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Planes, trains and automobiles: How to approach a career in-house

To my fellow John Candy and Steve Martin fans out there, you will recognize where this comes from; but now that I have worked with trucks (Navistar), cars (Nissan) and planes (Cargojet), all that is left is trains. While all of these areas of in-house practice seem very similar, as they are within the transportation sector, the work in each of these experiences was very, very different.

I had a strong background in HR and labour relations and I was able to leverage this to obtain my first in-house role two years after graduating from law school. I was able to use this specialized background to get a foothold into a company for whom my labour relations and legal role was critical.

At Navistar, more than 40 per cent of the day-to-day work involved labour relations. I had already done work for the company as a young associate and as an articling student, so when the GC opportunity became available, I was able to convince them that I should be the successful candidate.

Over five years, I gained experience, beyond labour and employment, but also in contracts, commercial law, governance, franchise law and the fundamentals of the corporate secretary role.

After five years, I moved on to another great opportunity. This time, I was able to sell my background in franchise law and automotive (trucks count as automotive) at a time when Nissan Canada was looking at implementing new processes in managing its dealer network and growing the business within a highly competitive sector. Once again, franchise law was a large part of my role, but during my time there, I was also able to develop experiences in areas such as governmental affairs, compliance, contracts, litigation management and privacy.

Finally, five years later, I moved into a completely new area of transportation: aerospace. At Cargojet, I was attracted to the opportunity of working within a Canadian company undergoing spectacular growth, with a strong entrepreneurial culture, within a fast-moving industry and which provided the opportunity of working with these beautiful big birds (as a son of an Air Canada retiree, I was always fascinated by planes).

In this role, I am also leveraging my Latin-American background and Spanish-speaking skills in working with counsel and clients from across the world.

I share my experience, as I think my career trajectory demonstrates several key points that I often emphasize to young lawyers, junior associates and private practice lawyers looking at making a move in-house. These are:

  • When looking at moving in-house, there is no such thing as a true aerospace, automotive, banking, sports, pharmaceutical, fashion or even entertainment lawyer. While you may have an interest in the area, the key is to be able to develop a skillset that you can use and leverage to get your foot in the door. In my case, it was labour and employment law. However, a strong background in finance, IP, corporate and securities can be the key to getting an opportunity.

     

  • For students, if possible, take advantage of any specialty courses or programs that may be offered in your areas of interest and join student clubs and associations related to areas of interest. I was fortunate enough to take some courses at the Institute of Air & Space Law while at McGill Law. In retrospect, I wish I would have taken more. The knowledge and insight gained from these kinds of courses allow you to set yourself apart from other applicants during interviews and it helps demonstrate an interest in the field.

     

  • It is also critical that you become knowledgeable of the industry, as well as the unique challenges and opportunities that exist within that industry. You can do this by becoming involved in sections or associations of students, lawyers or practitioners that practise in your area of interest. You must also focus on developing a network and contacts within that sector. As a student, law schools such as McGill and York have strong air and space student associations that also offer great opportunities to get involved in your area of interest. On my end, quickly joining the Canadian Bar Association Air and Space Law section was a must. 

     

  • Once you find yourself in an in-house role, be curious and comfortable with change. Become involved in as many areas as possible within the legal department. Be careful not to get pigeonholed. Demonstrate an interest in growing and developing beyond the niche that allowed you to get in. While in some organizations and corporate cultures this may be easier than others, don’t stop trying and showing an interest to grow your practice.

     

  • Depending on the role, you may have no choice but to do work in many different broad areas (such as practising as an OLO). Make sure that when dealing with subject-matter external experts, you ask a lot of questions and ask them to explain and work through the particular thought processes involved in doing what they do. Then make it your personal objective to do more and more of the work on your own, with their supervision, so that eventually you develop a fundamental understanding of that area of the law. Also, ask them to notify you or law firm seminars and conference opportunities where you can attend to learn more about the subject matter. These are very valuable and often free.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution with regard to establishing a successful in-house counsel career. Everyone you ask will provide you with different advice. We are all creatures of our experiences and what we know, think and advise others is a product of these experiences. Wherever it takes you, remember to remain curious, remain eager to learn and to develop, start with something you are passionate about and be patient as your career blossoms. Whether it is working with planes, trains or automobiles, make sure you always continue moving forward.