Equity in the Oil Patch

The oil patch. Where the sky is big, the truck tires bigger, and women lawyers are few and far between. So goes conventional wisdom, and when you compare Calgary's gender-equity numbers on paper vis-à-vis Toronto – especially at the senior levels, looking at senior partners, department heads, managing partners and the like – this equity skepticism seems to be borne out. But here is the paradox that is Calgary and the oil patch: if there are fewer women lawyers in the patch who occupy positions of power and influence, the few who do have a great deal of clout.

There is no one particular secret to their success, although a closer look will reveal a few common themes: the oil patch's powerful women lawyers thrive on challenge and adversity, and they grasp opportunity with both hands when it comes — and create it when it doesn't. Many have been helped along their challenging career paths by powerful male champions; the younger ones were frequently lucky enough to connect with an inspiring female mentor.

As they've carved out their careers, they've slowly altered the face of Calgary's legal profession. The change has been slow – too slow according to some – but in recent years, it's accelerated. If women lawyers were few and far between in the 1980s, and women lawyers with power rare in the 1990s, as the first decade of the 2000s ends, their presence is increasing, both in terms of sheer numbers, and in terms of profile and power. The emergence of these leaders is changing the oil patch — whether it, and Calgary's law firms, are ready for it or not.

Noralee Bradley: Pure Dynamite

Noralee Bradley knows exactly when she took charge of her legal career. The year was 1995, she was a young associate with the Calgary office of Bennett Jones LLP, and much to her chagrin she was not working on the Gulf Canada Resources Limited files the office was getting.

She wanted in. “You have to chart your path,” Bradley says. “You have to know what type of work you want to do and for whom, and you have to seek out those opportunities.” The relationship partner on Gulf was Henry Sykes (who would go on to become Gulf's Executive Vice-president of Business Development and then President of ConocoPhillips Canada) and Bradley made it known to him in unambiguous terms that she wanted to work with Gulf.

She had an ulterior motive of sorts. Her law-school chum Joanne Alexander was in-house at Gulf, “and I wanted to work with Joanne,” says Bradley.

Sykes bought it. And Bradley's career took off. “I had a number of mentors throughout my career who gave me opportunities to take very high-responsibility roles with their clients,” Bradley says.

The Bennett Jones partners who filled those roles for her while she and they were at the firm have gone on to become some of the most prominent business people in the oil patch: Martin Lambert, the firm's CEO when Bradley was admitted to partnership, then founder and Managing Director of Matco Capital Ltd., and now, inter alia, CEO of Swan Hills Synfuels; Robert Rooney, now Executive Vice-President Legal and General Counsel with Talisman Energy Inc.; William Rice, QC, Bennett Jones's Managing Partner in the early 2000s and now Chair and CEO of the Alberta Securities Commission; and of course, once she got on the Gulf files, Sykes.

In 2005, Bradley made what in the Calgary legal market can still be a controversial and difficult move: she changed teams, leaving Bennett Jones for the Calgary office of national law firm Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP. With the move, Bradley acquired another heavy-hitting mentor: Osler Co-chair Brian Levitt, the former Chief Executive Officer of Imasco Limited.

There are few high-flying senior women lawyers of Bradley's vintage (1991 Bar call) and reputation in the city. But Bradley's not the only female star at Osler: she shares the spotlight, to use her words, “with two of the other fabulous female lawyers in the oil patch.” Janice Buckingham Co-chairs the firm's national energy group; in the first five months of 2010, she ran some $6.7 billion worth of deals, including Osler's representation of ConocoPhillips in the sale of its Syncrude interest to Sinopec International Petroleum Exploration and Production Corporation. On the litigation side, Maureen Killoran is one of Cowtown's top energy litigators, and the go-to relationship partner for clients such as ConocoPhillips and EnCana Corporation. Killoran and Buckingham are, like Bradley, Bennett Jones alumni, and the three women form a cluster of female power at Osler. Below them is growing a promising crop of younger talent.

Alicia Quesnel: The Quiet Revolution

Strong women attract other strong women. That's not rocket science, but it's something that's almost impossible to engineer artificially. To get this kind of dynamic going, it requires a strong woman who thrives in an environment of strong men. Bradley, Buckingham and Co. filled that bill at Bennett Jones and now Osler — ambitiously, aggressively. Meanwhile, at Burnet, Duckworth & Palmer LLP, Alicia Quesnel was following a quieter, but no less successful path.

