Meet Steve Smyth, CIC.C, 2021-22 CCCA Chair

  • February 07, 2022
  • CCCA

Meet Steve Smyth, CIC.C, 2021-22 CCCA Chair

As we enter a new year, still full of uncertainty but perhaps seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, the CCCA continues to ensure a strong and supportive presence for in-house counsel across Canada. This is why we exist – to serve you, our members – a purpose that Steve Smyth, 2022-2023 Chair, takes to heart.

We spoke with Steve to get his sense of where we are as a profession and where we are going.

Let’s start with your career path to give us a sense of your background.

I began my career in law as a litigation associate at Burnet, Duckworth & Palmer LLP, a large Calgary law firm, and then moved in-house about a decade ago, when I moved to Tervita Corporation (now Secure Energy). I then began to take on more solicitor-type responsibilities when I changed to in-house positions at Trimac Transportation Services Ltd. and then Gibson Energy. Now I am General Counsel for the Trotter and Morton Group of Companies, a role I started in October 2021. Trotter and Morton provides commercial and industrial electrical, HVAC, and mechanical construction services, as well maintenance services.

I am excited to start this new chapter as GC, as one of the largest challenges I’ve had is progressing beyond the perception of being a litigator. Although litigation has given me great perspective when I came into a more commercial setting, it’s taken a while to advance into a more general role.

My new GC position often involves some business and administrative responsibilities, which I see as a potential growth area for in-house counsel roles, and my learnings from the Rotman–CCCA Business Leadership for In-House Counsel Program have proved invaluable on this journey.

Can you give us a picture of your current day-to-day life?

The days are packed and time is highly scripted between figuring out the new role, coaching two hockey teams and a basketball team, assisting with a youth program, and sitting on a minor basketball board. However, it’s great to be back in these rewarding activities after more than a year of COVID restrictions.

I also play hockey myself, and enjoy golf and softball. Apparently middle-aged dogs can also learn new tricks, as I’ve just picked up pickleball and enjoy it quite a lot. And there is my family: my three teenagers are a source of many adventures and misadventures!

You were elected Chair of the CCCA at the beginning of September. How has your experience been thus far?

This is one of the many experiences that loses something when people can’t meet together, but I think we’re making the most of it. It’s a great, committed group of professionals that genuinely enjoy the profession and want to give back.

We are taking the opportunity this year to think about what the organization offers, critically thinking about why it exists and what its members want at its core. I am excited about some of the ideas that have been generated and the future for the organization.

Through COVID, we already experienced a shift in how continuing education is being delivered, and we want to continue to be on the forefront of what in-house counsel need and want.

As mentioned, you hold the CIC.C designation. When and why did you enrol in the Rotman–CCCA Business Leadership Program for In-House Counsel?

I was immediately interested in the program when I first saw it and was able to join the third cohort in 2014. Wanting to get more business experience, I had briefly mused over starting an MBA but I could not take on that level of commitment with my family – and it wouldn’t have the same focus on and relevance to my role as in-house counsel as this program does.

This is the best program I’ve ever taken. Honestly. Learning content in legal settings can often either be repetition of items you mostly know with a small nugget here or there, or something way over your head if it’s not one of your main practice areas. This program had a great level of business principles that were engaging and I still regularly use its principles five years later. In fact, I directly used something from the communication module at the end of last year when advising our C.O.O. about an organization change. I think the principles of organization strategy and communication were most helpful to me – and they were presented with top-notch instruction that was engaging.

What are your thoughts on the future of the in-house profession?

The future seems to be one of challenge and opportunity. While corporate budgets will likely remain under control pressures, I think in-house counsel roles will continue to grow and present new opportunities. The need for business acumen will likely remain very important in these roles and I wonder if we will see more hybrid roles or counsel taking on specific business or corporate administration obligations, which would provide further growth opportunities for in-house counsel.

I think it’s important to find the “Goldilocks” spot for getting in front of your management. Each manager wants a different amount of information. If you provide too much, they won’t read it and may wonder why so much time was spent preparing a memo or presentation. Not enough information, and they will wonder if you’re on top of things. I’ve had the discussion with various managers and it’s much better when you have them provide the cadence for reporting than you trying to guess.

What advice would you give to other in-house counsel?

Succession is a challenge experienced by many in-house counsel given the hierarchy of most in-house departments. I think that challenge is something that needs to be embraced for what it is and careful consideration should be made regarding where you would like to end up and/or go next, which should be followed by a plan on how you think you can put yourself in the best spot to take that next step. It will likely take hard work and planning for any advancement, including, and importantly, networking with in-house counsel in your area.

When I was looking for work once after an internal law department was unexpectedly shut down, I had no idea how important the contacts I made through the CCCA would be in assisting me in that job search. In fact, the first two offers I received were a direct a result of contact I made while helping with the local Alberta south branch.

Don’t assume that everything will stay the same at your organization and that things will organically progress. I’m not a huge Oprah follower, but recall hearing her saying something to the effect that luck is when preparation meets opportunity. You should be developing the personal competencies you think you need to advance, but also increasing your in-house network by getting out and just meeting other in-house counsel. The wider your in-house and professional network, the more opportunities you may encounter. And your membership in the CCCA is a great place to start!