Jennifer Biernaskie of McLennan Ross on her career, firm, and advice to young lawyers

The Calgary-based litigator will serve again this year on the Lexpert Rising Stars judging panel

Jennifer Biernaskie of McLennan Ross on her career, firm, and advice to young lawyers
Jennifer Biernaskie

Jennifer Biernaskie is a commercial and insurance defence litigator at McLennan Ross. She is also a judge for the Lexpert Rising Stars Awards, recognizing Canada’s leading lawyers under 40. Nominations for the 2024 awards are now open, and the final deadline is July 5.

Canadian Lawyer spoke to Biernaskie about her background, practice, and insights for aspiring lawyers.

The path to litigation and insurance defense

Biernaskie knew at the outset of her career that she wanted to be a litigator. She was attracted to the diversity of an insurance defence and commercial litigation practice, where her expertise lies in the rules of court and litigation rather than any specific subject area.

Her career started in Atlantic Canada, where she practiced at Patterson Palmer Law and McInnes Cooper before moving to McLennan Ross in 2010. The transition to Alberta brought its own decisions, notably the significant commitment of joining a partnership. “That was a moment for me where I had to make a real decision about whether I was going to stay out east or move back to the west where my family was.” Ultimately, the move west aligned with her professional and personal goals, leading her to her current role.

Experiences that shape a lawyer

Reflecting on her career, Jennifer points to the human side of law as the most impactful aspect of her practice. She recounts her experiences with cases involving sensitive matters like sexual abuse, which taught her to practice with empathy and humanity. “Understanding and having empathy for the person on the other side, even while you are adversaries, has been important.” This approach has proven invaluable in handling emotionally charged cases involving fatalities and other significant issues.

McLennan Ross’ growth and strategic planning

McLennan Ross has seen substantial growth over the past decades, and Biernaskie underscores the importance of proactive strategic planning to keep pace. The firm’s expansion is driven by organic growth and the acquisition of lateral talent, particularly in labour and employment, a key practice area. “Our client base has just grown, and it speaks to the success of that practice group in particular.” This growth strategy emphasizes recruiting a high number of students and fostering talent from within, creating a firm culture where many lawyers spend their entire careers.

Professional development and mentorship

Biernaskie previously chaired the professional development committee and highlights the firm’s commitment to continuous learning. “We have regular seminars, sometimes more than one a week, for students to attend.”

These sessions cover substantive law and procedural training, ensuring that lawyers at all stages of their careers can deepen their knowledge and skills. Additionally, the firm offers firm-wide programming on work-life balance, marketing, and relationship building, providing a holistic approach to professional development.

Mentorship is another cornerstone of McLennan Ross’s culture. Each associate is paired with two mentors, ensuring they have support and guidance from multiple perspectives. “We have a formal mentoring program… somebody you can speak to confidentially if you need to, somebody you can have a connection with outside of your practice area if that's where they happen to land. …You can [also] just go ask that stupid question, too, that you're too afraid to ask other people, and they will answer it without judgment.”

Technology and innovation

Biernaskie says McLennan Ross is not rushing into technology such as artificial intelligence. “We like to be really careful and thoughtful about how we engage with new technology, particularly AI.” The firm prioritizes the benefits to clients and the mitigation of risks, ensuring that technological advancements are used judiciously. She says that staying on top of technological trends is essential for document management and litigation support, given the increasing volume of digital data relevant to legal cases.

Diversity and inclusion

Diversity and inclusion are integral to McLennan Ross’s operations. The firm’s EDI committee actively engages in discussions and learning opportunities. For instance, they recently held a seminar on neurodiversity in the legal workplace, highlighting their commitment to fostering an inclusive environment.

“I think we are doing a very good job of engaging on those topics and having full and frank discussions about them in our firm,” says Biernaskie. “Certainly, we have a lot of discussions in the recruiting stage about the benefits of bringing diversity into the workplace and what a candidate has to offer and how diverse background in many different ways can be an asset, and we view it as an asset.”

Advice for aspiring lawyers

For those entering the legal profession, Biernaskie recalls another partner at her firm observing what success looks like: “Everybody here is looking to hone their craft and … to be better and better at it. I think what you see in rising stars and people who are very successful is someone who approaches it with that attitude.” She says continuous learning, taking on new challenges, and being open to different approaches are key to thriving in the legal field.

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