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The rise of the virtual GC

|Written By Jennifer Brown

I suppose by the nature of what they do in-house counsel are more inclined to have an entrepreneurial spirit. In the last year I’ve met a growing list of lawyers who have considered their general counsel experience, recognized that the changing marketplace is going to reward the nimble and independent, and seized their next opportunity.

The best example of this I’ve seen most recently is Dan Caldarone, general counsel for Canadian coffee company Second Cup. Five months ago, when Second Cup realized in order to stay competitive in the ruthless coffee wars it would have to restructure and ultimately downsize, Caldarone made a decision facing many in-house these days: take on more management responsibility or focus on what he enjoys and does best — practise law.

We wrote a story in November on canadianlawyermag.com/inhouse about Caldarone’s experience and the support he got from the company CFO and management team when he approached them about staying on as GC but as an independent contractor. He now has an external law practice — Caldarone Law — but continues to serve as acting general counsel for Second Cup.

Caldarone is not alone although his model is more directly connected to his former employer. More than a year ago, former St. Michael’s Hospital general counsel Alan Belaiche left to start his own health law practice. Philip Bender, a partner with Mayeski Mathers LLP in eastern Ontario has a similar arrangement to Caldarone. He and his former employer North America Construction agreed on a monthly fixed fee based on an estimate of the average workload and evaluate it on a quarterly basis. Like Caldarone, Bender goes to the company head office a set number of days per month but his remote office is connected directly to the company servers and calls are directed to his remote office phone. Bender says he expects to see such arrangements becoming more common.

After 10 years at Cara Operations Ltd., Mary Ormond decided to hang up a shingle after decades working in-house. She didn’t relish the idea of returning to the big firm model of private practice and she also saw her peers in-house being squeezed to do more, often under increasingly tighter budgets. So she has put forward her expertise as a commercial leasing lawyer in the form of Ormond Law and gone into private practice for herself. She acknowledges it’s a little scary but is positive she has a network she can draw from to build her business.

And Andrew Foti, founder of Avokka LLP in Toronto, says much like Cognition LLP and Conduit Law PC, Avokka offers “counsel-on-tap” or “virtual general counsel.”

These examples are not necessarily the kind of in-house experience we’ve been writing about for the last few years — one that has the general counsel as the embedded, permanent fixture of a corporation providing unfettered access to the business units and growing the legal department. But as circumstances — both personally and in the business world — continue to change in-house lawyers are identifying a new way to make a living and it’s more frequently a hybrid of practice and in-house life.


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