Advocacy in-house

Advocacy in-house
As a woman in law, the issue of diversity has been of interest and concern from Day 1 for Tracey Durand, senior vice president and general counsel of Sodexo Canada.
“It’s no secret that’s a concern for the legal profession in general,” she says. “In Sodexo, there’s a very strong focus on diversity and inclusion — it’s part of our growth strategy.” This isn’t exactly rocket science, she added. “The world is figuring out that diversity of thought is key to driving all sorts of things including business results.”

Sodexo, which provides outsourced facilities management, offers food programs and other services to clients, including healthcare facilities, university campuses, or remote sites in Northern Canada. Since the company provides “quality-of-life” solutions to diverse clients across diverse markets, it’s essential to have a deeply embedded understanding of diversity, says Durand.

Employees are incented to make diversity part of their day-to-day jobs, although there’s no affirmative action in place. Instead, it’s about developing a plan for diversity and inclusion. And everyone has one, including the chief executive officer.

“We’re a people company — I know everyone says that, but our asset is our workforce. We don’t own buildings or big equipment,” says Durand, who is also the chairwoman of Sodexo’s women’s networking group in Canada (the company has about 10 employee networking groups in the U.S. from women to veterans to pan-Asian).

This provides an open forum to talk about issues of interest to the group — and in this case, the group also includes men. “We encourage men to join,” says Durand. “The diversity journey is about everyone understanding the need for diversity . . .  Most consumers are women, and a lot of our clients are women, so we wanted the opportunity for men to learn about issues that impact women so they could be better at the jobs they are doing.”

In addition to her regular legal duties, Durand volunteered to help develop the company’s corporate social responsibility plan, called the Better Tomorrow Plan, where she saw an overlap between the legal, compliance, and ethical side of general practice with health, wellness, and impact on local communities. “It was synergistic with what I was doing in a legal role, even though it was not strictly legal,” she says.

That led to a focus on aboriginal relations — a focus specific to Canada (the company is in about 80 countries). Among its clients, Sodexo represents mining and resources companies, and core to the company’s business in remote northern areas of Canada is partnering with aboriginal groups (Sodexo is gold certified under the Progressive Aboriginal Relations program by the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business). This includes providing employment, training, and support to aboriginal partners.

But in order to do that, says Durand, there has to be some understanding and cultural awareness of how business on traditional lands will impact those communities — rather than just writing a cheque. “Quite frankly we have a crisis in aboriginal communities in health and wellness and education,” she says.

A mining or resource company will typically come to an agreement with affected communities, called an impact benefit agreement, which implies the community should get some benefit — and not be negatively affected — by the company’s work on their lands.

“We are proactive in seeking out partnerships with aboriginal communities to work with them, and they are true partnerships in the sense that each party gets benefit and not just financial benefit,” says Durand.

She’s also taken on the executive director role for the company’s charitable foundation, called the Sodexo Foundation, with a goal to fight hunger in Canada. The foundation runs a number of programs throughout the year, primarily focused on feeding hungry children, including a program that runs during summer months in major urban centres.

“That program is designed to provide healthy lunches to children who during the school year are on lunch programs and who otherwise might be at risk of not having healthy lunches in the summer,” says Durand. It involves supplier partners and thousands of volunteers across the country, from employees to clients, who make sandwiches and pack lunches.

Given her love of advocacy, it makes sense that Durand started her career as a litigator. “In law school I loved advocacy, I still love it to this day — loved the trial, the courtroom,” she says. “I absolutely saw my law career as a commercial litigator.”

Durand studied business at the University of Western Ontario, but decided a law degree would give her a broader base from which to launch a business or legal career. That’s how she ended up at Osgoode Hall Law School (after a year at the University of New Brunswick) and started her career as a commercial litigator.

For eight years, Durand worked as an associate for Toronto firms, including Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP and McMillan Binch Mendelsohn LLP (now McMillan LLP). While she loved litigation, she was also keenly interested in the business of her clients. “As I was working cases, I was always wondering what does this result mean for my client at the end of the day? How is it going to impact their business?” she says.

While considering her next career move, Durand wondered how to best apply her legal training in a business context. “I absolutely did not want to give up being a lawyer, I wanted to do both, so I decided to go in-house,” she says. “That was very challenging at the time to move from a litigation role to an in-house role.” A lot of people — including recruiters — said it couldn’t be done. “I almost was told no, you can’t make this leap. But I don’t believe that.”

As a commercial litigator, Durand had learned corporate-commercial concepts and had seen what challenges could arise with commercial documents. In the end, she landed a job at Compass Group Canada.

Durand was the company’s first lawyer in Canada, and from 2001 to 2007 she built a legal team of three. Then she took a year off to spend with her two young children and consider her next move, which she thought would be part of a much larger legal department. But an interesting role came up with Shred-it, a document-destruction company. Not long after she started though, an opportunity came up at Sodexo.

This was an industry she had an affinity for, so Durand made the leap in November 2009 to become Sodexo’s general counsel for Canada. Once again, she was the company’s first lawyer. “I’m a glutton for punishment,” she joked.

For Durand, the best part about moving in-house is feeling like she’s part of the business but realizes it may be somewhat unique. “Not all roles within companies get to have that global view and think about what the company stands for, what we want to be and how we want to grow,” she says.

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