Fernando Garcia didn’t plan to be a lawyer. After immigrating to Canada from Uruguay at the age of nine, he struggled to adjust to a new language and educational curriculum, and barely graduated from high school. But studying and working in labour relations inspired him to pursue a career as a lawyer. Today, Garcia serves as general counsel for the Canadian division of Navistar, a globally positioned company that sells and distributes big rigs, buses, RVs, diesel engines, and parts. Garcia sat down with Advantage to share his journey into law and the balancing act required to manage the slew of legal issues that face a billion-dollar corporation.
Advantage: Did you always plan to be a lawyer?
Fernando Garcia: No, becoming a lawyer just didn’t seem like a possibility to me. I initially obtained a bachelor’s degree in labour studies and a master’s degree in industrial relations. But while working part-time at university and in the summers as an assistant labour-relations consultant, I had the opportunity to work with a number of lawyers. I became involved in many interesting cases and collective agreement negotiations, and the practice of law began to intrigue me. Consequently, I pursued and obtained a civil- and common-law degree from McGill University in 2004.
I was born in Argentina and grew up in Uruguay before immigrating to Canada with my parents at the age of nine. I struggled to fit in due to language and cultural issues, and [had trouble] adapting to the Canadian educational curriculum.
Were there positive aspects of that experience?
Definitely. My background has influenced the way I think about things. Seeing my parents and my high-school sweetheart, who is now my wife, work hard and make sacrifices to get ahead and succeed encouraged me not to take anything for granted. I now try to make the most out of every situation.
How did you end up at Navistar?
After I obtained my law degree, I articled at a law firm that specialized in labour and employment law. I enjoyed it, but when the articling ended, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. I took on a six-month contract as a labour-relations manager at Navistar Canada. After the six months, I returned to another boutique labour-law firm, but I kept Navistar as a client. When Navistar’s general counsel retired, I was a natural fit. The company did a lot of labour and employment work at the time, and my background in that area was
beneficial. Plus, I already had experience working at the
company, so I was familiar with the people, its product,
and the collective agreements.
What appealed to you about the position?
After practicing labour and employment law for several years, I was yearning for a position that would offer me a seat at the boardroom table and a greater, strategic business role. I wanted to be able to combine my interests and experience in labour relations, business, and the practice of law into one. The job was the perfect opportunity to do this.
So what is a typical day like for you?
The beauty of this job is that every day is completely different; I can never predict with any certainly what I’ll be doing. It might be reviewing a new contract we’re bidding, dealing with a new litigation matter, or proactively addressing product-performance concerns. I also do quite a bit of work supporting our corporate human-resources department, and I am involved in labour-relations matters and negotiations for our parts-distribution centre. That involves reviewing human-resources policies and procedures, addressing union grievances, overseeing employment negotiations, and reviewing employment contracts, just to name a few responsibilities.
Do you have any particular legal philosophies?
I’m always seeking to provide my client with the best understanding of risk and an effective strategy of dealing with that risk. This applies whether we are looking at a litigation risk, contract drafting, or collective bargaining. I find that we, as in-house counsel, are in a privileged position, because we get to see the business strategies, legal risk, and other compliance regulations in a way that no one else gets to. We are, in essence, the quarterback of the team, and it is our job to make sure that the left hand knows what the right hand is doing, and that they work together to meet the common objective.
What is the greatest challenge of the job?
It’s hard being the only lawyer at Navistar Canada. It’s like being a general practitioner in medicine: you have to know a little bit about everything and not be afraid to obtain an expert’s opinion when necessary.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
One thing I value professionally is looking at issues not just from a legal perspective but from a business perspective. The more I can be a strategic advisor, the better. So I’m currently pursuing an MBA on a part-time basis.