There’s no secret to the success of top corporate and securities lawyer Carol Hansell - love what you do, and put in the time to be the best.
Hansell’s acumen has landed her atop a slew of legal expert directories - her bio notes the International Who’s Who of Business Lawyers calls her “the top lawyer in Canada” in the area of corporate governance - and she recently was named the first non-U.S. lawyer to lead the American Bar Association’s influential 2,000-member committee on corporate governance.
The Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP partner has gained a high profile not only by producing for clients like the Bank of Montreal, Biovail, Canada Post, and Celestica, but also by spending much of her time away from the office sitting on boards of directors, contributing to legal organizations, teaching, and writing.
Hansell, 50, grew up in Dundas with three brothers and credits her father, Len Hansell, for her entry into the legal profession.
She calls her father a “great proponent” of post-secondary education, and recalls how he got his MBA part-time at nights while working.
He encouraged her to continue her education even after receiving a scholarship to complete her master’s degree at the University of Toronto, so she went on to acquire a joint MBA/LLB from the Schulich School of Business and Osgoode Hall Law School at York University. She laughs when recalling how her dad thought it would be a good idea for her to go on and get her CA after that.
“He really thought the professions were a great place to develop a career,” says Hansell. “He was the one that steered me in that direction. He was a huge influence.”
Hansell admits to being less than enthused to begin practising after finishing law school, but says she decided to article anyway. She planned to get into business afterward.
It’s a good thing she went ahead with her articles, because she loved the year she spent at Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP. The vibrant economy of the 1980s meant firms had to push big responsibility on junior lawyers, and Hansell says she embraced the challenge.
She arrived at Davies in 1994, where she’s become one of the world’s most respected authorities on corporate governance. She says the firm’s liberal stance on lawyers sitting on boards of directors has fostered that growth, adding she currently sits on the boards of the Bank of Canada and Toronto East General Hospital.
“Not all law firms like to do that, but the firm has appreciated the fact that in order for me to be effective with boards, I need to have the hands-on board experience,” she says.
Hansell also supports her practice through teaching and writing engagements. She’s an instructor in the directors education program at the Rotman School of Management, where every two months she meets 30 new corporate directors as students. “It keeps you current with the problems people are facing,” she says.
Writing also keeps her busy, especially on the rare occasions when client work dwindles. During a slowdown earlier this decade, Hansell turned her attention to compiling a book to guide boards of directors, What Directors Need To Know: Corporate Governance.
Hansell says writing forces her to delve into case law and legislation, which gives her a greater breadth of knowledge than what’s offered through straight-up client work.
“It provides a lot more scope to go down a particular path to figure out why the law fits together the way it does,” she says.
Hansell’s work with the ABA, meanwhile, started after a colleague recommended she get involved as a means of interacting with other lawyers facing similar practice challenges.
“I became increasingly involved because the people who connect to, or are members of, the corporate governance section tend to be the leading practitioners in the area in the U.S.,” says Hansell.
“It’s a terrific opportunity to understand where tomorrow’s issues are coming form, how people are dealing in an innovative way with their clients’ problems today. It basically has been my touch point for where governance is going and how we can best serve our clients as a result.”
Aside from her work with the ABA, Hansell is most proud of her ability to maintain a practice in a major firm like Davies as a senior partner.
“If I could have seen this when I started, I would have been pretty excited about it,” she says. “Just to be here, sitting where I’m sitting, is a pretty exciting thing.”
She’s reluctant, however, to give younger lawyers advice on how to get to where she is.
“Nobody has a career path much like anybody else’s,” she says. “I wouldn’t suggest someone try to pattern their career. It’s a collection of things that happen to you over the years that cause you to be where you are at a particular point in time.”
But Hansell does offer that young lawyers be mindful that the profession can be a struggle for those who don’t really love it. She notes that many people think they want to enter the profession, but later find out it’s made them miserable.
“One of the things I think I’ve been really blessed by is I really love my job,” she says. “I just love practising law, I like everything associated with it, and so it’s not hard for me to do this. It’s not hard for me to spend the hours that we have to spend doing this, because I like it so much.”
For those who do love it enough, she says it’s important to realize there are no shortcuts to success, and a diversified practice is good when starting out, but it’s vital to pick a high-demand specialty later on.
Hansell has been married for 23 years to Ron McLaughlin. She says much of her downtime is dedicated to him, and the couple’s main pastime is entertaining friends.
The centerpiece to those get-togethers is the food, says Hansell, noting they recently travelled to Italy to attend a cooking school.
She’d like to be able to dedicate more time to learning to play piano, but suggests learning that instrument may not be feasible for a top corporate and securities lawyer.
“I don’t have enough time to have a regular schedule of practising, which I think is pretty much getting in the way of ever being able to do this well,” she says.
This is the fifth in our Women in Law series that is running in Law Times, featuring profiles of female lawyers from around the province.