Tips from the top — September 2009

Canadian Lawyer 4Students goes right to the top and seeks some words of wisdom from senior in-house counsel around the country.


We asked these business leaders for their thoughts on the following questions:


1.    How did you end up as in-house counsel?
2.    What advice would you have for law students who are interested

       in working in-house?
3.    Who inspired you?
4.    What class did you enjoy the most in law school?
5.    What’s your favourite way to shed the stresses of the day?


Robert Patzelt, vice president, risk management, and general counsel, Scotia Investments Ltd.


1. My plan was to get a few years at a big firm and then go in house. Plans were accelerated because the recession was in full swing and I had to get out there sooner than expected. I started out as the risk manager and once I knew the organization I was allowed to set up the legal department. I then worked my way up the corporate ladder.

2. If you are the right fit, it is a great life. You must think like a business person who “happens to be a lawyer.” You need an arsenal of skills. Ensure that you hone your leadership, communication, and business skills along the way. Volunteering in outside organizations is a great way to do this. Also, make sure you are valuable to the operations people. Be a problem solver not a problem handler and they will seek out your counsel and let you inside the tent.

3. Many people. You have great lawyers-turned-business-leaders like Sir Graham Day or Purdy Crawford. Also, my parents were a key inspiration. They escaped the communists in East Germany which gave me this great start in Canada. I could always look to them for what it is to have real courage and the desire to make things better.

4.  A lot were useful but the best was evidence taught by professor Rollie Thompson at Dalhousie Law School. It was the first time he taught that class. He and the class gelled. When we wanted to learn, we were on fire and when we didn’t, he had to regale us with stories to kill time. I hardly use the actual teachings on a daily basis but the enthusiasm, energy, and the joint exploration of a new field stuck with me forever. That is how all learning should be.

5.  I love to cook and the more complex and difficult the meal the better. There is nothing like a great dinner party that forces you to plan and execute well to get the creative juices flowing. Multiple courses of Asian cooking are tense. It all comes together in a very short period of time. Having many woks and other things happening all at once is a great rush. Every senior executive should have a sophisticated palette but the ability to hold a knife is important too. When things are really hopping in the kitchen it is impossible to be thinking about work. I have a few burn marks to prove what happens when you lack focus but the compliments are worth it and I still have all my fingers.


Terrie-Lynne Devonish, chief counsel, Aon Canada


1. I was seconded to a client’s in-house legal department when I worked at a law firm and during that secondment came to realize that I really enjoyed working as in-house counsel. 

2. It is good to get some good private practice experience first at a law firm that spends time training its counsel. This will also give you a good opportunity to work with clients — learning to understand your clients’ needs and to be responsive to clients is very important for in-house counsel. After that, keep your eyes peeled for opportunities in industries that interest you.

3. I have been inspired by many people, but of note are my mother and father and anyone who freely gives of their time and energy to help others.

4. My most enjoyable time at law school was the term I spent working at the Parkdale legal clinic. It was an incredible experience in an amazing community.

5. Either working out or having a good laugh with my friends or sisters. 


Eric Miller, vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary, Nexen Inc.


1. I decided I wanted to work closer to the business.

2.  Have a business-related undergrad or graduate degree. I am a graduate of the Osgoode Hall/Schulich School of
Business LLB/MBA program.

3.  Ken Dryden, who successfully combined high-level sport and post-secondary education was an inspiration.

4.  I most enjoyed law and economics.

5. Sports — you name it — for relaxing.


Pierre Nollet, vice president, corporate secretary, and chief legal officer, CBC


1. After years of experience as outside counsel in private practice, I chose a career change with a then-client.

2. Polish your skills with a reputable firm; develop a niche or specialization.

3. I was inspired by René Lévesque for his ability to create consensus, humble background, and high achievements.

4. Criminal law was my favourite because it was down-to-earth.

5. The best way to shed the stress of a day is to start a new day.


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