How to Transform Legal into Leaders

Michelle Plouffe presents six measures she took to build MacEwan University’s general counsel office into an integral in-house player

ADV20_MacEwan-University_Michelle-Plouffe_web1. Centralize and connect

Before Plouffe joined MacEwan University, the school’s president and board realized that her role as general counsel didn’t have as much meat as it potentially could, so the school hired her with heightened expectations. “My position was placed at a strategic level,” Plouffe says. “The president’s vision was that this position would develop a full division that focused on legal risk and compliance.”

Ultimately, that meant Plouffe was adding an internal audit department, a risk and insurance-services department—including emergency planning and response and insurance, privacy and information management, compliance, and policy—and a legal department to her portfolio, increasing those individual departments’ strengths while also interconnecting them. Following the president’s vision, Plouffe brought all those pieces together and dedicated the resources to build those teams and form the Office of General Counsel.

2. Illustrate your value

As Plouffe’s team began to grow, it began educating the rest of the institution about what the general counsel office does, how it can assist other departments, and how it can benefit anyone in the school—from instructors to members of the finance team to those in HR. The team participated in cross-functional projects and committees to show how compliance practices can help everyone.

“We try to embed processes into day-to-day operations to get people to think in a broader, more strategic way about the scope of what they want to achieve,” Plouffe says. “Almost anything that we want to do could have legal, compliance, or risk implications, and just having people think about these implications ahead of time has really started a shift.”

Since joining Edmonton-based MacEwan University in 2012, Michelle Plouffe has been transforming how the postsecondary institution views its general counsel, operating more strategically than transactionally. “This position wasn’t solely for a general counsel role but something placed in the organization with the ability to work with the executive team as a vice president and provide advice directly to the board,” Plouffe says. Today, as the school’s vice president, general counsel, and compliance officer, she’s continuing to build the office of the general counsel and adapting to the new demands of her role.

3. Set the tone

“Risk, audit, compliance, and legal are not necessarily things people want to talk about as they conduct their core activities day to day,” Plouffe says. “So it’s definitely taken a lot of work from a lot of people to show how we can and should be an integral part of the team.”

This idea was handed down from the top—from the president, the executive team, and the board—but Plouffe took steps to reinforce it by working from the bottom up as well. By working closely with a variety of teams on a variety of projects, she not only became a critical player but one who was actively sought out during projects and other key initiatives.

4. Follow through and adapt

“We should never be the kind of institution where legal direction is dictated and followed without question in every case,” Plouffe says. Instead, advice at the school works more like a negotiation, with the legal team learning from each department the circumstances it faces in order to tailor solutions to its needs. “Especially when our initial advice doesn’t offer workable solutions, we have to be able to evaluate and, when we can, provide alternative approaches,” Plouffe says. It’s about being flexible, practical, open minded, and creative.

5. Develop a framework

During her first two years, Plouffe had the opportunity to develop and implement a legislative-compliance program for the entire institution. The organization’s external auditor, the Office of the Auditor General of Alberta, recommended a plan be created for not only MacEwan but all postsecondary institutions in the province. Along with five other institutions and their representatives—lawyers, risk managers, and internal auditors—Plouffe created a guide, tools, and templates that would help any postsecondary institution achieve legislative compliance.

1She then took the skeleton of that framework and worked internally with MacEwan’s own legal counsel and risk managers to tackle compliance in-house. They took all the legislation that applied to their institution, broke it down, and assigned it to various areas. Then they had meetings with all those areas across the institution to conduct risk assessments of each piece of legislation.

“I was so fortunate to be able to lead this initiative because it was a good example of work that, while not core to what MacEwan does, serves to benefit all areas,” Plouffe says. “It’s not directly related to teaching, student outcomes, or learning—but the entire organization came to the table, including the faculty and others on the academic side.” Plouffe was able to take something mandatory and turn it into an opportunity to expand her office’s reach.

6. Centralize as much as possible

One of Plouffe’s responsibilities is to oversee policy for the entire institution. So, over the course of a year and a half, she and her team developed a comprehensive institutional-policy framework. “It essentially centralizes policy development within my office to establish consistency and strengthen our policy processes,” Plouffe says.

She also worked to socialize the framework, getting feedback and collaborating with other groups to see what was missing or what needed to be tweaked. “Bringing together the academic and the administrative side to work together will be exciting and extremely beneficial,” she says.