The right mix

Jonathan Horlick, vice president and associate counsel for Calgary’s Talisman Energy Inc. joined the company in 2009 and soon recognized the department had a vital shortage of lawyers in the intermediate range of both experience and age. The in-house legal department experienced a dearth of younger lawyer recruits 10 years earlier, illustrating the ebbs and flows of competition for top hires in Canada’s market.


Horlick based his assessment of the Talisman legal team on his experience working for private law firms before moving to the corporate law sector for two startup companies, then acting as a consultant adviser to corporate clients for several years before taking on his role at Talisman. Within Talisman’s legal department, consisting of 25 lawyers, roughly half are relatively recent hires in their early 30s, while the other half are long-term lawyers in their mid to late 50s, soon facing retirement. “We have a big gap in the middle, which is a quirky thing that I think reflects the difficulty we had during those periods of time recruiting people, just because of competitive pressures in the marketplace,” says Horlick. “There were competitive pressures for about a decade or so in Calgary and as a result, that gap has just not been filled. So there’s a bit of a bulge in the middle between younger practitioners and older practitioners where we just don’t have people.”

With succession planning becoming a priority in light of the pending retirement of the baby boom generation of lawyers, more companies are vying to ensure they have ample candidates to ascend the corporate ladder. Yet even for large companies conducting international business, the competition to recruit can be daunting.

Interestingly, that adds to the prospect of career advancement for the so-called generation X and Y lawyers in their 20s and 30s to gain exposure to all aspects of business, and readily achieve promotions based on their strengths and accrued expertise. “From a younger person’s perspective, that creates a lot of opportunity in terms of advancement,” says Horlick.

Lawyer Hugoline Morton is one beneficiary. She joined Talisman in August 2007, after initially taking on a position at a private law firm following her 2006 call to the bar. At the law firm, she found her opportunities to be limited, especially considering she brought an MBA to the table on top of her law degree. At Talisman, she says, “The main advantage is that you get to be thrown into a role and become the immediate contact for a client group.”

She has also found there are opportunities within the company to leverage her MBA and rise within the hierarchy outside of a purely legal position, asserting there are no limits to her opportunities. “I’m enjoying the work and the challenges I have currently in my legal role,” says Morton.

In three years, she has grown her legal portfolio in-house to become a key player in Talisman’s North American operation group, and has recently taken on the company’s seismic work portfolio, for which she oversees the legal implications of exploration results in the field.

Based on Morton’s moderate experience, one can see there can be many prospects for advancement for corporate counsel to excel in their role and title once they become familiar with the company’s operations. Now she is eyeing further opportunities within the company. “There are several people here who have moved into non-legal positions and that’s certainly something I consider as a benefit of being in-house, as it’s a potential opportunity I might one day go after,” she says. “You can participate in the business process right out of the gate, and the increased mobility is a key benefit. I find that here, you’ve basically got three options: work your way up in the legal department, do a secondment outside of the legal department, or move over completely to another department and leave the law behind.”

One of the side benefits of working within a corporate law department for a company that has to deal with environmental compliance can be an ideal opportunity to effect change, says Morton.

Alex Shorten, senior vice president and general counsel at Imperial Parking Corp. based in Vancouver, has two lawyers within his legal department, but mentors law students through the Canadian Bar Association’s B.C. chapter with the sole purpose of encouraging them to pursue a career as corporate counsel. “Legal departments are always in competition with law firms for the best talent,” says Shorten. “But a lot of very sophisticated legal work is done in-house and you need to have the best people doing it.”

Shorten admits particularly during the recession of 2009, many law departments weren’t able to hire young lawyers due to budgetary constraints. “There has been a curb on hiring and any expansion for bonus programs and other costs.”

His legal team at Impark has been extremely busy with a volume of matters that surfaced during the recession. He says the economic crunch has deterred many companies, including his, to hire additional staff. “A lot of law departments have had to undergo an analysis of their costs,” he notes. “Budgets are looked at very carefully, just as they’re looked at in other departments. There’s been a curb on hiring and any expansion for bonus programs and other costs, which means corporate lawyers are very busy.”

He says, however, any law departments vying to recruit young talent should be able to provide them with a concrete corporate vision illustrating the company’s prospects and opportunities for the candidate’s career advancement within at least the next five years, but ideally more.

“You’re showing that you can bring them in along the type of work that they can do and how eventually, they’ll become a senior lawyer and take on a management position within the legal department or another management position within the corporation,” says Shorten. “So from a succession planning point of view, it’s very useful for the law department or the corporation if [young lawyers] have other skills.”

Jerome Shore, managing partner of The Coaching Clinic law firm consultancy in Toronto, agrees younger prospects need assurance that through either articling placements or taking a position in-house, they’ll be able to garner the same exposure — if not more — to clients and legal experiences as counterparts articling or working at private law firms.

Ideally, says Shore, companies can score top candidates through sharing projections based a solid, long-term business plan through which applicants can envision their role and ascension opportunities for the future. But he agrees that for many companies looking to bolster their legal team, that’s not always easy to offer. “For people who are going to play on the team at the appropriate level, say for five, 10, or 15 years into the future, you do want to have an appropriate mix,” he says.

“If I was a student sitting across the table from a recruiter who talked like the organization had thought about how things were going to unfold over 30 years, I would say to myself, ‘This looks like an organization that is buckling down, thinks about things in the future.’ Companies should have a really good idea of what they are going to be doing inside, what they’re going to be doing outside, and what’s in the middle,” says Shore in terms of anticipating the use of in-house counsel versus contracting work to law firms, which many companies do.

From the company’s perspective, “You’re not committing to anything, you’re just saying, ‘We want to have a mix of people who want to deliver now and want to grow and deliver together,’” he says, adding young lawyers today “are very considerate about who they will be working for” in terms of quality corporate leadership.

At the same time, younger lawyers are indeed seeking a reasonable work-life balance, along with some means of mentoring within their respective organization that will foster their career growth as opposed to fully tapping their talent. “Mentoring is very important now for young lawyers,” acknowledges Shore.

Ultimately, he says, a work-life balance is also essential for any newly qualified lawyers. “The under-30 group is seeing that baby boomers have worked extremely hard in the 1980s, with not so much reward,” he says. “They really don’t want to burn themselves out the way their elders have burnt themselves out.”

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