Calm, Cool & in Control

How TELUS’s Monique Mercier has helped redefine the role of women in the legal workplace

Monique Mercier, chief legal officer.

It’s 2 p.m. on a sunny March afternoon in Vancouver, and Monique Mercier is in the middle of a heated duel. Mercier is the chief legal officer for TELUS Communications Company, one of Canada’s telecom giants, and right now she’s in the driver’s seat of a complex transaction about a share conversion. Some hedge-fund sharks are out to make a short-term gain, and Mercier’s legal team is developing a strategy to counterattack.

“The first thing is to be very calm—that’s my trademark,” Mercier says with a chuckle. “When you go home, you have to think of something else for a couple of hours.”

It’s a delicate situation that requires as much heavyweight leverage as it does finesse. But then again, that’s why TELUS hired Mercier. Her story begins long before she assumed the role of senior vice president and chief legal officer for the company in October 2011.

It turns out that law and politics are Mercier’s heritage: her paternal great-grandfather became the prime minister of Québec, while her maternal great-grandfather became the province’s chief justice of the Québec Supreme Court. “It’s always been present in my family,” she explains. But at the onset, something other than law occupied her attention. “I had very good marks in school, and I was thinking of going to medical school.”

After spending some time in a hospital, however, she quickly realized that medicine wasn’t the path for her and eventually thought, why not law? She switched to social science at the last moment, six months before the deadline to apply for university. “Law turned out to be the right place for me,” she says.

After a Commonwealth Scholarship and a master’s degree in politics at Oxford University, she returned to Canada. Not knowing exactly which field she wanted to pursue, she followed the open doors in front her into tax law. “Every area of tax law is very interesting, but it quickly became extremely technical,” Mercier says. “I found myself stuck in a small office working on a big transaction by BCE—they were buying a company—and I was exploring a single tax definition that was 15 pages long.”

Just a few offices over, another team in her firm was handling all the negotiations, and it dawned on her: enough with tax law. It was on to corporate in the law department of BCE. “Tax law changes constantly, so you’ve got to eat and drink it,” she says. So she traded one type of late night for another and within three weeks was negotiating a high-octane deal. “It’s way more multidisciplinary,” she says. “You work with all the different departments to achieve a result, and you’re at the rudder from beginning to end.”

A roller coaster of high stock shares and company acquisitions provided a constantly evolving work climate for Mercier, and eventually TELUS bought the company where she was working. She stayed on in the legal department, quickly became the head of the Québec office, and in October was promoted to chief legal officer over the entire company, which meant a move to Vancouver.

Despite such quick changes, she says, the adjustment is going smoothly. “I think it’s a strength that I have. Your team has to feel that you’re in control and in charge. I think it’s part of my personality, but it’s not easy—especially when we’re bombarded with issues from all directions.”

And when you preside over 60 attorneys and paralegals at a company the size of TELUS (last year the company’s revenue approached $10 billion), the sheer weight of the responsibility would be enough to make your knees buckle.

“The range of issues we have to deal with is incredible, because the landscape for telecommunications evolves constantly,” Mercier admits, alluding to regulatory hopscotch and the flash flood of new technologies.

Not to mention the ever-changing issue of privacy. Think of healthcare. It wasn’t so long ago when medical information was scrawled on forms and squirreled away in file cabinets in doctors’ offices. Information was private, only accessible to the doctor’s secretary. Now TELUS is helping to digitize those records in electronic health records, so that when a patient walks into a pharmacy or a new doctor’s office, physicians are up to speed on past history, improving their ability to offer service. The technology has the additional advantage of being more secure than paper files—encrypted and held in secure data centres rather than on paper files—but it does mean the company has to pay attention to healthcare privacy law for the first time.

If Mercier is undaunted by this, it’s due at least in part to the fact that she’s been blazing frontiers as long as she’s been in this business—particularly in the area of women’s rights. In 1987, she became the first woman at the law firm where she was employed to take a maternity leave. “The only other woman in the company who’d had a baby was induced on a Thursday and back in the office by Monday,” Mercier explains. “There was no policy. She was telling me, ‘Monique, you have to be like a man.’”

But Mercier was undeterred. She spoke to the head of the firm and convinced him to develop a policy that allowed her to take four months. She ended up taking two and a half instead. “This is where we started,” she says. “But these days there’s not a stigma associated with maternity leave, and we’re continuing to fight against being second-class citizens.”

In Mercier’s mind, it’s better for women now. But is it easy? Is it an effortless balance of work and family? No—and the continued struggle for equality will require bold choices.

“I’m not like a man,” Mercier says with conviction. “I have a different personality, different strengths, and a different approach. It’s a question of choice: what kind of life do you want?”