A 1995 Bar call, Quesnel came to BD&P with a head full of international law and no oil and gas experience. It didn't take her long to notice that, because she had no oil and gas experience, she wasn't getting any oil and gas work — the bread and butter of any Calgary law firm, and perhaps even more so for BD&P. And because she wasn't getting any oil and gas work, well, she wasn't going to get anywhere.

“So I went to Ken Stickland, one of the energy partners, and I asked him for work,” Quesnel recalls. (Stickland is now Chief Legal Officer at TransAlta.) At BD&P, the practice at the time was typical of law firms in the patch and in Canada: partners tended to have “their” associates to whom they fed work. Stickland had one with whom he worked closely, and nothing on hand for Quesnel. “Then one Friday afternoon, at 5 o'clock, I got a knock at the door,” Quesnel recalls. Stickland had an issue to deal with, and “his” associate had left for the weekend. Quesnel was still at her desk, and she got her foot in the door.

And she wasn't going to pull it out. “I made myself available when people went on holidays, during busier months — I don't actually recommend this to young people starting out today, but I don't think I ever took holidays those first six or seven years,” Quesnel recalls. She took files as they came and learned oil and gas law one file at a time. “Establishing myself within the firm wasn't that hard — you just had to make yourself available and work hard. In those early days, it was really figuring out where the work flow is, who to establish relationships with, and to work on those,” she says. One of the most important of these for Quesnel was the professional relationship with BD&P heavyweight John Cuthbertson, QC, who mentored and championed her during her early days in the firm. The two continue to work deals together — most recently, acting for Penn West Energy on its megadeal with China Investment Corporation.

Finding her groove outside the firm was harder. The first time she asked a client to lunch in the name of relationship-building, he thought they were going on a date. “It was very disconcerting,” says Quesnel. All the more so because “rainmaking” in the traditional style wasn't really her forte. “I'm not a gregarious, outgoing person,” she says. “So I looked for other ways to make myself useful to the community and the firm.” She researched, wrote and delivered presentations. And slowly, she built relationships with female colleagues at oil and gas companies.

“I tend to do things quietly, but you can accomplish things as effectively in a quiet way,” she says. It may take longer to build a reputation or relationships in this way, but for Quesnel, “That's what I'm comfortable with.”

She has effected change within her firm in the same way. She's served on its executive committee and its compensation committee, doing her part “to try to make this a very good place for the development of lawyers in general, and the development of women lawyers in particular.”

Conscious of the positive impact Cuthbertson's mentorship has had on her own career, she makes a concentrated effort to mentor talented women lawyers at the firm as payback. “One of the things I've tried to do not so very quietly is to build a very strong oil and gas team here that has a very strong group of women in it,” she says.

With notable success.

Carolyn Wright: All Engines Firing

Carolyn Wright is a 2004 Bar call, which in lawyer years makes her a wobbling toddler. But the BD&P associate is already making waves in the patch. And she attributes her level of success at this early stage of her career in no small part to Quesnel's quiet revolution. “Alicia really took an interest in me when I got here, and she's a force to be reckoned with — just brilliant,” says Wright. “Seeing a successful woman in any practice area really gives the women coming up the confidence to pursue a career in that area. It's particularly inspiring in energy law, where there still aren't that many women lawyers.”

There is more to Wright's success than Quesnel's mentorship. She came to law as a second career after working in the non-profit sector for several years. Starting “late” has been a blessing: she brought life experience and a solid vision of what she wanted from her legal career — and how she was going to achieve it. Plus, she comes from an “oil and gas family,” the members of which have filled leadership roles in various entrepreneurial ventures. While still in law school, she was meeting general counsel and senior executives in the oil patch.

“Right off the bat, I was introduced to a lot of successful women in the oil patch, and I saw there was a really fun opportunity to become something in that world,” Wright says. “Yes, there is an old boys' club out there, but there is also the beginning of a strong women's network that's building its own dynamic, and it's nice to see and to be part of. There's a great movement afoot, with a lot of great women lawyers coming up.”

