legal case involving a letter of credit.  I had no idea what a letter of credit was and despite Canada being a leading trading nation, few law firms had expertise in this area. So, I had to learn about trade finance independently.

The mid-office team was key in training me on the various trade finance offerings. When the litigation ended, the trade team kept coming to me for legal guidance and I suddenly found myself developing a new specialty. What was also key is that I was fortunate to attend and participate in seminars offered by IIBLP (International Institute of Banking Law & Practice) and realised there was an established legal framework and a global industry with a fantastic knowledge base. Learning from fellow professionals was key. Within 5 years, I moved into the lead role at HSBC globally and onto the Legal Committee of the ICC Banking Commission. And from there, my expertise grew.

Career highlights and key milestones

Trade finance professionals in a business meeting.

Looking back on your career so far, what are some of your proudest achievements that stand out to you? (and, why?) 

I think that I’m most proud of building a connected, effective, and motivated global trade finance legal team. They’re fantastic! Aside from that, I’m proud of several initiatives and successes along the way.

  • Contributing to the successful support of trade & trade finance through COVID-19.
  • HSBC Standard Trade Terms - Developed, drafted and implemented the first online terms for trade finance at HSBC, fully standardising terms and processes globally in 50+ countries where HSBC operates and in multiple languages.
  • Driving and designing digitisation in trade finance including being a key stakeholder in the development of multiple HSBC digital offerings (structure and legal documentation), and being the lead legal advisor for HSBC’s consultation submission to the UK Electronic Trade Documents Act.


Recently, you've been involved in managing disruptions to international trade caused by CVOID-19 and economic sanctions. Could you share a little bit about that experience and elaborate on some of the specific challenges encountered?

Time is of the essence. When incidents arise, it’s important to collaborate with the right stakeholders and to do it quickly. Calls and meetings are key. Emails are helpful to disseminate agreed actions and advice but are not very helpful to discuss urgent situations. Who has the information and who can make the decisions? Hold off on the emails and get on a call. It’s important to learn as much as possible about the situation and then to provide guidance or solutions on a timely basis.

For example, when the industry participants all started to argue that COVID-19 was an incident of force majeure, we had provided internal advice to our colleagues within a week. When sanctions related to Russia arose, I organised a global call within a week to provide urgent training to legal colleagues on the keys to managing sanction risk. If we had waited for a month, the advice or training would have been somewhat useless.

In terms of COVID-19 management, from the day that the ports shut down in Wuhan, I was fortunate to work with an interdisciplinary team that had direct information from local stakeholders and had expertise ranging from operations and policy, to legal and compliance. As COVID-19 spread globally, our solutions moved with it. Challenges were primarily related to staffing, closure of corporate and banking offices, and a lack of ability to transport goods, paper and people. A secondary challenge was that everyone was trying to assert that COVID-19 was a force majeure! Our small incident management team met daily for almost two years, managing the impact, and just as we lessened the frequency of our meetings, economic sanctions in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine were announced. We were back on the calls again!


You are also one of our course authors for ICC Academy's introductory course on Fraud and Reputational Risk that falls under our Global Trade Certificate programme. Could you discuss the process of distilling and discerning what to include, particularly how you leveraged your expertise in the field to determine the most essential knowledge and insights to include? 

When I was approached to write this course, I jumped at the chance because advising on financial crime matters (including incidents of fraud) was a large part of my legal practice in Canada. That expertise was strengthened with hands-on experience at the global level, dealing with incidents of fraud that inevitably arise in trade finance. It was impossible to include everything in the area into one course, so I focused on providing learners with the key take away points that would have impact in their day-to-day work, and on providing a high-level understanding in particular areas such as spotting red flags.

Global Trade Certificate

An introductory-level programme designed to help you build a foundational understanding of global trade finance solutions.

As the mentor and trainer for HSBC's legal counsel in over 50 jurisdictions, are you able to share some of the most common training needs you come across in your work and are there any regional variations you could talk about? 

  • Special incident specific training (e.g. managing economic sanctions)
  • Training in key areas of law and regulations (e.g. risk distribution and bans on assignment)
  • Training related to industry trends and innovations (e.g. UK Electronic Documents Act, AI & data privacy)
  • Client management (e.g. minimising legal costs)
  • Specifics about new products and their customer documentation (e.g. digital finance)

Guidance for aspiring trade finance professionals

Aspiring trade finance professionals

We know that every career comes with its challenges. Can you share some of the hurdles you've faced, and how you've managed to overcome them? 

