When Lynn Korbak became Morneau Shepell’s general counsel in 2003, the company was a private entity with approximately $100 million in annual revenues and no in-house legal team. Today, the company is Canada’s largest human-resources firm, with revenues exceeding $350 million—thanks in part to Korbak, who believes that the key to success is working proactively to manage legal challenges to achieve your business goals. Here, we talk with Korbak about her path to the top.
Advantage: Did you always plan to be a lawyer?
Lynn Korbak: That was the path I took from university on. I started out studying business at Trent University and went to law school at Osgoode Hall immediately after.
Did you immediately begin working in the legal profession?
Yes, my first job was at a Bay Street law firm in Toronto, practicing business law. In 1997, I became in-house counsel at a broker-dealer, Midland Walwyn, which was ultimately taken over by Merrill Lynch.
So you gained experience at companies of all sizes very early on?
Definitely. We went from being an entrepreneurial shop to being a major financial organization. It was interesting to experience what each type of organization had to offer. In a way, we got the best of both worlds: as the Canadian division of Merrill Lynch, we got to maintain some of our entrepreneurial spirit, but we also had the backing of a large organization.
How did you end up at Morneau Shepell?
Merrill Lynch decided to sell its Canadian retail business at the same time I went on maternity leave, so I really considered my options. I thought a lot about how I wanted to practice law raising a young family. That led me to Morneau Shepell’s predecessor, Morneau Sobeco. It was looking for its first legal counsel to help it meet its growing business needs.
What appealed to you about the position?
I’ve always wanted to ensure that each career step was built on the foundations of what I had already learned, and being the only legal person at a company that didn’t have those resources at hand was a challenge. It was a great opportunity for me to understand business in an in-depth way and work with other business groups to be an integral part of the company’s success.
What does your team do?
We handle a variety of tasks: We’re a public company, so I’m corporate secretary, which means I deal with corporate governance matters and compliance issues. In addition, my team manages contracts and litigation, product development, mergers and acquisitions, corporate finance, employment, risk management—a variety of legal issues.
Do you have any particular legal philosophies?
It’s important to overcome the perception of the legal department in a purely compliance role. There are three ways people generally perceive in-house lawyers. At a minimum, you’re a resource—people may not like you, but they need you. One step up from that, you can be considered a trusted advisor: when people have an issue, they come to you. Ultimately, though, you’ll be a valued business partner, meaning people want to bring you into discussions before problems arise. That, to me, is the ultimate goal. Our team tries hard to work as a strategic partner with the business to facilitate and contribute to the company’s success. Sometimes you hear about legal departments being the place where things get held up; we want to be sure what we’re doing is proactively working with business teams to get things done.
What is one of the biggest challenges?
I’m there to look after the best interests of our company, but that sometimes runs contrary to a particular business partner or client’s needs. It’s a delicate situation to manage. You need to be a partner, not an adversary, so it’s important to work through those conflicts in a way that’s positive and obtain a good result for everyone.
What do you like most about the job?
I love hearing relief in people’s voices when my team comes up with effective solutions.
Looking back, would you change anything?
I would have tried to relax. Things will fall into place. Don’t worry so much about what might happen tomorrow, because if you thought things through and made decisions for good reasons, your career path, though it may not be exactly what you envisioned, will lead you to a place you feel good about.