Teamwork, hard work, dedication, creativity, and training are key to managing the demanding workload
In 2006, Christine Silversides joined York University’s Office of the Counsel as director of legal services, becoming the fourth lawyer on the team. Thirteen years later, Silversides became general counsel. As it does today, the team still consisted of only four lawyers.
But the work has exploded.
“There has been a proliferation of new legislation and attendant requirements for new policies, restructuring of portions of the university, and significant growth of the student and staff populations,” Silversides said. “But one of the reasons I have been able to cope is because I’m a generalist by opportunity and design, meaning my entire career path has been characterized by learning and new experiences, which have made me flexible and adaptable.”
Among other things, the 15 years since 2006 saw Ontario privacy legislation become applicable to universities, when records management became part of legal’s portfolio; other privacy-related laws, including domestic anti-spam legislation and the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, became matters for consideration; the feds amended copyright legislation to include fair dealing for educational purposes, leading to an increase in requests for copyright clearances from legal; there was significant growth in or the creation of new units requiring legal services, including the student conduct office, sexual violence office, and counselling services; diversity became an issue leading to the appointment of a new vice-president, equity; and human rights litigation increased significantly owing to implementation of the direct access model in 2008, which sent all complainants directly to the tribunal.
Otherwise, the York Foundation, responsible for charitable giving, saw its previously outsourced legal work transferred to the Office of the Counsel; the growth of online teaching and hybrid work brought new legal issues relating to copyright, human rights, academic honesty and privacy; real estate development work, such as negotiations with the Toronto Transit Commission regarding the extension of the subway to the university campus, came under legal’s aegis.
More recently, the university has formulated ambitious plans embracing many strategic priorities.
“These have been particularly intense over the past couple of years and will continue to be so as we work to fulfill the university 2020-25 academic plan,” Silverside said. “But the work is fascinating and continually varied.”
Yet the legal department’s size has remained unchanged.
“The size of our team is comparable to that at very small universities,” Silversides says. “Similar-sized universities have at least double the in-house complement.”
So how does Silverside’s team manage?
“Most of all, it’s about having a close-knit, well-functioning, more hard-working than is fair, and dedicated team who are very loyal to me and the university and who focus on driving efficiency with a synergistic, team-above-self approach that makes us greater than the sum of our parts. We have a very experienced group, three of whom have been around as long as I have, and the fourth individual has been with us for six or seven years. We all support each other no matter what.”
Creativity has also been vital.
“Our team is crazy about creativity,” Silversides said. “For example, we’re very focused on our outsourcing, which, if managed creatively, can in many instances be extremely effective and cheaper than doing the work in-house.”
Silversides is particularly proud of her work coordinating the legal team behind the university’s successful defence of its fair dealing rights culminating with the Supreme Court of Canada’s 2021 decision in York University v. Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency (Access Copyright).
“We used a unique strategy of combining external counsel from various law firms and helping them to work together cohesively and collaboratively,” she said. “So much so that we won a US award for copyright case of the year.”
Silversides also credits training others to do work that lawyers could do as a strategy that has helped manage her team’s demanding workload.
“Instead of one of us appearing before an administrative tribunal – of which we have hundreds around the university – we train tribunal members and people who act on the university’s behalf to be more self-sufficient and do things themselves, calling us only when they need additional help.”
While she chooses not to emphasize it, Silverside’s leadership is also undoubtedly a factor.
“Leadership is innate to me. I love working with people, coaching and helping individuals going through difficulties. The challenges of leadership and working with the people here have been the highlights of my career.”
By necessity, Silversides and her team have a multitude of goals for 2023.
“The most important thing is to carry on developing and maintaining strong relationships with our clients because everything flows from that. But we also need to continue to be incredibly agile to navigate the rising tide of demands on us in view of the resource constraints; we need to increase productivity without burning out, we need to continue our quest for automation and advanced tech solutions, and we need to continue sourcing cost-effective legal services providers.”
Indeed, that’s a handful. But that’s how it’s been for Silversides and her team for a long time.