From Being There to Being Part of It

  • June 13, 2019
  • Theodore Dela Avle, CIC.C

From Being There to Being Part of It

I recently saw a list of “most engaged” places to work; my company was on it.

I reflected on whether I was “engaged” as in-house counsel and I concluded yes. But there have been points in my career when I probably would have said, “Not so much.”

I thought back on those times when I didn’t feel so enthusiastic. Although far from unhappy, I was simply “being there,” doing my job. Engagement came when I felt “part of it” and was actively participating.

As in-house counsel, we like to have a seat at the table, and I find those of us on the corporate side, in particular, tend to see ourselves as business partners who happen to be lawyers. As such, we enjoy being included at the outset of critical business decisions, instead of being brought in to paper over decisions made without our input. We want to be “part of it.”

The reverse is also true and important. Sometimes it is easy to end up in an ivory tower, dispensing advice from above. However, without really engaging with your clients, you are unlikely to achieve meaningful results.

I have found the best results come when my clients (my business partners) are engaged in issues. I get this engagement when I seek their views to understand an issue. For example, while it may not have been initially evident to me why an engineer in the design group would or should have an opinion on what might seem an obscure contractual provision, once I understood it affects how she does her work, that insight helped me provide advice on how we should procure certain services for the benefit of that group.

Beyond active participation, feeling included can also sometimes be an issue of whether you see yourself (and, potentially, your views) reflected in those making decisions that affect you. If you are in the minority, whether that be on a physical or less visible basis (an opinion, for instance), the feeling of not feeling represented can range from a minor discomfort to genuine disquiet or worse.

I have been to many conferences for lawyers where I was one of only two or three people of colour. Typically, it would be a simple observation, and given my empowered position—I am a practicing in-house counsel representing a large, successful entity—it would not generally affect my behaviour.

However, in a different context, my feelings are stronger and can prevent engagement. I remember one time when I showed up for my first day of an internship and the receptionist helpfully told me delivery was a floor below. Apparently, in an office of literally hundreds of professionals, with several interns coming through each summer, a young Black man was still an oddity.

The folks at the firm were actually great people, some of the most forward-thinking you could ever meet. When I recounted the incident a few days later, there was much consternation and genuine distress about what had happened. They wanted to know which receptionist had made such a disparaging comment. It took many conversations before some people understood the identity of the person was not really the point. In the next hiring cycle, there were definitely a few more visible minorities, but I have no idea whether any stayed on or not. I had moved on.

Reflecting on the list of engaged places to work, I understand why we made the list. A look at our cafeteria at lunch time looks like a veritable UN conference room: people from all corners of the world and of all ages eating together. When it comes to engagement, optics matter. People must see themselves represented before they can feel part of it.

The challenge for me, or any in-house counsel or lawyer, who feels “part of it” is to ensure that we push to improve that engagement. Our being “part of it” should be used to help more people who identify with us “be there” in the first place, so they too can become “part of it.”

Theodore Dela Avle is Senior Legal Counsel at Bruce Power, where he is engaged in law and diversity. Reach him at