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Melissa Ghislanzoni, Associate, Business Law Group of Miller Thomson LLP

Lawyer Melissa Ghislanzoni practices corporate, commercial, and securities law at a firm in downtown Toronto. She received the 2005 Women’s Law Associated of Ontario Community Contribution Award, and has also volunteered overseas, drafting legal documentation for a community-based natural resource management trust in rural Botswana. 

What does a typical Thursday look like for you, starting from when you wake up – to heading to bed? 

Getting out of bed towards the end of the week can be hard. When I wake up, I turn on Flow 93.5, dance in the shower, try not to gag while I chug a vegan protein shake, walk my two dogs, commute 5 minutes to the Gabardine on Bay where I get my first (amazing) coffee of the day and then commute another 3 minutes to my office.  

I spend the first few minutes of each day responding to emails and following up on urgent files, then, once the caffeine has properly kicked in, the real brain work starts. 

I’m a fifth year lawyer at a full service national law firm and my practice is pretty diverse. I do a range of securities law and corporate and commercial work. I have clients ranging from household names to mid-sized companies and smaller start-ups. With the larger clients, I tend to be one of a couple associates on the file along with senior partners and colleagues from across the firm. For smaller clients, I have the opportunity to play a more prominent role or take the lead on files. 

There is no such thing as a typical Thursday. I could be in a meeting room negotiating an agreement with clients and a host of other lawyers, on a call helping a business person understand the legal implications of her deal or sitting at my desk drafting public disclosure documents or reviewing securities instruments to find out whether a proposed deal structure can work, which documents need to be drafted and which filings need to be made. 

No work day is complete without a mid-day David’s Tea run. I use this time to meet up with colleagues at the firm or to see friends who work in the towers around me. It’s a great time to catch up on what other people are doing, have a good chat and stretch my legs.  

Most work days also involve a conference call or two for the purpose of agreement drafting and getting comments from clients on a transaction. I enjoy reaching out to other lawyers in departments around the firm to solicit other kinds of specialized legal advice such as employment, real estate, and tax for the transactions I work on.  

I like to network and share information so I try to update my professional Twitter account at least once a week with a news item or legislative change that clients may find useful. 

Networking is one of the fun parts about being a lawyer. Thursday evenings are a great night to meet a client for a cocktail or post-work bite to eat.  However, if I haven’t made any plans, depending on what time I finish up at work, I will either head home to walk the dogs and then head to a Bikram yoga class, or go for a run with friends. I’m currently training for my second half-marathon. By the time Friday rolls around I’m usually a bit tired so grabbing dinner with my boyfriend or cooking a nice meal, reading a book and playing fetch with the dogs is my favourite way to end a week.  

What was your first job out of school? 

Like most law students, my first job out of law school was an articling position at a downtown firm where you learn the ropes of the profession. My first real job during undergrad was being a piano teacher and, for two summers, being a private swimming instructor. 

What are the 3 skills you require most to do your job well? 

An understanding of the law coupled with an understanding of the risks and opportunities of my clients’ business. 

An ability to understand the ever-evolving law that affects my clients. This means staying on top of changes to the laws themselves, documents from securities commissions, court decisions and academic articles.  

The ability to synthesize lots of detailed legal and business information into the clear, direct answer that my client wants.  This will depend greatly on the type of client. Some clients, such as in-house counsel, appreciate a full memo with footnotes and a detailed discussion of case law and statutes, but many other clients simply want a yes or no answer.

What do you love most about your career?

Everyday I get to work with a collection of outstandingly smart and motivated people. I’m constantly meeting brilliant executives, entrepreneurs, financial analysts and other lawyers. I am always learning new things. 

As an associate in my fifth year of practice, I’m able to start focusing on emerging areas of law that really excite me. For instance, some publicly listed companies are finding themselves running afoul of securities laws through their use of social media. Done improperly, Tweeting and Facebook posting can be a minefield for certain clients. I can leverage my knowledge of the law and my comfort with social media to help clients create guidelines that allow them to market effectively while staying off the black list with the securities commissions! 

Perhaps my favourite thing about this job is working closely with clients and developing relationships where I come to understand and anticipate the risks and opportunities that clients face. This relationship means that I can help clients guard against pitfalls and plan for the future. The more I know my clients, the more I enjoy working for them and the more valuable my time and effort is to them.  

When law students come to visit the firm prior to submitting summer job applications, they often ask what sets one big firm apart from the others. My answer is always the same: the people.  Each firm has its own unique “culture” and understanding a firm’s culture and approach to work and training associates is crucial.  I’m lucky to work with some very senior partners who, no matter the time of day and no matter the urgency of the assignment, always take the time to share their wisdom and provide constructive feedback. I work with one partner in particular who treats me to a martini at Jump after a big file closes where we debrief, talk about the process and discuss how we might apply the lessons learned on this file to future clients. An associate down the hall from me is a math whiz and is always happy to take a second look at a tricky calculation for me.  Working in an environment like this makes me feel very much a part of a team. 

Do you have any warnings? 

Law is a very rewarding profession, but it can also be very tough. Make sure you take time for yourself and cultivate hobbies that give you pleasure and let you unwind. For me, the most rewarding hobbies have been those that force me to develop new skills. For instance, the hardest yet most enjoyable part of Bikram yoga for me is savasana, a posture where you just need to be still, let go and NOT THINK! 

During your first couple of years as a lawyer you’ll realize that your schedule can be unpredictable and you’ll find yourself working long hours. Try not to let this interfere with your friendships and don’t let circumstances distance you from friends who aren’t working the same schedule. 

Come to meetings prepared, appear polished and professional. It will not matter if you’re the most junior person in the room as long as you’re prepared and know the documents that are being discussed.

If you could try a different career on for a year, what would it be? 

I’d love to go back to southern Africa to do more legal volunteer work. I spent a month in rural North-Western Botswana a few years ago doing legal volunteer work for the San people. I found that helping a community in need maximize their resources and enter into trading partnerships is one of the most immediate ways to experience the positive power of law in action. 

If I were to change careers altogether, I’d love to write travel guides for vegan foodies. Random. I know.

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