Nine years ago, Amy Avis began as a student
and volunteer with the Canadian Red Cross legal department. Today, she is its general counsel. At 31 years old, she is bringing her millennial mindset to the
Avis is in charge of a unique
risk portfolio at the Canadian Red Cross. From disaster response during the
Fort McMurray and British Columbia forest fires to international work abroad in
jurisdictions where, as a young woman, she faces cultural challenges, the job
requires she make critical decisions for the organization, often in extreme
Last fall, Avis, who is 31, became general counsel and
vice president of risk and compliance at the non-profit, but she has been
working in the legal department since before she graduated from law school. She
has travelled to the South Sudan and Maldives where the men she was dealing
with wouldn’t shake her hand. She is often “shoulder to shoulder” with
operations people helping to make decisions on the ground.
That includes making assessments as to how many people
are evacuated and to where in disaster situations. Her role involves risk
management, understanding the organization’s insurance portfolio, expediting
contracts — often moving people,
things and money rapidly across Canada — and negotiating government
Avis “grew up” in her legal function at the Red Cross
doing emergency response work and, even now, in the general counsel role, it is
something she continues to do. “I think that it is so critical for operations
to see us as on the same team as them,” she says.
When she was articling with the organization, she set
the goal to become general counsel by age 35. “I thought I was totally crazy,
but I thought it would be an interesting goal to try and achieve. I have had
various people remind me I said that and they have said, ‘We thought you were
joking.’ I don’t think there is any one path that brings you where you want to
be, but for me I very early decided I wanted to be in charge of the in-house
function and also our insurance and risk portfolio,” she says.
While she hasn’t
always enjoyed being called a “millennial,” Avis says she’s come to embrace
some of what that has come to mean.
“I spent a lot of time rebutting this idea
of being a millennial, but what I’ve been reflecting on is that there are a lot
of qualities in us as millennials that make us a force to be reckoned with. One
of the reasons I’ve been successful is that I have the millennial spirit of
fearlessness and entrepreneurship that is something we’re characterized with as
a generation. And innovation — something that makes you really successful
in-house is to creatively problem-solve and provide innovative solutions to
problems that are not exclusively legal.
“I have always
said ‘I’m not a millennial,’ but I do think it does define me in some ways and
is something that makes us kind of awesome.”
Avis has travelled to South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, India — and many other
locations — to broker commercial contracts with Red Cross, Red Crescent
movement partners, funding agreements or large-scale construction tenders with
non-governmental actors setting up legal status in those jurisdictions so the
Red Cross can operate.
The money at
stake is sizable. Last year, the Canadian Red Cross had revenues of $612
million. Avis plays a role in safeguarding donor funds to ensure the agency
knows where the money is going and that strong controls and reporting
mechanisms are in place to make sure it is going toward the purpose for which
it was given.
When working in Syria, Lebanon and
Afghanistan, Avis must take into consideration the local legal framework versus
the Canadian legal framework and what arguments might be successful at law
versus public perception, as well as what’s right versus the humanitarian
imperative. “There’s a lot of layers and for me — it’s really case by
case,” she says. “In the case of South Sudan, it is a newly formed government
so it makes it that much more complicated to figure out what the rule of law
Being young in her role has its own
challenge, and moreover, add to that being a young woman in the job and Avis
has seen her share of awkward experiences. The two previous Canadian Red Cross
GC before her were men.
“In the Maldives, I was walking into a
room of all men. I walk into all-male boardrooms all over the world all the
time, but in that instance, I reached out to shake a gentleman’s hand and he
didn’t take it. I reached further and I assumed I wasn’t reaching far enough
across the board table. Then I realized he couldn’t shake my hand for religious
reasons because I was a woman. I’m not criticizing that; I don’t think he was
being disrespectful, but I had to overcome my own embarrassment and that’s kind
of a difficult way to start a negotiation,” she says.
There are a lot of women who work for the
Red Cross but in incident management, crisis management or critical incidents.
If something goes wrong, legal would have a large part in an investigation.
typically a super macho situation and I’m certain it would give people more
comfort if I had greying hair and was a 50-year-old man. You have to kind of
rebut the presumptions and move on and gain credibility just through good
work,” she says.
“That and the
myriad other ways [being a woman] manifests itself internationally and in
Canada in boardrooms is something that the two male GCs in the position before
me wouldn’t have had to think about,” she says. “They don’t have to contend
with that and it is something that is unique to being a woman in this role. I
do think I’ve been in many rooms where they assume I’m the junior and I have to
introduce myself and say it a couple of times — you have to be extra confident
to overcome that.”
with the Canadian Red Cross and worked with the organization throughout law
school. The day after her articling was complete, she was on a plane for India
and says that sealed it for her. “I said, ‘I’m in.’”
