Growing a GC role

Combining his interests in law and serving the better good, Mike Anderson has found a home and his calling at non-profit organization WE.

Growing a GC role

Combining his interests in law and serving the better good, Mike Anderson has found a home and his calling at non-profit organization WE.

At the WE headquarters on Queen Street East in Toronto, Mike Anderson is known as “Legal Mike.” As the only lawyer in an organization with a young employee base, he is the go-to person for all manner of issues including intellectual property, advertising and chartiy law.

The average age of the staff at WE is not quite 30 years old, so at 33, Anderson is just slightly older than many of those he works with. Since he arrived in 2014 right after articling, he’s cultivated the role of general counsel into one he envisioned when he first saw the job posting for a “legal manager” at WE, which is perhaps best known for its WE Day events and promoting the rights of children around the world.

As a thirtysomething GC, Anderson knows it’s unusual to be in such a position at his age. “I am a millennial general counsel, which gets some interesting reactions and surprises people,” he says. “I understand that to have the GC title is an amazing privilege and in a lot of organizations it is a title given to someone who has worked for decades to lead an impactful legal team. I don’t take it lightly. I understand why someone who has worked for years might be surprised that I share that same title.”

Anderson wants people at WE to feel they can pop in and have a conversation with him and run ideas by him. “This place lets you be yourself and so I don’t have to play the lawyer — that has made me a happier person and better at my job. My nickname is Legal Mike and happily that means people know who to reach out to and I feel like I’m an approachable and an accommodating partner for anybody from the co-ordinator level to executive level,” he says.

WE Charity, formerly known as Free The Children, is a global development charity and “youth empowerment” movement founded in 1995 by Canadians Craig and Marc Kielburger. It has grown to include the popular WE Day event and there is a business side that supports it all, which includes international trips, jewelry, apparel and consumable products. Half of the profit from the business side is given to the charity and the other half is reinvested so the business can grow.

Anderson oversees any legal issue that comes up for those two entities — from trademarks and entertainment law to real estate and HR issues. WE has to keep the charity and business sides separate and be conscious about there being no private benefit flowing from the business to the charity — it’s one of the largest responsibilities Anderson has.

While he articled at a large law firm he realized he wanted to do something very different from the typical path of a corporate lawyer.

“I loved the [WE] organization and saw a lot of growth potential and that it was a great way to help people around the world so I jumped on the chance and have been here ever since,” he says.

Before law school, Anderson was working in television on the production side at MTV Canada. He was aware of WE and its work as the organization had partnered with MTV to do a few WE broadcasts. While he was there he realized he wanted to pursue a different career that might combine his various interests and in improving life for others.

“There was something about this organization that was special and different. I was drawn here because it satisfied why I wanted to go to law school in the first place, which was to help individuals who hadn’t been given the same gifts I was set up with,” he says.

It also looked to Anderson like a great culture fit. “It’s generally a young employee base and I love the energy of that. I also love organizations that punch above their weight and that’s what we do here in spades. It’s a great opportunity to face challenges and see what you can come up with. We’re very innovative here. No day is the same,” he says.

Anderson saw the job at WE as a great opportunity to grow and grow quickly.

“Neither side [of the organization] was being serviced internally by counsel so I thought if I did a good job on contracts there was nobody ahead of me, so as we evolved my hope was to be where I am today, which is being relied upon to manage all things legal and happily that has happened,” he says.

Anderson had been a summer student at what was then Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP and then articled at Dentons LLP in Ottawa. He decided large firm private practice work was not for him.

“Certainly I had some friends who took Bay Street roles and I was happy for them but it wasn’t for me,” he says, but he acknowledges that it was great training for his next role.

“I’m a baseball fan and there are some great teams that are known for player development — whether or not you end up playing for the team long term, if you get developed by them you will have that forever. I want to be in a place that will be best for my development. And so that was my near-term goal when it came to the articling process. I loved the Dentons Canada Ottawa office and learned a lot — ultimately, it was a combination of my wife’s career and me having an underlying motivation to be more in this space that made it an easier decision to leave that space.”

As a legal department of one, Anderson says he reaches out to external counsel, often around the world, to help navigate the jurisdictions the organization operates in such as Kenya, Ethiopia, the United Kingdom and China.

“I rely so much on the relationships with the outside counsel we work with and the relationships that I’ve been fortunate to be able to build on where they are OK with me calling and needing more instant advice,” he says.

With WE operating in so many different sectors, Anderson might have a question about entertainment law for a production in the United States and five minutes later an HR issue and at the same time be advising someone on a real estate issue. “Often, it’s a lot of phone calls and learning from our outside counsel,” he says. “I see my role almost as a translator and also making sure I’m using those services efficiently.”

He works directly with the executive team and co-founders on big picture projects, but he can also find himself dealing with all levels of staff. “Sometimes, it’s an email from someone who it’s their first job and they’re at the co-ordinator level and I love those opportunities to teach,” he says.

The majority of firms WE works with work on a discounted hourly rate because of the volume.

He’s also working with Inter Alia Law — a virtual in-house model of lawyers on demand. Founder Darlene Tonelli was formerly in-house counsel at Universal Music Canada.

“There are some accomplished folks there who left Microsoft, Corus or Live Nation — people mostly in the entertainment and the tech space — and they have a tech offering to make things efficient,” he says. “It’s Bay Street-level expertise that we’re getting at a rate that’s far lower than what you might otherwise pay for their level of service. I think it’s an interesting model — it’s how I’m trying to innovate now.”

Anderson says he’s also still in touch with his articling principal from Dentons, James Wishart, and tries to draw on those kinds of relationships for guidance. “I’m learning all the time but have to service the organization properly day to day and build processes and build structures [because] it was a greenfield before,” he says.

“One thing I do pride myself on is I always try to translate the legal stuff and be a good business partner so as much as I’m drafting contracts for the obvious legal purposes, I’m drafting with our business development partnership teams in my head at all times,” he says.

In 2015, WE launched a product called Track Your Impact  — a licensing and services agreement. WE owns the trademark in a number of countries and built a product for partners, which allows them to “track” their impact. For example, a company can run a promotion on a shampoo bottle for a month so when consumers buy that shampoo a charitable impact is provided in one of the countries WE works in.

“Our first tracker impact deal was in summer 2015 and it’s grown exponentially and is a really exciting program,” says Anderson. “It’s a great example of us punching above our weight — we’re getting paid to have exposure in these places, doing great work on the ground and helping our partners with their goals.”

60 Second Snapshot

The Lawyer: Mike Anderson

The Company: WE

• Articled at Dentons Canada LLP

• University of Ottawa J.D. Law

• Best advice he ever received: “If anyone offers you money or offers you opportunity, take the opportunity and the money will take care of itself.”

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