Atlantic Canada’s unprecedented CEO

Atlantic Canada’s unprecedented CEO

Lydia Bugden is doing what no other woman in Atlantic Canada, and perhaps the entire country, is doing. She’s running a major law firm

In August 2015, New Brunswick University law grad Lydia Bugden took over the helm of Stewart McKelvey, the region’s largest law firm with more than 200 lawyers in four provinces.

For Bugden, her unprecedented accomplishment is less about breaking new ground and more about doing a great job. Getting to the top was not about struggling for recognition, she says, it was about working hard.

Still, the import of being female and top dog is not lost on Stewart McKelvey’s chief executive officer and managing partner, who acknowledges women are not a familiar sight in the upper echelons of law firms in this country. “It’s a rare role now for a woman,” Bugden says. Yet standing solo on the CEO podium was never a goal for the Nova Scotia native. “It’s not something I thought I would be doing,” she notes.

Nor did Bugden feel compelled to excel, to break new legal ground for generations to follow. “I don’t feel a pressure and I’ve never felt a pressure. It’s been a celebratory opportunity,” Bugden says of her distinctive rise through the legal community.

Much of Bugden’s career has been marked by two seemingly opposing forces: forging her own path and fate. That dichotomy was apparent early on in her choice of profession. As a 17-year-old fresh out of high school in Halifax, Bugden knew her future was in law. That definitiveness did not derive from watching her surgeon father but from listening to the judge she babysat for and other lawyers in her family circle. “Law school was everything I wanted,” says Bugden. “It’s a professional environment from the time you start. It’s about ideas and executing on those ideas.”

Before she landed at UNB in Fredericton, however, Bugden completed her commerce degree at Dalhousie. It was a strategic move. “This had been recommended to me as conducive to law,” she notes. The blend of business savvy and legal acumen has proven to be a winning combination for the 48-year-old.

After graduating from UNB law in 1991, Bugden went on to pass the bar in Nova Scotia, then moved to Toronto with her husband, Christopher Smith, now president of Heritage Gas Limited. What was lost in the move: an articling position. By the time Bugden landed in Canada’s largest city, it was too late in the year to be hired by a local law firm. Those positions had been filled months earlier. So when Bugden was offered an in-house job with the TDL Group Ltd., the licensing company for Tim Hortons’ franchises, she jumped at the chance. The Law Society of Upper Canada gave their blessing to the unusual articling position, and Bugden found herself working in an environment that drew on her educational background in both commerce and law.

It was a gutsy move even if options were limited. Back then, in-house counsel positions were often seen as second tier, the assumption being that the best and the brightest would be working in private practice. Bugden proved the assumption wrong.

She also thrived. It was an exciting time for a young lawyer, Bugden says. “Ron Joyce had 100 per cent of the business and was driving store openings and the double drivethroughs were just starting.”

The in-house experience gave her something Bugden believes would have been elusive as a recent graduate in private practice. “It does afford a young lawyer leadership opportunities,” she says.

Within a few years Bugden was drawn away from the business of coffee and doughnuts and headhunted for another in-house position, this time with Consumers Gas Company Limited (now Enbridge Gas Distribution). This turned out to be more than a change of sectors; it was a job that brought her home. As a lawyer with Consumers, Bugden moved back to the East Coast. The plan was to stay in-house, but plans change. Consumer Gas pulled out of a major project in Nova Scotia in 1999, and Bugden found herself moving to private practice with the firm’s external counsel. That firm was Stewart McKelvey.

From there the trajectory followed a more traditional path to the top, regardless of gender. She became a member of the firm’s management committee, then went on to run the corporate law department, lead the partner board, and finally assume the mantle of regional managing partner. In 2015, the job of CEO, leading a staff of more than 400, opened up for only the second time in the firm’s history. Bugden went for it – and won.

Despite her obvious and numerous achievements, Bugden was not a shoo-in for the position. According to a release issued by the firm following her appointment, there was “an extensive search process that included a number of very experienced and highly qualified internal and external candidates.”

What tipped the scales in Bugden’s favour, according to Paul Smith, chair of Stewart McKelvey’s partnership board, was her “management experience combined with her significant breadth and depth of legal experience and notable contribution to the community.” Bugden, he says, was the board’s “unanimous first choice.”

The decision to move away from private practice and into law firm management full-time was not one Bugden made lightly. In the same way that taking an in-house counsel job, especially as a young lawyer, could potentially thwart ambitions, so could becoming CEO. “Many people see law firm management as a sidestep,” says Bugden. “I don’t.”

Such a shift does require looking at law firm management through a new lens. Bugden believes her career path, unique though it is, mirrors the mindfulness and the minefield that others must navigate. Like many women in the profession, she says, you work hard to get where you are, to progress from LLB to partner. Now, the final frontier: do you leave practice for management?

For Bugden, the answer is a resounding and successful “yes.” For other women, the decision may be different, but now, at least, there is a role model to emulate. That’s a noteworthy breakthrough. Although Bugden is less comfortable with her almost singular role as CEO, she admits serving as CEO at one of the 20 largest law firms in Canada puts her in the spotlight and brings with it an obligation to help other women excel. “It is still a male-dominated profession,” says Bugden.

Indeed. Canadian and U.S. statistics indicate that the number of women partners in law firms ranges from 16 to 20 per cent, yet women are graduating in equal (if not greater) numbers than men from law school. “The glass ceiling is not a fiction, which is one reason why appointments like [Bugden’s] really matter,” says Camille Cameron, dean of the Schulich School of Law. “We need strong role models,” she adds. “When we see women in leadership positions like these, it signals to us that it is possible to aspire to and achieve the same thing if we want it.”

That achievement needs to be put into perspective for the women who follow. Female lawyers are leaving private practice in droves, an issue which law societies, law firms and the legal profession are grappling with. One reason: life balance.

There is a perception and a reality that for women who make it to the top: overachievement is expected. “They always have to be so much better than everyone else. We expect them to be the complete package,” says Kim Brooks, former dean of law at Dalhousie University.

Bugden has found a balance that works for her and her family. She has two “very active” children, so mom joins them in their activities. Her 18-year-old son, William, for example, is a competitive swimmer, so guess who has served as co-president of the Halifax Trojan Aquatic Club for the past four years. Bugden also makes time for herself, for cycling and running with female friends who are decidedly not part of her work life. “You need to get your mind out of the office,” says Bugden. “It’s great to have other perspectives. It’s refreshing.”

The implications of her achievement on future generations of law firm leadership are not lost on Bugden. “I should be serving as a mentor to junior lawyers,” she says. That is a role Bugden plays consciously by reaching out to junior lawyers and by speaking up and out on the issue at conferences and other events.

She also does this simply by being, notes Brooks. Bugden’s appointment as CEO, the Dal law professor says, “is a reflection of where things are, where they should be, and where they are going.”

One woman, at least, is already there.

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