Stepping Up: workshop aims to prepare women in-house counsel for the next level

While the in-house bar in Canada has grown considerably in the last decade, competition for general counsel roles has increased.

With fewer top legal jobs in public companies than in the U.S., the path to the GC office in Canada has become highly competitive and often difficult to reach. As with many senior leadership roles, women sometimes face more challenges than men in attaining the top spot.

With that in mind, Deloitte and Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP last week sponsored a workshop called Stepping Up: Preparing to Be a GC. The event was held for 37 women in-house lawyers identified by their organizations as potential general counsel candidates.

The attendees included lawyers like Kristi Lalach, vice president legal and compliance with FGL Sports Ltd. & Mark’s Work Wearhouse in Calgary. Lalach has been with the company nine and a half years, starting in-house with the Forzani Group before it was acquired by Canadian Tire in 2011. She found the Stepping Up workshop a great way to get advice from those who have risen to the top.

“The program wasn’t necessarily how to succeed in-house as a woman but it explored strategies that could really help men and women get to that role,” says Lalach who attended on the invitation of Robyn Collver, senior vice president, secretary and general counsel at Canadian Tire.

“The panel who spoke about the path to leadership talked about their own stumbling blocks and it was kind of a backstage pass to what it takes to be a GC. They were all very candid.”

Stepping Up is the first program of its kind to focus on leadership development for the next generation of women GCs in Canada. Its goal is to increase the number of women GCs in Canadian public and private companies, not-for-profit institutions, government entities, and Canadian subsidiaries of multinationals.

The program was inspired, in part, by the success of a similar initiative in the United States called Project 5/165, which is a call to action to increase the number of women GCs in Fortune 500 companies from 108 to 165 within five years.

Lalach says she doesn’t view the challenge for women in-house lawyers in Canada to be as big of a problem as it is in the rest of the world, and viewed the event as more a way to navigate her career to the next level.

Blakes and Deloitte worked with an advisory board of 20 senior lawyers to prepare a leadership development program designed to provide women with the skills, knowledge and direction to take on the role of general counsel. Participation was by invitation-only via advisory board members and other general counsel.

The advisory board includes male and female senior general counsel including Collver from Canadian Tire, Simon Fish, senior vice president and general counsel at BMO, Ken Fredeen, general counsel at Deloitte, Julia Shin Doi, general counsel and secretary of the board at Ryerson University, and others.

Fish says getting women promoted to senior roles in-house is seen as a challenge globally but the issues in Canada have more to do with availability of positions.

“The issue in Canada is more one of opportunities for women as there are fewer corporations and public companies with general counsel roles than in the U.S. The idea here is to make sure where there are opportunities we have the right people in the talent pool ready to step up into roles when they become available. This is aimed at high-potential individuals working in-house who we hope will be future leaders,” says Fish.

Lawyers from Blakes were also part of the development of Stepping Up.

“We have done leadership programs for clients in the past and it was often standing-room only for programs aimed at women so we knew this would be of value,” says Alison Jeffrey, chief client relations and marketing officer at Blakes. “We wanted to provide this group with access to general counsel who would provide candid and open advice about the path to leadership and what they did to break out.”

A Stepping Up LinkedIn group will be used to share information and resources and future events are being discussed.

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