Nov. 17, 2020

Women in corporate law: Alumnae see success by taking risk, following passion

'Don’t be afraid to speak up,' urges seasoned lawyer
Woman sitting in front of a laptop in front of windows overlooking a city.
A woman at work Christina Wocintechchat on Unsplash

There may be a stereotype out there that female law students are more inclined to pursue social justice areas of practice, such as family law or human rights law, while their male counterparts are drawn to areas in corporate law. For three UCalgary Law alumnae, this stereotype is absolutely not true.

Sylvie Welsh, JD’11, an associate at Burnet, Duckworth & Palmer (BDP), grew up in a family of entrepreneurs and had a fear of public speaking, so a career in some area of corporate law made sense.

“The thought of being in a courtroom and having to speak in front of an audience was not appealing at all,” says Welsh with a laugh. “When I started law school, I thought initially corporate law would be great because I get to work with entrepreneurs and I don’t have to speak in a courtroom.”

For Melissa Smith, LLB’04, it took a bit of soul searching to realize the corporate law environment was where she wanted to be. She completed an undergrad in cell biology and genetics, and had plans to go on to medical school.

“I took a year off and realized I was really interested in business, I loved learning about different industries and companies, meeting new people who were passionate about what they did and so I made the decision that this was what I wanted to do,” says Smith. “I then had to try to figure out the best way get involved. Accounting seemed boring, and I didn’t have enough work experience to do an MBA, so I chose law and loved it right away.”

Her passion for all things business paid off, as Smith is now a partner at Borden Ladner Gervais and regional group manager of the firm’s Capital Markets and Corporate Commercial Group.

Taking a chance led to big opportunity

Joanne Luu, JD’11, also an associate at BDP, entered law school with a biology and political science degree and an interest in international law. When she started her articles at the firm, she took a leap of faith and knocked on the door of David Hague, one of Canada’s preeminent international arbitrators.

“At our firm, if you’re interested in something, you are encouraged to find the person who does that work and approach them," says Luu. "I did that, and was quickly brought on to the international commercial arbitration group, working with international clients on some pretty big cases.”

Assumed gender stereotype doesn’t exist

For all three women, perceived gender stereotypes haven’t stopped women from forging forward in the corporate law environment, which is a positive thing, for both seasoned lawyers and up-and-comers.

“When I look at our graduating class, it was a pretty even split of men and women being hired by the big corporate law firms,” says Luu. “I hope that as this generation of lawyers grow up, we see a real shift in the upper management at the law firms, which continue to be very male-dominated. But women are already holding high-level positions in-house as general counsel and associate general counsel at many companies, which is really heartening to see.”

Smith agrees, adding that many of her female friends in law school also ended up in big firms practicing corporate law. “I think the social justice gender stereotype is a myth," she says. I’ve known both male and female lawyers who are passionate about family law or human rights law, and followed that path instead.”

Being female in a boardroom surrounded by men can also be empowering because of the unique perspective women can bring to the table, explains Welsh as she recounts a story told at a women’s retreat she attended early on in her career at BDP.

“When you're in a boardroom, and you're maybe the only woman, or one of two or three women, you need to view that as a positive in the sense that you look different," says Welsh. "You dress differently, you sound different. Use that to your advantage, because people are going to remember you. Don't be afraid to speak up. And don't be afraid to share your perspective on whatever the discussion is.”