She's going to be one of them; the only question is where. “I have a choice to make between two things: to stay here and become partner if they'll have me,” she says, “or go in-house.” She's partnership-inclined. “To me, partnership gives me control over my practice and client base, and the ability to build something that's my own within the firm.”

But in-house has its temptations too. “I could see myself going in-house if it was really in a leadership role — a really exciting, more business than legal role,” she says. “The crystal ball is a little murky.”

Except that she knows she's heading … up.

KayLynn Litton: Keys to the City

So is KayLynn Litton. She said yes to the partnership track, becoming a partner at Macleod Dixon LLP in 2004. An American with a bachelor's degree in political science and French, and with several years of work experience as a Washington, DC, lobbyist, Litton became an oil patch lawyer for love when she married a Calgary accountant. “We thought my BA and lobbying experience would get me an awesome job in Calgary … as a receptionist,” she says.

An LLB got her articles with Macleod Dixon and keys to the city. As she's come up through the ranks in the firm's energy department, she's handled almost every type of transaction the oil patch can throw at a lawyer, from nuts-and-bolts acquisitions and divestitures to complex project work and joint ventures. Throughout, she's kept an eye out for “exciting deals and transactions,” and when she gets a chance to work on them, “make sure I do the best I can for the client.

“I don't know if I've ever felt I was at a disadvantage because I was a woman,” she says. “There are always people who will underestimate you either because you are a woman or young, but that's just a challenge, and there's a certain amount of pleasure you get when you've surprised someone with your ability.”

Her path at Macleod Dixon, like Wright's at BD&P, has been eased by the handful of senior women who preceded her, notably Chrysten Perry, the firm's Energy Department Chair. But what will ease the path most for young women lawyers moving through the ranks behind her, she thinks, isn't happening at law firms: it's happening at their oil and gas clients.
“There are more younger women and younger people in general getting into in-house legal positions, and they're moving up pretty quickly,” Litton says.

Unprogressive oil patch? She thinks not. “I think it's a myth, not a reality,” she says. “I think Calgary's just a more down-to-business sort of city. We spend less time talking about it — we just do it.”

The In-house Revolution

Perhaps. Or perhaps they have “it” – meaning action on gender equity – forced upon them, in a rather karmic way. Many of the women who exited private practice in the oil patch in the 1980s and the 1990s moved into the legal departments of the oil and gas companies that form the bulwark of the legal client base in Calgary. The most talented of these are now reaching the “vintage” at which they get to call the shots — in in-house legal departments, as well as at the C-suite level.

Take Joanne Alexander, the personal reason Noralee Bradley wanted to work on Gulf files back in 1995. Alexander helped shepherd Gulf through to its acquisition by Conoco. Subsequently, she joined Burlington Resources Canada as its Vice President, Legal and Regulatory Affairs.

Her next role was as general counsel with Western Oil Sands Inc., and after its sale to Marathon Oil Corporation, as Marathon's general counsel. Today, she is Vice President, Legal and Corporate Secretary at Precision Drilling Corporation, and she's considered one of the strongest general counsel in the city.

And she's not alone.

Nancy Dilts: Decisiveness Counts

Nancy Dilts joined Gulf Canada in 1995 as a junior litigation associate, after six years in private practice with the firm then known as Milner Fenerty (now Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP). “In-house practice definitely suits me better than private practice,” Dilts says. In particular what suited her was “the offer to participate in conversations around leadership.”

Those conversations took her all the way to the deal team that negotiated and then implemented the Conoco acquisition of Gulf, “a pivotal point” in her career, at the end of which she became the Vice President, Legal for ConocoPhillips Canada. In 2007, at the height of her game, she did a “typically Calgary” thing, resigning from the sure thing at ConocoPhillips “to join a high-risk start-up company,” MGM Energy Corp., as its Corporate Secretary and Vice President, Legal and Regulatory.

Currently heading up MGM is Henry Sykes, the former President of ConocoPhillips Canada, who, for Dilts – as for Bradley – had been an “exceptional mentor … who had confidence in me and gave me opportunities to lead non-legal organizations.” It's the kind of confidence Dilts inspires routinely in the people she works with, and it comes from an enviable inner source. “I've always taken the position that there is value in my opinion,” she says. “People tend to listen to you when you project that.”

