Suncor's David Kramer speaks about big deals, the energy transition and career advice

The Lexpert Rising Star on being a generalist, community work, and judging this year's awards

Suncor's David Kramer speaks about big deals, the energy transition and career advice
David Kramer

David Kramer is senior legal counsel at Suncor Energy in Calgary. Last year, he was named a Lexpert Rising Star, recognizing lawyers 40 and under in Canada. This year, he will judge the awards. Nominations for the 2024 awards are now open, and the final deadline to nominate is July 5.

Kramer spoke on our CL Talk podcast about his journey, why he loves practising in-house, working with external counsel, and tips for effective negotiation.

Listen to our full podcast episode here:

This episode can also be found on our CL Talk podcast homepage, which includes links to follow CL Talk on all the major podcast providers.

Below is a summary of the conversation, edited for length and clarity:

Tell me about your journey in the legal profession.

I've always enjoyed dispute resolution, and I like helping people get to the bottom of what is at the core of their disputes. I've always enjoyed the practice of law. I studied law at Queen’s University and then worked on Bay Street in Toronto, where I did my formative training at one of the large law firms. I then moved in-house relatively soon in my career, where I enjoyed the ability to practice a broad base of the law. Specialization got old relatively quickly for me. I like that when I come to work, I don’t know what will be on my desk.

You have been involved with several high-profile transactions and projects at Suncor. What achievements are you most proud of?

The current work I'm most proud of is a deal we were able to do just last year with Canadian Tire. This allowed Suncor to be the primary fuel supplier to all Canadian Tire’s gas stations nationwide. It was a substantial transaction that also involved rebranding several of their stores, which was bringing together two iconic Canadian companies. I am very proud to have been involved with that.

Suncor has been at the forefront of the energy transition, including work on a hydrogen production facility and carbon sequestration hub.

We are breaking new ground, both literally and figuratively. We are partnering for the energy transition, not only for the future of our industry but also for the entire country.

Energy companies like Suncor must be leaders in that area. From a legal perspective, it's nice to be involved at the ground level in setting up those relationships and working with other companies in our industry. It takes a combined effort from many substantial and sophisticated organizations to move forward, and this presents a lot of interesting legal issues. You have sophisticated entities who are often competitors trying to find a way to move forward together to achieve a very important goal for the country's future.

Tell me about your work with law firms and what works well.

One of the things I enjoy about in-house work is the wide variety. But to a certain extent, that creates a situation where you're a jack of all trades and a master of none. Occasionally, you need someone who practises one thing and does it very well, especially when you are involved in a novel large-scale transaction. That's where I find external counsel invaluable. I've got a list of people I can phone and bounce questions off, knowing that the answer will be well-researched and I can rely on it.

Do you have any law firm partnerships that also didn't work out?

We don't have many bad examples, but I do know what good work looks like. We're always cost-conscious when it comes to legal services, but we recognize that good advice is something you pay for, and we're willing to pay for it.

It's important to have concise, to-the-point messaging when I'm asking specific questions. On the other hand, having counsel with a breadth of experience allows them to show the universe of the possible for a given transaction. When they've seen a lot of options and can present you with a menu of different ways to approach a particular problem or potential relationship, it can be invaluable.

You can look at something and say, “I never thought of that. It’s perfect for the scenario we find ourselves in and not something that I'm likely to see in an in-house position where I only have one client and do the same sort of deal repeatedly.”

Tell me about your community involvement and or pro bono initiatives at Suncor.

I've done a fair amount of work with some communities in my hometown province of Saskatchewan, which I don't get a chance to be in as much as I would like anymore. We've worked with First Nations communities in the educational space to provide opportunities, which has been rewarding for me.

What about the legal community in Calgary?

In the legal community, it is a lot of training, mentorship, and staying abreast of an ever-changing industry. I find that lawyers learn best from other lawyers, so being involved in the legal community can help your practice and everyone else.

Can you tell me a memorable experience you've had as a mentor or being mentored?

A senior lawyer I worked with in my previous position was the master of the pregnant pause. There is something valuable in a negotiation when you can sit back, listen to the other side, and not necessarily react immediately. I've taken that to heart because I do a lot of negotiation.

It is every lawyer’s knee-jerk reaction to want to immediately refute a position that's presented to them. We all like to debate, and we all like to be correct. But I learned something valuable from that lawyer about staying silent and being able to sit back and take the time to consider.

How do you advise lawyers in deciding between staying at a law firm or moving in-house?

You have an option when you're starting your career. You can begin to know less and less about more and more until you know absolutely nothing about everything. Or you can learn more and more about something that becomes increasingly specific so that you know everything about nothing.

The balance lies somewhere in between. I'm on the broader side. I like to be able to answer questions my clients pose to me out of the blue, knowing that my initial thought might not be perfect. External counsel can help refine those answers to validate or correct my initial feeling, which you must be open to.

It was vital for me to have exposure to the broadest possible scope of work. I like surprises. But I appreciate those individuals who look at something and say, “No, I want to get really, really good at one thing, and I want to do that one thing perfectly.” Those individuals are valuable, too.

The nice thing about our profession is that it affords you the opportunity to personalize your career to exactly how you work. That is not something every career path offers.

Winning the Lexpert Rising Stars is quite an achievement. How did you feel when you were informed?

I hate talking about myself, even though I'm on a podcast. So, the nomination process was a bit awkward, but it does allow you to look back at your career and what you've done with a broader lens than you usually would.

The nomination process is challenging and forces you to be introspective, which you should do on a regular basis in your career.

What advice would you give younger lawyers who might strive for such recognition?

If you're following what you love to do and are passionate about your work, that sort of award will come because you will inevitably be good at what you love to do. Many people in our profession are lucky enough to have found their calling, and if you've done it, you will naturally do good work.

What motivated you to volunteer to be a judge this year?

Somebody had to read my nomination, so I want to give back to recognize the work involved. I really look forward to being able to reward the next generation of lawyers in our profession and the good work that's being done. I'm lucky to be in that position.

Looking ahead, what do you hope to achieve in your career?

I barely know what I'm doing next week, so it's tough to answer that question. My general approach to work is to follow what motivates me and that I love to do. I'm in the right place if I can occasionally answer weird legal questions. As long as I get to continue working with interesting people and problems, then I will call that career success.

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