I remember it as if it was yesterday. On May 23, 2011, I sat around the table with some of the giants of the in-house bar: Ken Fredeen of Deloitte Canada; Barry Fisher of SAP Canada; Sue Gaudi, then of the Globe and Mail; Georgia Sievwright, then at Hewlett-Packard; and Fred Krebs, president of the Association of Corporate Counsel. To put it into context, at that time I had been the GC at Navistar Canada for less than two years (my first in-house role) and was a more recent call to the bar (1995).
To say that I was nervous and underqualified is an understatement. I was clearly not at par with my esteemed colleagues, but I was there and I tried my best to contribute to the roundtable discussion.
So how did I stumble upon this amazing opportunity? At a previous event, I met and started speaking with a reporter, Andi Balla of Canadian Lawyer Magazine. We informally discussed the challenges and opportunities I was experiencing in my new role as an in-house counsel. As luck would have it, a few days before the roundtable was scheduled to take place, one of the participants got sick and cancelled and, after having several senior counsel send their regrets, the phone rang and I was offered the opportunity. To say I was blessed and excited is an understatement. Because of the exposure created by this piece, other opportunities arose to speak at events such as the CCCA Spring Conference, to be quoted on several articles authored by Jennifer Brown at Canadian Lawyer, and I was given the opportunity to become involved with Legal Leaders for Diversity, a group of visionary GCs dedicated to advancing diversity and inclusion within the legal profession. Then, in January 2015, I hit the jackpot. Brown approached me to see if I would be interested in becoming the In-House Coach for Canadian Lawyer.
So, here are a few tips and lessons that I take from my experience, with the hope that it can assist junior associates and in-house counsel looking to boost their profile or become increasingly involved in initiatives within the legal profession:
Never, ever turn down an opportunity to speak at a conference, to participate in a panel or to write an article or piece for a publication such as Canadian Lawyer. You may not feel like a subject-matter expert or that you can contribute in any material ways, but we are all students of our experiences and your opinions, insight and views — regardless of your year of call — will likely resonate with others. Also, like dominos, one opportunity can then lead to others down the line. You will likely never feel ready; the trick is to jump in feet first!
Tell people you meet that you are interested in becoming involved. I can attest to the fact that when racing to meet a deadline for publishing an article or a magazine piece, a writer will often try to grab at the lowest-hanging fruit. Making others aware that you are interested and willing to share your views will put you at the front of the line when they need someone to pinch hit. Moreover, many associations are actively trying to compose panels that are diverse with regard to gender, ethnicity and other factors, so, if this applies to you, make sure they know you are interested.
Once you say yes, whenever possible, try to ask for any questions in advance, so you can at least make sure you have a basic understanding of what you may be asked and you can form some sort of opinion on the matter. This avoids moments of potential awkward silence. If being interviewed, make sure you also ask for the opportunity to review and make corrections to any quotes or points attributed to you before publishing. These may seem like trivial points, but in the event that you have second thoughts or would like to expand or clarify on a point, after you have had time to think about it in greater detail, you should reserve the right to do this. Most writers will not object to this.
When writing an article or making statements, keep in mind that if controversial, you should note that these are your personal opinions and not those of your employer. You may also need to be aware of your employer’s social media policy. If in doubt, avoid speaking about anything specific to your employer, your specific role or any matters that are legally sensitive or ongoing. I remember that, while articling, one of my colleagues was asked by the media for his opinion on mandatory retirement, which he gladly provided. Unfortunately, this opinion was contrary to the opinion being advanced by his employer and colleagues in a very public, active matter before the courts. To say the least, the employer was not happy and the added media attention was not welcomed. Speak your mind, but be careful about what you say and how you say it. When in doubt, qualify it as your personal opinion.
Almost eight years since that roundtable article, I still have the 2011 magazine cover framed and hanging over my office to remind me of the importance of being available and ready to answer when opportunity knocks. I am and will always remain grateful to people like Andi and Jennifer, who went out of their way to give me a voice and a chance to be heard. I encourage you to do the same. Do not let these opportunities pass you by.
PS: Jennifer Brown has recently moved on to a new role and has left us with a wonderful final article. Thank you, Jennifer, for your support and friendship throughout the years and I know that I speak on behalf of all Canadian Lawyer readers when I say we will miss you and your great contributions to our profession!