Sitting on a board can improve your professional footing

  • June 22, 2017
  • Carolynne Burkholder

Volunteering as a board member can benefit both your community and your law career as well, according to Matthew Reid.

Reid is a personal injury lawyer with Cohen Highley LLP in London, Ont., who has extensive experience as a board member. Currently, he is a school trustee and chair of the Thames Valley District School Board and president and chair of the board at HOBY Canada, a youth leadership program. Reid has also been a board member with Regional HIV/AIDS Connection and several other organizations.

Reid says he encourages young lawyers to volunteer their services as a board member.

“I think there is a huge need with a lot of charities to have that legal understanding and information. Not necessarily advice, but a basic understanding of the law and how to navigate the systems,” he says. “This is invaluable to a lot of charities that cannot afford to hire lawyers and pay the high hourly rates.”

Taslenna Shairulla is an associate lawyer in regulatory compliance management with BMO Capital Markets and a volunteer board member and secretary for Human Rights Internet, an organization that promotes human rights and social justice through leadership opportunities, documentation projects, publications and events.

Lawyers have many skills they can contribute to societies and other organizations, says Shairulla.

“Many not-for-profit organizations highly value having a lawyer on their boards as they can often navigate issues relating to operational and management risk,” she says.

Reid says that he also personally benefits from his work as a board member as it keeps him “grounded.”

“It’s a nice way to get you out of the office and out of the law headspace and look at how other people outside of the office are faring,” he says. “For me, personally, I do personal injury law and I think it’s invaluable to have an understanding of what your clients are going through and the struggles that they’re facing and getting out and helping charities is a good way to gain that information and knowledge.”

Boards are also an opportunity for young lawyers to develop their skills in other areas, Reid says.

As a school board trustee, he has learned a lot about labour law, for example.

“I don’t practise labour law, but I have learned a lot about things like negotiations with collective agreements and firing teachers for potential criminal activity. Those are all things I don’t deal with on a day-to-day basis in my practice, but I gained further understanding and knowledge from it,” Reid says, adding that this has helped him become a more well-rounded lawyer.

Shairulla says she has also learned many new skills over her two years with HRI, including “how to create a budget, analyze profit and loss statements, build organizational strategy and web site administration.”

“Lawyers are often great analytical thinkers, with the ability to look at problems from all sides. However, board members often have the added responsibility and autonomy to make decisions that affect the organization as a whole. As such, this opportunity affords flexing your leadership and problem-solving muscles, while also offering other perspectives that a lawyer may not often encounter,” she says.

Many lawyers can also benefit from learning about corporate structures, which comes naturally when sitting on a board, says Reid. 

“A lot of lawyers don’t understand the difference between governance and operations in a company or a charity. It’s very valuable to have an understanding that the board is there to govern and then staff is there to operate and deal with the day-to-day affairs,” he says.

As well, volunteering on a board of a society or another organization can also boost your profile and help your career, Reid says.

“From a young lawyer’s perspective, I think board work helps to get your name out in the community, build clients and different contacts that can bring in work for you and your firm,” he says, adding that board appointments can “raise your profile and connect you with people with mutual interests.”

Shairulla agrees, saying that volunteering on a board helped to expand her network as “our board includes academics, writers and investment bankers.”

As a personal injury lawyer in southern Ontario, Reid says that he is competing with the “marketing machines” in other law firms.

So he focuses on building his practice through word-of-mouth and by making connections in the community.

“The best way to get your name out there is to be involved in the community,” he says.

For young lawyers looking to volunteer on a board, Reid recommends that you pick a cause that you are passionate about.

“If you don’t have a personal connection with say, kidney disease, you might not be as motivated to be helping them out and attending all their meetings,” he says.

To get appointed or elected to board positions, Reid and Shairulla both recommend looking up charities online to see if they are looking for more board members, in particular looking at the Charity Village website.

Another way to get involved is by joining advisory committees for your local municipality, Reid says.

“Look for positions or vacancies for committees with the city or the school board and things like that,” says Reid. “You don’t need to start off being the president of the board. You can get involved and volunteer for committees first.”

Also, let people know you are interested in these opportunities, he advises.

“I am constantly directing lawyers to different charities that are looking for board members,” says Reid.

Shairulla recommends reaching out to organizations directly. 

“If you’re interested in a specific organization, I suggest connecting with their current board members via e-mail or LinkedIn to get a sense of their goals and initiatives, while hopefully pitching your interest,” she says.

Eventually, you will become so well-known in your community that board appointments will become word-of-mouth, says Reid. “You’re going to end up getting asked so much that you’re going to need to say no.”

Carolynne Burkholder is a lawyer with Heather Sadler Jenkins LLP in Prince George, B.C. She currently sits on three boards. 

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