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Lifelong learning

Law Department Management
|Written By Robert Todd
Lifelong learning

Perhaps more than any other vocation, law demands lifelong learning from practitioners. Of course, lawyers face similarly unprecedented demands for their time, making it that much more difficult to meet the demand for constant retooling.

That’s why Alex Shorten — a former vice president and general counsel at both Imperial Parking Corp. and Weyerhaeuser Canada — recommends leaders of any in-house law department, regardless of size, proactively plan their team’s continuing professional development goals for the year ahead. For those operating on a calendar year, it means sitting down sometime in the fourth quarter to consider the department’s objectives for the upcoming year. He says the biggest mistake in-house counsel make when it comes to continuing education is poor planning. It leaves them scrambling late in the year to meet law society-mandated hours, and sees them sitting for hours listening to content that is only tangentially relevant to them. And they’re wasting company money while doing so.

Shorten notes the organization may have successor plans for individuals within the law department, which could see them take on senior management roles. A lawyer viewed as a possible target for those plans would need to prioritize CPD sessions aimed at areas such as leadership, financial literacy, and general business knowledge.

At the same time, if the company appears headed toward a merger or acquisition in the year ahead, and its in-house lawyers aren’t up to speed on that area of law, it’s essential for them to take a session concentrating on M&A early the following year. And Shorten, who is now a senior associate counsel at Bull Housser & Tupper LLP in Vancouver, says that should be the case even if the company is relying on outside counsel for that type of work. “At least you know what it’s about and how to relate to the internal people that you will perhaps be the go-between with outside counsel,” he says. “You can just pick any topic you want that’s relevant to what’s likely to happen in the upcoming year.”

While CPD can be viewed as a unique opportunity to retool and grow as a professional, many lawyers recoil at the thought of even having to fulfil the bare-minimum law society-mandated hours. Shorten doesn’t believe fulfilling those bare-minimum requirements is close to enough for any in-house lawyer worth her or his snuff. “The number of hours that are requested — it’s just not that much,” he says. “I’m a bit dismayed that people don’t think they can find the time to do that.”

That’s particularly the case when you consider the flexibility afforded by the plethora of CPD providers. Law societies, bar associations, private organizations, and even law firms are all now offering a wide range of top-quality sessions aimed at helping lawyers stay on top of their game. There’s also what Shorten describes as the “marketing value” surrounding CPD, as it affords in-house counsel an opportunity to meet other lawyers in the industry and develop lifelong professional contacts.

Bull Housser & Tupper is one of many law firms offering CPD sessions tailored to their in-house lawyer clients. Law firms typically deliver these hour-long complimentary sessions early in the morning served with breakfast, or midday served with lunch. “We spend quite a bit of time trying to determine what inside counsel need for their positions and want to hear about,” explains Shorten.

Many firms like Bull Housser will even take their show on the road and deliver them directly at large corporate law departments, making CPD that much more accessible. “That way, when we hold it here for other inside counsel, they don’t have to send 20 lawyers over,” he explains. “They might send one, and then when we go over to the department it’s not a repeat.”

And let’s not forget the multitude of CPD now accessible online. These offerings come from the same providers, and again are typically packaged into convenient one-hour sessions. While online seminars don’t afford the same level of interactivity as in-person sessions, they do offer top-notch accompanying learning materials.

Shorten reflects on his own decision to recently attend a tutorial hosted by a U.S. law firm to explain the need for in-house lawyers to prioritize their CPD goals. “I’ve been practising for almost 40 years, and there I am in a seminar in Vancouver early on a Wednesday evening, with other lawyers, many of whom were quite senior; the guy beside me, he’s probably practised almost 50 years, and he’s staying on top of U.S. law as it relates to his clients, so that he’s in good shape to be able to give advice,” explains Shorten. “That’s exactly the same situation for in-house counsel.”

Charles Gervais, general counsel at Assumption Mutual Life Insurance Co., is a prime example of the type of lawyer who would find it difficult to juggle his daily tasks with CPD requirements and get the type of value from it that Shorten advocates. As one half of a two-person law department at the insurer’s Moncton, N.B., office, he also serves as chief privacy officer, chief complaint officer, chief compliance officer, and anti-money laundering officer. That wide-ranging role has forced him to spend weekends and evenings reading relevant case law and other information required to stay sharp. “It’s hard to find the time to do it, but that’s part of our job; to keep ourselves up to date,” he notes.

Despite the challenge to find enough time, he also believes law society-mandated CPD — the Law Society of New Brunswick requires 12 hours in a calendar year — falls far short of what any responsible in-house counsel would complete. He estimates that he spends approximately fives hours every week on CPD, whether it be attending a seminar, reading case law, legal publications, or consuming e-bulletins from law firms. Gervais says he’s particularly appreciative of the latter resources, which most law firms produce as a complimentary resource to clients. “Law firms provide great analysis, insight, and information about forthcoming changes” to the law, he says, urging other in-house counsel to take advantage of it. “These law firms are key in helping us keep developing and maintaining our level of knowledge on the domains of law that we need to follow.”

Of course in-house counsel are well-advised to view professional development with a wide-angle lens. Howard Kaufman — a former vice president, legal and external affairs and secretary at Xerox Canada Inc. — urges those interested in moving to a position that is more business-focused than law-centred to focus on CPD offerings that build those skills, whether it’s law society-accredited or not.

He also suggests it’s wise for such lawyers to spearhead a project within their organization that is primarily non-legal in nature. “Seems to me, that’s a great way to develop your project management skills, your management skills generally, and you learn something about the subject matter the project is about,” says Kaufman, who now acts as counsel to Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP. “I actually think the in-house counsel have a better opportunity for a broader range of skill training, or continuing education in the largest sense, to make them better as lawyers and better as business people, because that makes them more valuable to the organizations they work for.”

Moreover, says Kaufman, it’s vital for in-house counsel to embrace the fact that it’s unlikely they will serve the same function within the organization forever, or even stay with the organization for their entire career. So although general counsel or other lead lawyers in the legal department will set CPD goals for their workers, it’s up to each counsel to look out for what’s best for their own career and embrace the fact that law is a learning profession. “To me, if you look at it as a burden, you might be in the wrong profession,” he says. “It’s obligatory for any lawyer to keep themselves excited about their profession, so you’ve got to learn. You can’t just sit back. Trying to improve what they know, to do their job better, should be the most important incentive they have. That should excite them the most.”

If all of this isn’t enough to motivate in-house counsel to look at CPD as more than an onerous, regulator-imposed waste of time, here’s a final nugget of food for thought from Shorten: over the course of his career, he’s noticed that the most voracious participants in CPD are typically those who reach the upper echelons of in-house practice. “What happens is people recognize good talent,” he says. “Those candidates have all the right qualities, but they also are willing to stay on top of the topic that helps their internal client, and they do that through education.”

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