If life had worked out as she’d planned, Barbara Munroe would be filling teeth rather than filing briefs. But a semester of organic chemistry dashed her dreams of dentistry as a profession, and Munroe decided to follow her father’s footsteps into law. Now, as general counsel and corporate secretary for WestJet, one of the most profitable airlines in North America, Munroe is focused on building the company’s legal team and looking forward to a bright future.
Following graduation from law school, Munroe joined a major national firm in Calgary, working for nine years in the corporate/commercial division. Then she was enticed to join a local technology company, SMART Technologies, which was looking for its first general counsel. “It was a great opportunity to establish a legal department from the ground up, and I benefitted from working with professionals in disciplines other than law,” she says.
Eight years later, Munroe moved on to Imperial Oil as part of its in-house legal team, and though she wasn’t looking, WestJet approached her in late 2011 about a general-counsel position with the company. “The position aligned nicely with my prior role at SMART, and I was excited to return to a company with entrepreneurial roots,” Munroe says.
Munroe was also drawn to the culture at WestJet. Widely acknowledged—and awarded—for sustaining a top corporate culture, WestJet is known across Canada as “an employer of choice,” Munroe says. “The culture at WestJet is truly alive, and it resonated with me to be part of a culture of caring.”
Munroe admits that while the broader focus of a general counsel is refreshing and exciting, it is not without its challenges. “Managing the breadth of work can be demanding,” Munroe says. “I don’t think this challenge is unique to lawyers, and I strongly believe you need to take care of your physical self as a first priority. I know it makes me a better spouse, parent, and, in turn, employee.”
Of course, working in an industry that is 24-7 also has its challenges. Munroe finds much of her time is spent staying abreast of legislative and case-law developments while prioritizing the workload of the legal department to ensure important projects are receiving appropriate attention; however, during her short tenure with WestJet, Munroe’s primary focus has been on setting a strategy to build the legal team.
“My goal is not to simply hire more lawyers, but to create a legal team with a view to providing opportunities where team members will feel professionally challenged, valued, and rewarded,” Munroe says. “I envision developing my skills as a deliberate leader and acting as a mentor to the members of the team and, in the process, grooming a successor for my role.”
When asked what skills she looks for in lawyers and regards in peers, Munroe’s answer is somewhat surprising. “Being a good listener is the number-one skill any lawyer should develop,” she says. “Experience is a great teacher, but being an astute listener gains you valuable insights from clients and helps you steer them to a satisfactory legal result while appropriately managing legal risk.”
Munroe also believes that adaptability and resilience are key to succeeding in the legal field, especially in a general-counsel role. “You must have the ability to not only take on various and sometimes unfamiliar tasks, but also to consider various perspectives that are not always your own and incorporate others’ ideas and thinking into the legal solution,” she says. “When you have tough advice to convey, you also have to be able to constructively invite the client’s questions and persuasively explain your position.”
Creating an open-door culture for the legal department is another firm belief Munroe holds. “I am fortunate that the legal role is embraced at WestJet by senior management, but my focus now is to ensure that every employee knows we are ready and able to work with the various business units,” she says. “I believe that when you develop trust, good things flow from it.”