From there she progressed up through the
ranks, becoming senior legal counsel. “When the former GC left the organization,
I think our executive management had a choice in that moment and it was either
to bring in someone external or mentor me and believe in me to do the role,”
The agency chose to support Avis and in
October of last year they promoted her into the GC function. “It’s to the
credit of the organization that they did that, quite frankly,” she says.
Nothing in law school really prepared her
for the job. Although she took international law courses, it didn’t begin to
ready her for her role at the Red Cross.
“The courses were quite academic and high
level, and talked about treaties and things that don’t have a lot to do with
international commercial legal issues. I often think about the fact there are
conventions and treaties on what you can and cannot do, but, realistically, if
you’re in a country and someone holds you up at gunpoint, you’re not going to
argue the nuances of what they can and cannot do,” she says.
She didn’t set out to be an in-house
lawyer — the way law school is largely oriented is for private practice and the
recruitment drive is toward that career path, she says.
“I didn’t realize a job in-house at a
charity like this existed,” says Avis.
She got a public interest fellowship with
the University of Ottawa and received a grant and had to find a humanitarian
organization to work with for the summer. She approached the Red Cross legal
department and convinced them to take her on.
“I kind of fell into it and then kind of
fell in love,” she says of her role at the charity.
When Avis joined
the Canadian Red Cross legal department there were three people and this year
it now numbers eight. “It has grown and evolved quite a bit since then — our
operations in Canada have changed so much in the last nine years,” she says.
“When you’re drafting memos in law school,
you’re drafting then as you would in private practice, which is so different
than how we practise law. We have to be seen to be shoulder to shoulder with
the operation and business units and leveraging our understanding of operations
and having that really good pulse on risk and reward and being joint in the
decision-making. That’s so not the mentality of lawyers traditionally — which
is to write a memo on what you can and cannot do and heavily caveat your advice, which
isn’t really helpful in in-house but particularly so in an emergency or a
disaster. I think even more so that disconnect is something I’ve had to contend
with in my practice,” she says.
With the help of some mentors, Avis has
found her own style of managing.
“For me, it’s to know your limit and seek
out expert advise; we’re not experts in everything and, because a lot of things
we encounter are so novel, I’m not shy about knowing my limitations. I know my
organization and operation and I can take what they’ve given me and leverage it
better than anyone, but certainly I don’t know everything about everything,”
The Red Cross has local counsel in the
jurisdictions in which it operates. Avis relies on external counsel for advice
on things such as privacy protection and cybersecurity.
“We absolutely need external support for
the unique work that we do,” she says.
Like any in-house function, Avis says, she
works to prove the value add to the organization, but it’s even more important
when resources are so finite and spending on administration writ large is
viewed by the public as negative in the charitable sector.
“Absolutely, we try to run as lean a
function as we possibly can. I would say it’s about being right-sized for the
operations. We don’t want to be too big, but we also don’t want to be too lean
with the view that it then materializes in later risks,” she says.
One of the larger projects she has been
working on is the enhancement of the organization’s risk management framework.
“We work in inherently risky environments,
so to me that means we have to have increasingly more discipline as to when we
do and do not assume risk, and so we have invested heavily in risk management
and ERM. I think just getting that engrained into the culture of the
organization — not to say they aren’t invested, but it’s a process and that’s
been my main initiative. I’m happy to report it’s taken off and people are
really invested in the process,” she says.
Right now, she’s working on a risk
appetite statement so that when the organization has to, for example, deploy
doctors for an Ebola response or is trying to figure out how to medevac someone
from a situation or responding to asylum seekers coming from the U.S. because
their visas are being revoked, the organization knows how to evaluate its
“For me, in any given moment or in the
thick of something, the north star is the risk appetite of the organization.
It’s something I’ve invested in understanding what that risk appetite is — you
have to have the clarity to set that and hold yourself accountable to it in any
given moment when faced with a go or no-go decision.”
60 SECOND SNAPSHOT
Canadian Red Cross
• General counsel & vice president of risk and compliance
• Joined Canadian Red Cross as university student in 2009
• Articled with Canadian Red Cross
• Graduated University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law, Common Law 2011
• Building out enterprise risk management strategy for Canadian Red Cross