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The continuum of in-house counsel education

There’s a growing continuum of learning focused on practical education that reflects the reality of being in-house counsel.

graduate student

From pre-call to post-call to executive education, there’s a growing continuum of learning focused on practical education that reflects the reality of being in-house counsel. As strategic partners in their organizations, in-house are part of the business team, an experience that is far different than the typical private practice.

At the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Law, for example, third-year law students are placed in local law departments as part of their course work. John Pozios, director of the University’s L. Kerry Vickar Business Law Clinic, initiated the corporate counsel clinical internship program, modeled after a similar program at the University of North Carolina’s School of Law. The internship has been offered for six academic terms so far, and he says, “It’s received enthusiastic buy-in from both students and supervising counsel.”

Manitoba Telecom Services (MTS) is one of the local companies participating in the program. At first, Candace Bishoff, general counsel and director law, was reluctant because her department had not hired an articling student for more than 25 years. However, after speaking with Pozios, she decided “there’s a lot of really neat and interesting work we do in the law department, and we could certainly share what we do with a student and give them exposure to life as a lawyer in a corporate environment.”

One student worked on a document retention and destruction policy that MTS was revamping. “[This is] the kind of work not taught in law school, but is a critical function for the law department,” explains Bishoff. Another student worked with the company’s customer care group to create a demand letter for the collections department. “We’re having such a positive experience with the internship program,” she says, “that we ended up hiring an articling student this year.”

Although working in-house is attractive to many lawyers, for a variety of reasons, it is a segment of the profession about which most law students know very little, according to Michael Jack, director of legal services and city solicitor for the City of Winnipeg, whose law department is also participating in the program.“

The internship focuses on commercial work,” he explains. “So with our department handling all of the commercial work for an organization the size of the City of Winnipeg, we knew we had the potential to offer students a really broad and diverse experience during their time here.” He adds, “It [is not] a one-way relationship. Our department received a great deal of work from a very competent student. In any in-house department with limited resources, every little bit helps.”

Emphasizing mentoring and diversity

Ask any in-house counsel about mentoring and it’s likely most of them act as mentors — whether informally in their department or through programs such as the CCCA’s Mentoring Program.

Fernando Garcia, general counsel at Nissan Canada, is a strong believer in the value of mentoring. “Being an in-house lawyer is very different than private practice. As a private practice lawyer, you become involved with a matter, and then you can walk away,” says Garcia, who is both an informal mentor and a member of the CCCA’s Mentoring Committee. “But in-house, you not only have to place more of a business perspective into your decision making, but you often then become involved in implementing your decisions or solutions. This requires a different approach and different decision making and/or strategic considerations in dealing with issues.”

Garcia says the committee is placing more emphasis on attracting both mentors and mentees from diverse backgrounds. For Garcia, who comes from a diverse background, “this type of mentoring creates important networks. Diversity within the legal profession should be the cornerstone of any initiative.”

On the same note, Legal Leaders for Diversity (LLD), a collective of general counsel in Canada committed to diversity in the workplace, launched a mentorship program with York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School in October 2012. Lorne Sossin, dean of the School, says, “This mentoring program complements a number of other programs through which our students experience the in-house world and helps them to determine if this might be a career path they wish to pursue.”

These programs range from academic courses — such as Osgoode’s Intensive Program in Business Law, which features seven-week placements with in-house counsel of large public and private institutions — to business law summer internships administered by Osgoode’s Hennick Centre for Business and Law, during which students take on in-house roles in for-profit and not-for-profit organizations.

Becoming a strategic partner

In terms of executive education, the CCCA recently launched the Business Leadership Program for In-House Counsel, which provides graduates with the Certified In-House Counsel — Canada (CIC.C) designation.

Lawna Hurl, legal counsel at Niska Gas Storage Partners in Calgary, attended the pilot program in October 2013. “I was so impressed with how the program bridged the gap between legal education and business education,” she recalls. “This is an excellent course for lawyers to learn business principles necessary to be effective and knowledgeable counsel for their clients.”

Fred Headon, assistant general counsel, labour and employment law, at Air Canada, also attended the pilot, which he regards as “a truly ground-breaking step forward” in in-house counsel training. He explains, “[It’s] methodical approach highlights those items beyond the law that we need to know to better resonate with our clients and more fully participate as a part of the leadership in our organizations.”

As to the future, Robert Lapper, CEO of the Law Society of Upper Canada, believes this educational continuum will grow and be of benefit to the profession. “This discussion may be very relevant to conversations that many law societies are having about alternate business structures, for example, the issue of law firms being owned by non-lawyers,” he says. “ The utility of having programs for educating in-house counsel is that potentially a lot of the learning could be applied if we were to go to some alternate business structure model for the practice of law.”

It is in this vein that the CBA Futures Initiative was born. This project enables lawyers themselves to help shape the future of legal services in Canada. Given the complexities of the changing legal marketplace, and the impacts of this change on current legal practice, the profession must collectively develop strategies and tools to help novice and experienced lawyers transition successfully.