When Julie A. Lee Harrs accepted her first corporate counsel gig — after more than a decade at a large Bay Street firm — she never imagined herself taking a job where she would have to wear a hard hat and safety boots.
But Lee Harrs, senior vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary at Sherritt International Corp., says, “It was probably the best decision in my professional life, taking that risk.”
Her corporate-commercial practice focused on financing, and she says it was a positive experience, but eventually she started to look for in-house opportunities.
“My husband’s a lawyer as well and at the time we had two small children. My husband was formerly at McCarthy [Tétrault LLP] and at the time was general counsel of Universal Studios and Universal Music, so he was trying to bring me over to his side.
"So I blame my husband for my current situation,” she laughs.
“It was a family decision, so I looked for a few years but I really liked what I was doing for Blakes. I really liked the people I was working with. The people I was working with meant a lot to me, so I would get job offers and didn’t take them. My husband said to me one day, ‘You’re never leaving Blakes, are you?’”
Lee Harrs says she was open to other opportunities but was waiting for the right one.
She didn’t imagine that the right opportunity would involve mining, but the opportunity was too good to pass up — to become the general counsel of nickel mining giant Inco (now Vale Inco Ltd.)
With no previous mining experience and next to no securities experience, Lee Harrs took a risk with Inco — and Inco took a risk with Lee Harrs.
Learning the ropes wasn’t the biggest challenge for Lee Harrs in making the move to a general counsel role.
“People will laugh when you write this, but doing my own photocopying and faxing was the biggest difference,” she laughs.
“At the big law firms, you don’t know how they work, and they don’t let you anywhere near them.”
Another big difference was being the person giving the instructions to lawyers and communicating to the executive in non-legalese terms.
“Another sort of lucky stroke for me, within the first year of me joining Inco, it announced that it would be developing the Goro nickel project,” she says of the billion-dollar nickel and cobalt project in the South Pacific island of New Caledonia.
“I worked extensively on that project, which meant that I had to learn everything. Not that I was an expert, but I had to at least learn it to understand what people are talking about and be able to identify the issues.”
Dealing with both the French and Caledonian government and Japanese partners on the greenfield nickel project had her well prepared for the Voisey’s Bay project in Newfoundland and Labrador, which landed on her desk shortly after.
While Lee Harrs’ workdays were just as long, if not longer, than back on Bay Street, “I was more in control of my work schedule than I was at Blakes, which makes a huge difference.
“I do ridiculous things like wake up at three or four in the morning, but that’s just the lifestyle choice that I’ve made.”
Lee Harrs took and break and decided to resign from her role at Inco “and took some time to decide whether or not I wanted to practise law at the same speed and intensity that I had been working.”
In the interim, Lee Harrs travelled and picked up boxing as a hobby.
“I know this sounds cliché but I realized I wanted to go back to work. Within a month, got a call from Sherritt and that’s how I ended up here.”
Lee Harrs started her new role at Sherritt and left life in the ring behind her.
“I got rid of my gloves and I’m working through an injury.”
At Sherritt, Lee Harrs’ mandate was to build the legal department.
“In Toronto, there was one other lawyer here and a lawyer in Edmonton, and it was left up to me to decide how to staff up. I’m happy to say as of yesterday I have completed the mandate, so we have three lawyers in Toronto now, two law clerks, two legal assistants, plus I have a lawyer for each of our business units, as well as each of the countries in which we operate,” she says.
Sherritt International Corp. is a diversified resource company involved in the production of nickel, cobalt, oil, and electricity, and the development of coal as an energy resource. It has operations in Canada, Cuba, and Madagascar.
To say Lee Harrs travels a lot, “would be a bit of an understatement,” she says.
One of the main advantages of her unpredictable work is just that. “That’s probably why I like my job because there is no typical day for me.”
Lee Harrs says there’s no doubt that life is much more interesting on this side.
“I truly don’t understand why people stay at law firms, having been on both sides.
“And I had a very positive experience at a Bay Street law firm so I have no knocks against it,” she says.
“Just from a professional view, fulfilling-career perspective.”
Lee Harrs says she has now come to terms with the speed and intensity at which she works.
“One of the conclusions that I reached was the speed and intensity was part of my fabric and was not necessarily being driven by my environment,” she says.
“That’s just the way I am,” she says. “My boxing, and the reason I got injured, is the speed and intensity. That’s just the fabric of my being.
“The first step to recovery is acknowledging your problem,” she jokes