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A full life

|Written By Edward Waitzer

Like many, I have always harboured this notion of a more tranquil stateto be reached after much effort and struggle. Early in life, this wasthe prospect of being “grown up.” As I grew older, its content becamemore nebulous, but the image of greater security and control persisted.

I suspect the same is true for most and, in turn, becomes an unspoken aspiration that is institutionalized in many domains. For whatever reasons, I’ve consistently worked at (and, to some extent, made a career of) trying to shake loose of this goal — challenging norms and constantly testing rules and boundaries.

I was lucky, at a relatively early age, to enjoy first-hand the experience of creating new institutions — and reforming existing ones. This led to an awareness that, in most environments, one could succeed as a deviant by choice. Indeed, such differentiation led me to law school (seeking tools to “change the world”) and, in turn, to a series of fortuitous relationships and opportunities.

I suspect that having a broad range of interests and a compulsion for innovation and change (even when things are going well) are large parts of why I’ve so often been chosen to help lead various organizations. Promoting cultures that enhance change has been an abiding passion.

One of my better “life decisions” was to take a year “off,” in 2003-2004, with my family in Santiago, Chile, where I ended up advising the financial regulator while “managing” our (purposefully self-organizing) law firm remotely. What was to have been the end of my tenure as chairman and CEO of Stikeman Elliott LLP didn’t pan out, as no one was ready to volunteer to take over at that stage, so I carried on in that role while away, and for two additional years following our return to Canada. By last fall, the firm had found an excellent successor, and I was ready to resume a full-time transactional practice.

One of the original purposes of the year in Chile was to get out of the way of my successor. While it took a bit more discipline, I remained true to that ideal, even though I was closer to home. Other than when (rarely) called upon by the current chairman, I have shed all managerial responsibilities at the firm. Much as I enjoyed the sense of helping to shape and build a great organization, there were no withdrawal pains!

The timing was fortuitous. So, too, was the fact that I had maintained a scaled-back practice throughout my tenure as chairman of the firm. Our firm, along with our key competitors, has been “flat out” on significant transactional work for the last year or so. In a relatively small market, the fact that I was now available on a full-time basis to run deals became known without effort on my part, and there has been no shortage of interesting transactions to get involved in. I can’t recall a time in my career when I’ve been busier on the transactional side.

Thinking about the transition back to a now-more-than-full-time practice, after having been substantially focused elsewhere for almost eight years, suggests several ideas that may appeal to others who are attracted to and continue to revel in the law as a challenge and a set of tools, rather than as a job.

Firstly, as anyone who has had the fortune to build a reputational franchise knows, distinguishing oneself leads in many unexpected directions. What we do in each sphere of our lives informs and influences the opportunities that present themselves, as well as our capacity to respond to them. The key is to be able to identify and be open to such opportunities — it’s often almost a form of peripheral vision that enables one to imagine taking on such challenges.

For example, having developed a deep affinity for Chile and many of those I got to know while living there, I have continued to maintain strong relationships with the country. In addition to ongoing work for the financial sector regulator, I have, over the last while, also had a chance to advise on several significant transactions representing Canadian institutional investors acquiring infrastructure and other assets in Chile. Having developed an appreciation for the social, economic, and political framework, it was clear that many Chilean assets are relatively undervalued. Canada shares with Chile many attributes, as well as a free-trade agreement. The fit was obvious and fortuitous for me.

While not by design, the notion of multi-tasking has also enriched my life. For any professional who does transactional work, this may be second nature. Contrary to what many may assume, maintaining a practice while managing the law firm provided me a sense of balance and the benefit of mutually enriching perspectives. For example, managing a law firm, or remaining actively engaged in public-policy advisory work, is a fundamentally different activity, and often an effective psychological tonic, to a “deal practice.” The cadence of activity, motivations of various actors, and one’s expectations about getting things done are quite distinct.

I found that constantly holding multiple tasks/options in one’s mind — and shifting back and forth between and within  them — sharpens my attention and often leads to a broader view, including ideas or insights I might not have come across if more singularly focused. This capacity for maintaining parallel lines of reasoning and, within them, contemplating multiple outcomes (and how they interact) is an intellectual thrill and a critical tool in much of what I do. There is, too, the pleasure of finding moments of stillness — a sense of being in the eye of the storm — as various and different projects move along with differing, but usually high, levels of intensity.

These two lessons point to the next opportunity I have chosen to try. In anticipation of a slower transition to practice than actually occurred, I accepted a single-year endowed professorship at one of the Toronto law schools. Having given up serving as an adjunct professor there 15 years ago, it felt like a good thing to resume. I had previously found teaching to be a process of being forced to go back to first principles, and of having one’s views and biases about legal and economic institutions challenged — again, a strong tonic to my natural instinct to getting deals done. So, too, was it the chance to share my enthusiasm for, and curiosity about, the range of things I do each day with those who are excited — if a bit anxious and naive — about the prospects that lie ahead for them. Finally, teaching allows one to develop relationships, which evolve over time.

Last year at the law school led to being offered a chair, to be split between Osgoode Hall Law School and the Schulich School of Business (both at York University). The deans accommodated my desire to continue my involvement at the firm by allowing me a reduced teaching load. Hopefully, the academic environment will enable me to bring together and think about common themes in various aspects of my life’s work — law, social entrepreneurship, public policy, self-regulation. All have involved challenging conventional wisdom, combining ideas and available resources in new ways, constant self-correction, and a strong ethical impetus. All boil down to seeking to identify and effect “solutions” (as ephemeral a concept as “growing up”). Engaging the world from various spheres and perspectives, I like to think, has mitigated narrow identity-based thinking, promoted my tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty, and enriched my experiences in each element. The occasional new or good idea has found multiple and often unexpected applications.

Finally, having chosen to return to the law firm several times during my career made the determination to maintain a role at the firm an obvious choice for another reason. Again, the personal lesson is simple — one reaps what one sows in each of the communities we choose to engage. In this case the reward is a sense of belonging to a group of people I love working with — many, themselves, deviants who enjoy testing limits and innovating. The sense of intellectual generosity and collective empowerment we have cultivated — at least amongst those I’m fortunate enough to work with on a regular basis — is addictive.

Edward Waitzer is a partner at Stikeman Elliott LLP and was its chairman from 1999 to 2006. He was previously vice president of the Toronto Stock Exchange, chairman of the Ontario Securities Commission, and is now head of Stikeman’s corporate governance group.