The shift from litigator to tomorrow's leader

The shift from litigator to tomorrow's leader
Jody Becker’s parents told her that she came out of the womb arguing and that’s how she ended up at law school.
Becker, who at 37 years of age won the Tomorrow’s Leader Award at the 2011 Canadian General Counsel Awards in Toronto this past June, has clearly found her path. Now vice president and general counsel at EllisDon Corp. — one of Canada’s construction giants — she was initially drawn to law by the prospect of becoming a litigator, which she did for many years. Now, however, she’s hung up her robes in favour of resolving situations before they go to court.

When she made the transition to in-house counsel and joined EllisDon in 2007, Becker worked with a legal staff of two, including herself. Despite the recession, the company has grown by at least 50 per cent since she joined, and her role has also grown during that time. Now heading up a legal team that includes three other lawyers, she helps to secure financing and manage risk for deals worth millions of dollars.

Expecting to do a lot of litigation management, Becker’s role quickly changed into one that involved more corporate work with a heavy focus on public-private partnership (P3) projects. A few of the projects she’s worked on include the $408 million Sault Area Hospital in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., and the $292 million Ontario Highway Service Centres. She’s worked on a number of other hospital deals in Ontario and B.C., and has led the legal analysis behind major bids.

Though she wasn’t a transactional lawyer before she joined EllisDon, Becker started doing deals right away and had to learn on the fly. “It’s a company that says it’s entrepreneurial and it really is, so the fact that I was a litigator didn’t matter — I can litigate today and do project management tomorrow,” she says.

“I won’t say it wasn’t a challenge trying to learn the aspects of project finance when I got here — I had a few nights where I went home moaning to my husband about how I was never going to learn how to do this — but I’m a sink-or-swim type of person, so the challenge of learning it was pretty fun, too.”

Becker went from being a litigation lawyer to a jack-of-all-trades, learning everything from mergers and acquisitions to trademark law along the way — and more about insurance than she ever wanted to know. Only one thing is really certain about her job: she never knows what she’s going to get on her plate the next day. One day she’s helping to close a billion-dollar bond deal and the next she’s working on a small merger-and-acquisition transaction.

“I think secretly lawyers want to be business people, so I get to sneak into that side of things a little bit more every day and be part of strategy — putting together the strategic partners for a bid or working on the upfront side of some of these projects,” says Becker. “That’s probably the most rewarding part for me, as opposed to being a cleanup person on the litigation side.”

The most rewarding parts, however, can also be the most challenging, since it’s a constant learning process that requires putting in plenty of extra hours. “A lot of people come into in-house jobs thinking that it’s more of a lifestyle choice than being external, but that’s certainly not the case here. I work way more hours than I ever did in private practice, but I’m also enjoying it tremendously,” she says.

“It’s a bit of a give and take — I’m not sure my family is entirely appreciative of it all the time,” laughs Becker, who is the mother of two boys, aged seven and five.

As part of this entrepreneurial spirit, one of her objectives at EllisDon was to hire a legal team with diverse backgrounds — not just construction backgrounds — to cover off more areas in-house. “We’ve got some strong relationships with our external firms, but the nature of our business is one of competitiveness and there really is a focus on keeping costs as low as possible, so there is a strong desire to do as much in-house as we can,” she says.

Though she’s working more hours than she did in private practice, Becker recently started an organization with Yonni Fushman, division general counsel and director, risk management with Aecon Group Inc., and Michelle Kidd, assistant general counsel of exp, with the support of Geza Banfai of Heenan Blaikie LLP, called the Construction Sector In-house Counsel Forum. The idea was that the CSIC would help promote the sharing of thoughts and ideas around working as in-house counsel in the construction industry. The inaugural meeting was held in June. “We had a warm response from over 50 people in the industry in similar jobs, not just construction, but consulting and engineering as well,” says Becker.

After majoring in English, Becker attended law school at the University of Western Ontario. At the time, she wanted nothing other than to become a litigator, so when it came time to article, she looked for a firm that focused on litigation. The result was articling and then working for small Toronto construction litigation boutique Glaholt & Associates (now Glaholt LLP). Later, a few members of the firm split off to create McLaughlin & Associates and Becker went with them, learning a diverse skill set along the way.

She found, however, as her private practice grew, she was doing less litigation as companies became much more focused on preventing problems rather than spending money on lawyers to litigate a problem after the fact. “Some of the companies I worked with in private practice were moving toward more upfront review of contracts and more strategic considerations at the outset of a project rather than fighting about it later on,” she says.

“In light of the decline in the amount of matters that were going to trial, I was starting to feel a lot less like a litigator and a lot more like a solicitor. That part of it started to interest me a great deal,” says Becker. So when the opportunity arose at EllisDon to go in-house, she decided to give it a shot — particularly because she thought she would be in more of a position to prevent matters from going to trial. “That’s what led me here.”

Today, Becker says she’s found a new passion for law that doesn’t involve litigating. “You start with a few pieces of paper and you could end up with a billion-dollar hospital,” she says. “There’s a concrete reminder at the end of the day of what you’ve done.”

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