In other words, to succeed in the oil patch, you've got to have a pretty solid core of self-esteem. And make hard decisions. “The people who ultimately rise to the top of companies are people who are decisive — willing to look at the band of risk and make a decision within that band,” Dilts says.

She's one of those people.

Anita Dusevic Oliva: A New Path

Another is Anita Dusevic Oliva, Corporate Secretary and Legal Counsel to Inter Pipeline Fund (IPF). One of the first decisions she made, while still in law school, was that she was going to be an in-house lawyer.

During her studies, Dusevic Oliva says she had the good fortune to meet Charlene Ripley, then Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary of Anadarko Petroleum Corporation. “She was a fantastic woman, very successful, and she made in-house work sound very interesting,” she says. (Ripley is now a senior VP with Houston's Linn Energy.)

When, shortly after Dusevic Oliva completed her articles with the Calgary office of Heenan Blaikie LLP, Anadarko Canada offered her an in-house position, she didn't think twice about the opportunity. She was with Anadarko for two years when, in 2006, IPF was hunting for a corporate secretary. “I just jumped at it,” she says. “It was a small department, with just two lawyers, but it offered a breadth of very interesting high-level work — work with the board of directors, dealing with corporate governance issues, securities, everything that was right for me at the time.”

Dusevic Oliva is carving out a new type of career path. For the past year, she's been filling her demanding role while spending only three days a week in the office. They are long days, but they allow her to spend the remaining two weekdays working from home and caring for her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter. It's an unusual arrangement in the oil patch, and one with which she approached IPF halfway through her maternity leave. It works — she makes it work, with the support of her general counsel at IPF and the company's president, as well as her work-from-home husband.

“Ask, because otherwise you certainly won't get it” is her career motto. “I've been pretty aggressive about trying to find a role that's right for me at any given time,” she says. “I also recognize that it's important to have loyalties to the companies and people you're working for, but in the oil patch, you never know what will happen.”

Angela Avery: Taking Over

That's why Angela Avery loves working in Calgary. “I love my job because it's so fun,” says Avery, Assistant General Counsel with ConocoPhillips.

“I think I have the craziest portfolio in the universe on my desk — it's like working for four or five different businesses. We've just come off this $4.65-billion deal [with Sinopec] and now I'm dealing with a $1,500 right-of-way agreement. And that, to me, is the oil patch.”

Avery started her legal life as a litigator with Bennett Jones, then went in-house to TransCanada PipeLines and focused on regulatory work. She took a year's leave to work with a United Nations' compensation commission that was awarding war reparations from the first Gulf War. Three years ago, she joined ConocoPhillips, the global legal department of which is led by Janet Kelly, and where, sometimes, one forgets that the oil patch is still considered the stomping ground of cowboys, with cowgirls few and far between.

Many of the best-regarded women lawyers working at oil and gas companies in Calgary have at one time or another done a stint at ConocoPhillips or one of its predecessors. That includes Dilts, Alexander and Anne Schenkenberger, currently Athabasca Oil Sands Corp.'s Vice President, Legal and Corporate Secretary.

There aren't very many cowgirls among the engineers and geoscientists, and the C-suite that's dominated by those professions is still mostly male. “But in terms of the law function, I look at oil producers and there are women everywhere,” Avery says. “We're taking over.” While Kelly is still the exception rather than the rule at her level, “over time, those senior general counsel will be more representatively filled by women,” Avery says. She notes immense change in the makeup of the in-house Bar over the past decade.

If in the 1980s there was but a handful of women lawyers in the patch, and in the 1990s perhaps two handfuls, in 2010, they are everywhere. Schenkenberger isn't an anomaly among the oil sands producers: she's one of several female general counsel or legal VPs, such as Leigh Peters at Oilsands Quest Inc., Trudy Curran at Canadian Oil Sands Trust, and Jina Abells Morissette, formerly of UTS and, since that company's take-over by Total E&P Canada, Vice President of Legal and Administration at SilverBirch Energy Corporation.

The proliferation of women lawyers at client companies in the oil patch – and their increasing ascent to positions of authority at those clients – has had a profound impact on law firms in Calgary.

After all, where the client goes, the successful law firm must follow.

Marzena Czarnecka is a Calgary-based freelance writer.