When I moved into my role in London it was incredibly challenging. Although Canada is a member of the Commonwealth and Canadian laws are very similar to English laws, a lot of my experiences were new.

The culture was different, the work practices were different, and I certainly did not have the level of expertise needed. In the first six months every matter seemed to hold significant challenges. Looking back at the end of six months, I remember reflecting that it had felt like swimming through pea soup. So, it was important that I had the tenacity to continue while developing the required expertise along the way.

I was also challenged by often being the only woman at the table at industry events. Historically, there’s been a significant gender imbalance in the finance industry, certainly at senior levels. While the industry has improved dramatically in the last five years, I have sometimes felt that it was hard to be heard, and at times I’ve wondered if I was being taken seriously. I know that many women will have shared this experience.

That said, I’ve had great male allies both at work and in the broader industry that do everything possible to make sure that women are part of the team. And as mentioned, it is very much changing towards an inclusive industry culture.


What advice would you give to junior trade finance professionals or young people aspiring to a career in this field? (Are there any specific skills or qualities you think are important to hone for success in this field?) 

Trade finance can seem intimidating as it includes terminology and financial products that are often obscure and not seen outside the area. I think the most important skill is to say “yes” to opportunities and be prepared to work outside of your comfort zone. Don’t be intimidated if you don’t understand the terminology or don’t have experience in trade finance. Offer to assist, offer to be involved and learn from others. Participate. Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to try something new, knowing that you may face some challenges along the way.


How do you keep yourself up to date and current with the latest developments in trade finance? Could you also share which courses and certifications have been most impactful for you?

When I started in this role, I wouldn’t have called myself an expert. Trade finance was just one of the areas where I had some specialisation. After ten years, I can confidently call myself an expert. As mentioned, an essential way to stay current is by networking with others in the trade finance industry and seeking out training opportunities.

This includes in-person attendance at ICC Banking Commission meetings, events and in-person or online training opportunities. Find any sort of external training available, including ICC courses, law firm presentations, IIBLP and London Institute of Banking & Finance (LIBF) certification and training. While online training is excellent (and more accessible), the in-person networking really builds knowledge and industry relationships that stick. So online training is great, but you need to support that with the in-person events whenever possible.

Future of trade finance

Innovation is a big topic in trade finance these days. As someone who has actively led several key projecs in this space, specifically in DLT/blockchain and electronic trade documents, how do you see technology and digital transformation shaping the future of the industry?

There is no doubt trade finance will become digital. The question is how and when. While the enactment of laws supporting digital trade is key, this will move faster as lenders and traders decide to move to digital, and become more comfortable with a certain amount of risk tolerance.  It is possible now to do end-to-end digital journeys, even without a change in law.  How far and fast are we willing to go?


And what are you most excited about in the next 5-10 years?

I’m excited about the ongoing collaboration of industry representatives from all sorts of backgrounds and countries, even those countries that are in ongoing conflict with each other. The ICC was developed in part on the philosophy that bringing nations closer together as trading partners would lessen the likelihood of military conflict. I share that view and strongly feel that we must work hard to keep dialogue and trade open with each other, even when we disagree.

Global Trade Certificate

An introductory-level programme designed to help you build a foundational understanding of global trade finance solutions.

About the author

Lorna Strong

Lorna Strong

Deputy General Counsel & Managing Director, HSBC Global Trade and Receivables Finance 

Lorna Strong is the Deputy General Counsel for HSBC Global Trade and Receivables, overseeing legal strategy across more than 50 jurisdictions. She plays a pivotal role in managing legal aspects of digital transformation, blockchain applications, and ESG financing. Lorna also leads efforts in addressing trade disruptions from global events like COVID-19 and sanctions. An innovator in digital legal solutions and a dedicated educator, she has authored one of the courses in the Global Trade Certificate programme, the Introduction to Fraud & Reputational Risk, for the ICC Academy. Lorna is a prominent member of the ICC Global Banking Commission and has received the 2012 Global Counsel Award for Regulatory (Financial Services), Individual of the Year.