Stephen Sigurdson let fate (and hard work) guide his career—and the strategy paid off.

July 19, 2016

Stephen Sigurdson didn’t start his legal career with a plan. He didn’t aspire toward a specific career path or etch his dreams in stone. He simply went with the flow, seized opportunities as they arose and, as a result, has ended up in a job he thoroughly enjoys—Executive Vice President and General Counsel at Manulife Financial—with few, if any, regrets.

That’s not to say every step in his career was a straightforward one—some forks in the road undoubtedly required a little more contemplation than others. That said, he never let the fear of the unknown prevent him from experiencing something new—a mindset that actually led him to law in the first place.

“Like a lot of people, I backed into a career in law. It wasn’t something I aspired to at an early age,” he recalls. “I actually did my undergrad in engineering. I enjoyed the courses but it became apparent early on that I didn’t want to pursue a career in engineering for the rest of my life.”

So he decided to write the LSAT on a bit of a whim. It turned out he had to write the test while he was in British Columbia for a concrete toboggan racing event (an engineering tradition). Before long, he was applying to law schools.

“I certainly never regretted the decision, but it wasn’t one that came from advanced planning.”

Osler days
Steve articled with the firm Lang Michener, now part of McMillan LLP, for a few years before deciding it was time for a change.

“I didn’t apply anywhere else but Osler. I knew the people there, I knew the culture and I was pretty confident it would be a good fit,” he says. “I remember interviewing with Dale Ponder, who ultimately became co-managing partner with me years later, and came away with this feeling that she was pretty underwhelmed with my credentials. But in any event it did work out and I ended up joining Osler in 1989 as an associate.”

A few years after launching his corporate practice at Osler, which focused mostly on M&A, Steve became partner. In 2000, he was offered the opportunity to become head of Osler’s New York office—a move he wasn’t initially eager to make.

“I owe a lot to the persistence and tenacity of Jean Fraser,” Steve admits. “The previous New York managing partner returned to Canada and left the practice all together. Jean thought I’d be a good fit to replace him, but I was quite reluctant at first. I was happy in Canada; I had a good practice here. But her patience and persistence is what ultimately got me to go.”

“In hindsight, it was a great decision—it gave me a whole new perspective. It opened up a lot of additional opportunities for me and broadened the scope of my practice.”

In pursuit of change
In 2004 Steve and his family returned to Toronto, and shortly thereafter he became co-managing partner of the firm. In 2010 a series of events led him to leave private practice in favour of an in-house counsel position at Manulife Financial.

“I was pretty happy in private practice. I enjoyed working at Osler of course —I liked the transactional work and the management work. But I always had the long-term view that I’d do something different before my career was over. I didn’t go looking for the Manulife position. It just came together.”

When Manulife came calling, two of its senior legal team members had moved on to different roles at around the same time. Having worked with Manulife for quite some time—most notably as chief outside counsel on a major acquisition in Asia back in 2000—Steve was familiar with the company, and liked the company culture. It also helped that parts of the two vacant roles were being combined into one, creating a very attractive career move for him.

“I liked the company, I had confidence in the management team and the role was very attractive,” he recalls. “All the pieces just fit together. I wasn’t looking to move but it was a very compelling opportunity for me.”

There was also opportunity for advancement, as the company’s current General Counsel was a few years away from retirement.

“Becoming his successor was by no means a sure thing and certainly never promised to me. If I wanted it, I had to prove myself in my role as General Counsel Canada—and that took some time. But I had good fortune along the way,” he says.

A gateway to new experiences
Some of that good fortune occurred when Manulife’s head of legal in Asia was recruited away from the company, with no immediate successor in place. While it was by no means ideal for the company, it did afford Steve the opportunity to step up to the plate and volunteer to fill the position in the interim, while continuing his role as General Counsel Canada.

“I was Chief Asia Legal Counsel by day and Chief Canadian Legal Counsel by night. I spent about eight months in the role, with four of those months living in Hong Kong,” he says. “It was a great experience. It gave me a real understanding of our operations there. I also had the opportunity to meet the management team, get to know members of the legal/compliance team and understand the Asia market and all its different geographies. It really helped me later on in my career because Asia is such a big part of the Manulife story and a major part of our growth. I couldn’t have gained the knowledge by staying in North America.”

A day in the life
In May 2015 Steve moved into his current role—one that keeps him on his toes, to put it mildly.

“I’m not sure I’ve had a typical day at the office since I started, but I look forward to having one at some point,” he laughs.

“In a job like this, when you wake up in the morning you don’t know what the day will bring. And that makes the job exciting. Tense at times…but exciting.”

Most of his days are spent focusing on the management side of things, rather than the actual practice of law. He spends a lot of time preparing for and attending board and committee meetings, as well as managing the global legal and compliance team and the internal audit function.

“We have a large global team to oversee and a good part of my time is spent simply staying in touch with the team and staying in touch with what’s going on globally,” he explains. “On the legal side, it’s dealing with other members of the team, talking through issues they’re having and bouncing ideas off one another.”

One of the things Steve most enjoys about his new role is the variety.

“I really like working with other members of management on strategic and tactical issues. That’s something you don’t get to experience to the same degree in private practice,” he explains. “We have very open discussions around the management table—I never feel that others expect me to limit my input to legal matters and little else.”

Work hard, play hard
Steve takes great strides to surround himself with good people at work—and let them do their jobs. This tactic not only makes his work life more enjoyable but it enables him to have a life outside of the office as well.

He takes advantage of his spare time by spending it with his family—he particularly enjoys cycling, skiing, golfing and travelling with his wife, as well as fitting in the occasional run. He is also a theatre enthusiast and has seen quite a few plays over the years. The most memorable performances he’s seen are Cyrano de Bergerac and August: Osage County, both on Broadway.  Most recently he saw A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto – “pure fluff but hilarious”.

Throughout his career, Steve has always placed a high value on the relationships he’s fostered—both inside and outside of the office—and it’s paid off immensely. That’s likely why, if there’s one lesson he’s eager to share with the next generation of lawyers just starting out, it’s for them to do the same.

“It’s important to remember that the practice of law is as much about relationships as it is about legal rules and analysis. Work early in your career to devote time to the give-and-take of relationships—with others in your firm, with clients, with members of the community—and you’ll never regret it.”

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