Although Anne Fitzgerald’s youthful passion was scuba diving with the Victorian Archeological Society in southern Australia, her romantic visions of becoming the next Jacques Cousteau were dashed by the reality of living in a cold, damp wetsuit for months on end. Her fallback plan? Law school, which led Fitzgerald on a path to her current role as chief legal officer for Cineplex, the largest motion-picture exhibitor in Canada, where the only diving she does is a hand into the popcorn bucket.
Advantage: Are there any lessons from early in your career that have shaped you professionally?
Anne Fitzgerald: After graduating from law school, I joined a large law firm as a commercial litigator. The work was not extremely exciting or intellectually stimulating. Although I didn’t absorb this lesson at the time, I realized later that people who thrive on intellectual challenges, including me, need to consistently find a new challenge. I found that once you are intellectually bored, you will not be great at your job until you find additional challenges.
The truth is that I married a Canadian and had to figure out how to start over in another country. When I moved to Canada, I knew only my husband and didn’t have people to call for introductions; however, I had time to focus on what I wanted to do for the remainder of my career. I decided I wanted to go in-house to an entertainment company. I worked on an outside-counsel basis with Cineplex, and it turned out that I was great match for the culture and needs of the company, so I joined the company full-time as the only in-house lawyer.
How do your litigation philosophies transmit into your day-to-day work?
When I started searching for work in Canada, I went to the major legal-recruiting firms. Almost every one told me my experience as a litigator would not help me find an in-house role. One firm even told me I was “unemployable.” Many corporations look only to hire corporate lawyers—believing that’s the skill base they require. Instead, I’ve learned my experience as a litigator is invaluable in a general counsel role. On a daily basis, I use my litigation skills: the ability to think quickly, change subjects quickly, speak on my feet, and defray adversity before it occurs.
What are the challenges of being a general counsel in today’s business climate?
As Cineplex continues to diversify its business, the legal team has to develop some level of expertise in multiple legal areas to best support the company. While that’s a challenge on one hand, it’s an opportunity for learning for my entire team. None of us can be experts in every aspect of the law, so the trick is to ensure that one person on the team has carriage for staying on top of relevant developments in their area and then communicating to the business teams appropriately.
How do you prepare for the shifting requisites of your position?
Cineplex is an active-deal company, which means there are times where I am pulled away from day-to-day activities to intensely focus on an acquisition or other large deal. To ensure that my change in focus doesn’t negatively affect either my team or the client we support, we’ve developed systems to more effectively manage daily tasks, and have done a great deal of cross-training so all team members can step in when and where needed.
What skills do you feel one has to have to succeed in this field?
There are quite a few skills I consider imperatives in my role: Strength to speak one’s mind, intellectual flexibility, and emotional intelligence are three of the most important. I have to be able to give advice that my business client may not want to hear; a general counsel cannot be intimidated into not giving advice they believe to be correct. It’s also paramount that I have the intellectual flexibility to bounce from one legal subject to another; the nature of what we do means that we have to be a jack-of-all-trades, with quick movement between those trades. I also rely on my emotional intelligence in providing services to our business units, particularly in delivering messages in a manner in which they are able to be heard best.
If you could start again in your career, would you do anything differently?
I have two thoughts on this question—one is philosophical, the other practical. From a philosophical standpoint, I readily admit I’ve had a few experiences I would rather not have had; however, I wouldn’t change my decisions as they brought me to where I am today, and I truly love where I am. From a practical standpoint, I would have earned my MBA at the same time as my JD. It would have required only one additional year of school and having that early financial education would’ve given me a stronger understanding of many matters I’ve managed over my career.