Looking to stretch the business muscle

One of the first in-house lawyers I spoke with when I landed in this job more than three years ago was the former general counsel of the Forzani Group, Evan Johnston, after the company was acquired by Canadian Tire. He had recently taken up the role as the first GC for Calgary-based construction company The Churchill Corp. He joined Churchill as vice president and GC and reported directly to the CEO. The lead director at Forzani happened to also be chairman at Churchill and he called Johnston and asked him what he was going to do.

Of importance to Johnston though, was that Churchill made it known they were looking not just for a GC but someone who could get involved in the business strategy and growth of the company.
I remember him saying to me: “It wasn’t about the money and it wasn’t the profile. . . . What I’m hoping is that my next job is not a law job; I’m hoping this puts me more in a business role.”

At the time, I was a bit surprised but when you start adding up everything in-house counsel do in the course of their careers, many certainly acquire the business skills that can be applied in other ways at the executive level.

It’s something I think many in-house counsel debate with themselves at some point in their career — even more so these days as many organizations are shrinking. Certainly we’ve written about those who were offered opportunities in the business unit but decided their real passion was the law and only the law. Others have told me they want to move outside the legal department but are frustrated their organization doesn’t seem to be structured for it or can’t see the potential of having lawyers in the business.

In our last issue, WestJet’s Barbara Munroe told us how the airline has a program in place to encourage such experimentation outside legal. It only makes sense a company would encourage valued employees to try on different roles — especially lawyers for all the risk management skills they can bring to the table.

Our back page columnist for this issue — Bindu Dhaliwal, assistant general counsel at BMO Financial Group — explores the struggle some lawyers in-house are feeling these days.
Her piece notes that last year, 23 people moved to different roles within the group and 34 joined other areas of BMO. As well, 15 have taken secondments both within and outside the legal group.

The big question for many contemplating such a move seems to be: What happens if I leave and want to come back? “Trying on” the role seems to be the most comfortable route to take.

In an era when many want to expand their skills, or do something different to try out their business acumen, but feel stymied by a lack of opportunities, the secondment approach within one’s own organization seems like the best possible option for all involved.

Otherwise, organizations may, at worst, risk losing good people entirely or, at least, dampening their passion for the work they are doing now.

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