Lynn Korbak has always had a guiding principle when it comes to taking the next step in her career. The work has to be challenging and it has to be a fit with her entrepreneurial spirit — sometimes that means walking away from an opportunity as she did once when caught in the middle of a major takeover. “For me, the idea has been that whatever I was going to do I wanted to make sure it was going to be a building block in my career,” says Korbak, general counsel and corporate secretary with human resources giant Morneau Shepell where she has been the head of the legal department since 2003. “The best thing I can do is fully understand our business and our strategy and our objectives and how we operate, what’s important to us, and interpret and translate the legal issues in that light because external counsel don’t know your company intimately and they can’t do that for you.”
Over the years her career goals have increasingly been skewed towards playing a larger role in the business of the organization she’s working for and not just looking at her job as legal risk mitigation. “The company continues to grow and develop and that creates a great place for opportunity. My objective for next year is to continue to be a part of that and creating strategic opportunities we can leverage.”
Korbak arrived at Morneau Shepell 10 years ago after her first in-house position at financial services firm Midland Walwyn. Her training for merger and acquisition work and other commercial contract law she did after law school came from four years as a corporate-commercial lawyer at Morris Rose Ledgett LLP. It was while doing deals as external counsel that she discovered she wanted to play a bigger role in commercial business. “It was about wanting to be a bigger part of something other than papering a deal others had decided to do,” she says.
While the intrigue of big business deals was keeping her professionally challenged, she knew she eventually also wanted to have children. “At the time, I didn’t have any burning desire to have kids at all, but the one thing that bothered me was seeing senior lawyers in the office late at night with two nannies — the day nanny and the night nanny. That was something I was just not going to do.”
However, the long hours spent at the firm gave her the solid foundation to handle challenging transactions in-house. She says going in-house was not about a cut in hours but more about maintaining control and having a predictable schedule as she considered starting a family with her husband, who is also a lawyer.
In 1997, she went in-house to Midland Walwyn, which was acquired by Merrill Lynch in 1998. She wasn’t there very long when Merrill Lynch decided to sell the Canadian retail business. It was purchased by CIBC in 2001 — a much larger entity than Korbak was interested in working for, and at the same time she was five months pregnant and knew she did not want to work for a large department at a banking institution. “It was a 50-lawyer in-house department and I knew I preferred a much more collegial atmosphere,” she says.
So she took a risk and left. “I knew having that freedom was going to help me find the job that was right for me when I was ready, and it would help me keep my priorities straight as opposed to the pressure of coming back and wondering what it was gong to look like. It was a wonderful feeling to have.”
After her first child was born, Korbak had planned to take 18 months off, but that didn’t happen. A job opportunity she felt was exactly what she wanted came up. “As soon as we had a daycare spot I had started looking and found this fabulous opportunity at [then] Morneau Sobeco. It was a privately held company started by Frank Morneau and his son Bill was president,” she recalls. The company didn’t have a lawyer and it had grown to $100 million in revenue. “It was a really fun opportunity to come in and shape the position.”
At first, she felt “somewhat underutilized” but was learning a new and different set of skills at the same time. The position certainly wasn’t boring. “We went public, doubling our size with acquisitions. It was a great opportunity to stay in the area of transactions I liked doing.”
She has also built a team — there are now three lawyers and a clerk assistant in the Morneau Shepell legal department. All this happened while Korbak also added to her family. She now has two children, 7 and 10. As her children have grown, so has her job and she has continued to find ways to evolve her role.
Last fall, Korbak was named by Women of Influence magazine as a Women of Influence Diversity Champion for 2012 in the legal leader category. She was recognized for her work mentoring senior executive women, developing diversity initiatives and programs, and championing diversity in the workplace.
Outside of her role at Morneau Shepell, Korbak sits on the advisory board of not-for-profit Humewood House, which provides services and care to young pregnant women and their children, and is a member of Legal Leaders for Diversity and Inclusion. “The objective of Legal Leaders for Diversity is to promote diversity and inclusiveness and challenge others to do the same — not in a forceful way but a beat-the-drum way — spread the message, walk the talk.”
Korbak believes diversity comes in many different forms and makes an organization richer. “I’m not on Bay Street anymore. We’re in the Don Mills and Eglinton area of Toronto and there is a much more diverse group of people here. This isn’t just finance and law, which is what Bay Street largely is. The first time I realized the value of diversity it actually wasn’t about what colour is your skin or what is your sexual orientation but diversity of thought — all these different people coming together to solve various issues.”
For 2013, she is working on introducing a supplier diversity statement although she says she hasn’t had to ask her law firms to address the issue thus far. “I don’t ask specifically about staffing. Perhaps it’s because I have the established relationships with the firms I work with I haven’t felt the need to do that,” she says.
Mentoring is key for her in terms of furthering the careers of others in her department. “It’s very important to me that I do more than be the boss,” says Korbak. “We also bring in law clerks through the school programs to give them work experience and we’ve had a new lawyer who trained overseas who we provided some work experience. I didn’t have budget to hire her but tried to give her interesting things to do so she could take the next step.”