March 17, 2022

New course exposes students to life beyond the law firm

Course explores intricacies of in-house practice, an often overlooked opportunity for law students
Tall buildings in downtown Calgary
Nataliia Kvitovska on Unsplash

When Lynne Charbonneau began her career as a young lawyer in a big firm in Vancouver, she thought she had landed her dream job. She practiced in the labour and employment department for a few years before realizing she wasn't meant to be a litigator but a solicitor. She made a move to the corporate securities department and really enjoyed it.  

"I ended up doing corporate finance work and a ton of mergers and acquisitions, and I loved the complexity and intellectual rigour of the work," she explains.   

But with a Vancouver-based securities law practice focused largely on mining companies, Charbonneau realized it would be difficult to develop business in a male-dominated field.  

"I was often the only woman in the room. I felt like I wasn't going to be able to build a sustainable practice, however good I was as a lawyer."  

As she reflected on how she could change her career path, an opportunity came from HSBC, looking for an in-house securities lawyer. She stayed with the organization for more than a dozen years as deputy general counsel, running a team of lawyers that supported the bank in its retail, wealth management, and asset management services. She thrived in-house and loved the legal, business and team management elements of her work. 

Lynne Charbonneau

Lynne Charbonneau created a new course for UCalgary Law to teach students about in-house counsel.

Different ways of practising law 

When she embarked on her in-house counsel career, Charbonneau soon discovered that there were many things about the work that she didn't learn in law school, that she figured out over time on her own. Having clerked at the Federal Court of Appeal with UCalgary Law's Dean Ian Holloway, and knowing his innovative approach to legal education, she approached him about the possibility of offering a new course in the school's legal practice area focusing on corporate and in-house counsel.   

"I pitched the course to Dean Holloway as an area of practice that would be great for students to understand, as a different career path, and to provide tools for students entering practice that would be useful in both a law firm and in-house environment," says Charbonneau.  

"When you work in a firm, you are paid to provide advice, and organizations or individuals are likely to take that advice. When you work in a company, you don't necessarily have any authority over anything; you are there as a guide and to explain the law," she adds.  

The opportunity to learn about the differences between working for a law firm and working in-house was intriguing for third-year student Ronald Yeung.  

"The terms' corporate counsel' and 'in-house counsel' often come up in law school, but like many students, I did not know what they meant," he says. "The course provided us with excellent insight into what corporate and in-house counsels do and allowed us to meet them and learn from the experiences of lawyers working in these positions."  

Students learn through practical skills development 

The course examines problems faced by in-house and external counsel in advising corporations and addresses the pragmatic aspects of in-house practice, focusing on developing skills. Working through real-life examples, students learn how to read financial statements, give presentations on legal or ethical issues that an organization may face, understand legal operations matters like contract lifecycle management, and build their business acumen.   

For third-year student Karly Dutcyvich, the course was an opportunity to learn about aspects of legal practice beyond a traditional law firm.   

"I was eager to take Corporate and In-House Counsel to gain more insight into the experience of an in-house lawyer," she says. "Many law school events and classes only provide exposure into 'big law' corporate jobs, and we often fail to recognize there are other career opportunities available. This course has allowed me to explore alternative career paths while also learning skills and tips that will be applicable in any legal setting."      

Classmate Yeung agrees.  

"It is important for law students to learn about in-house practice because corporate and in-house counsels are not just lawyers, they are also business partners. They are respected advisers at their companies and organizations and are key clients for law firms. By learning more about what these counsels do, we are better equipped to serve their business and legal needs."