We continue our monthly feature, “Upfront & Personal”, a column created by Rose Ors that brings “the person behind the title” to the forefront in interviews with some of the most influential members of the legal community.
Fernando Garcia, VP and General Counsel of Cargojet, recently spoke with Ms. Ors, the CEO and Founder of ClientSmart, about defining moments, the responsibility of parental sacrifice, and how flexibility is a better strategy during times of change.
Rose Ors: What life moments have defined you?
Fernando Garcia: The life moment that has most defined me was our family’s experience of immigrating to Canada from Uruguay. I was nine years old. There were many hardships. I witnessed the struggles and sacrifices my parents made on a daily basis. They not only left their friends and family behind, they worked endless hours and multiple jobs to ensure that my sister and I had opportunities to grow and excel.
My parent’s sacrifices made me realize that I now had an obligation to make the most of my life — personally and professionally. I came to understand the importance of hard work and persistence. It was only later in life that I came to learn that my story, while personal, is also the story of the many refugees and immigrants that have left their country of birth to pursue a better life. It is a story I am proud of and want my children to be proud of and learn from.
Rose Ors: What has influenced your career choices?
Fernando Garcia: Many lawyers have known from an early age what they wanted their career to be and they had a clear idea of how to achieve that objective. Nothing can be further from the truth for me. I initially struggled in high school. I attended numerous schools. I had poor grades. I left high school before graduating to figure out how to change course.
I learned fairly early on that a law firm practice was not for me. I was interested in business and the interplay between the law and business.
Eventually, I returned to high school — this time a different person. I committed to do my best and did well enough to be able to attend McMaster University in Ontario. During the first couple of years at McMaster I was fairly open about the career direction I would take. But what I knew for sure was that I was determined to succeed. I later decided to get my BA degree in Labor Studies and then a Master’s degree in Industrial Relations.
Rose Ors: How did you then decide to get a law degree?
Fernando Garcia: I got hired as a labor relations consultant at a major Ontario company where I worked closely with lawyers in preparing for labor negotiations, grievance arbitrations, and developing and updating policies for Human Resources (HR).
That experience got me to pursue a law degree. I went to McGill University and graduated with a civil and common law degree.
Rose Ors: Where did you first practice law?
Fernando Garcia: I started at a law firm. However, I learned fairly early on that a law firm practice was not for me. I was interested in business and the interplay between the law and business. So, I took an in-house position and enrolled in a part-time MBA program. Today, I can sincerely say that I love how my role as general counsel allows me the opportunity to incorporate my three core practice areas: law, business, and HR/Labor relations.
Rose Ors: What are three things you are passionate about?
Fernando Garcia: There are three things that I am passionate about and to which I dedicate most of my time. Number one is family. I am very fortunate to have a small but close family. With my spouse, we have four children all nearing their teenage years. To watch them grow up and develop their own personalities and different interests is the fuel that keeps us going and working hard. There really is no greater pleasure for us than to share experiences and moments with our children.
Second is my career. I love what I do. As an in-house counsel, I try to be a strategic business partner, which means that I am part of making business decisions and developing strategies that ensure the ongoing success of the business. The fact that I get to do the things I love at an entrepreneurial and fast-growing company is the icing on the cake.
Lastly, I am passionate about learning. I am a big believer that as a professional, one should never stop acquiring new skills. Whether it was pursuing a part-time MBA, participating and speaking at conferences and legal events, or constantly looking for opportunities to develop new skill sets, I am driven by the opportunity to always learn, move forward, and contribute.
Rose Ors: In another life, what would be a career you would find exciting to pursue?
Fernando Garcia: While I have many different interests, the one career I would have pursued apart from my current path was medicine. I love the problem-solving component of the profession, and I would have loved the opportunity to become a doctor and be able to make a positive impact on the life and health of individuals.
I ascribe to the notion that to survive the winds of change, it is better to be flexible like the reed instead of rigid like the oak tree.
I even contemplated pursuing medicine after my undergraduate degree. I did not pursue it because I could not turn down being accepted into the Master’s of Industrial Relations program at the University of Toronto with a scholarship. I reverted back to the old saying: A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. I will reserve pursuing this career path for another life.
Rose Ors: What advice would you give a newly appointed General Counsel.
Fernando Garcia: The advice that I would give to a newly appointed General Counsel, is the same one I give to recent law graduates: stay curious, and always continue learning and growing your skill sets. This is critical, as the business climate and the legal profession are changing so rapidly. I ascribe to the notion that to survive the winds of change, it is better to be flexible like the reed instead of rigid like the oak tree.
I would also advise a new general counsel that he must understand the business strategy and environment within which the company he represents operates. It is the only way to provide valuable and strategic business and legal advice.
In my experience, it is imperative that the general counsel and his or her team act like business people with a law degree. For the general counsel, it is what will garner him a seat at the executive table.
This interview has been edited and condensed by Rose Ors.