ZSA is proud to feature the 8 Questions Series interviewing prominent lawyers in Canada, aimed at discussing interesting perspectives and the challenges that face those in the legal profession. These articles, entitled “8 Questions With…” will be published on our website www.zsa.ca and in the ZSA Daily Digest, a daily compilation of legal news circulated by email to more than 1,500 legal professionals across Canada.
Emily Lee, Partner, ZSA Legal Recruitment, interviews Barry Fisher, Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary of SAP Canada Inc.
1. Why did you decide to become a lawyer?
As with most “why did you” questions, there is a short and long(er) answer. The short answer is because my then girlfriend, now wife, encouraged me to become a lawyer. It seems there is frequently a woman involved in all important decisions a man makes (or thinks he makes)! The long answer is I had been a graduate student in Philosophy at the University of Toronto. I had been advised to take one year of law school to help with the foundation of my studies. After completing three years of law school, my now wife warned that if I accepted an offered teaching-assistant position and spent the next five years on my doctoral thesis, our relationship would likely not survive. Part of me wonders about the academic road not taken, but I have now spent most of my adult life learning to think like a lawyer and, for better or for worse, I am now more lawyer than philosopher (although some question that assertion).
2. What is the biggest professional challenge that you have faced during your career?
My wife was a year behind me in law school so I decided to take a judicial clerkship while waiting for her to finish her bar examinations. She then had an offer as professor and coordinator of a legal institute in the United States; practicing US law with a large firm was a big challenge for me, but, much to my surprise, returning to the Canadian legal system was also a big challenge. In my cross-border practice, I needed to know at least a little bit about many diverse areas of law including competition, securities and immigration law. It turned out that grasping and pulling together disparate legal issues is essential to successful in-house work as well. Moving from the collegiality of a large law firm to set up a legal department in a mining company during a hostile takeover was certainly my biggest challenge. I remember, however, the President of the company giving me advice on my first day on the job that I will never forget. He said: “I need to tell you two things about me”:
- “I hate two handed lawyers.” What he meant was you can’t say “on the one hand” and then present both sides of the argument. He needed to know the road forward and was looking for my advice not my analysis.
- “I can smell BS from 100 feet. If you don’t know the answer, better to say that you don’t know… but you will find out, and then do so.”
3. If you could change one thing about the practice of law, what would it be?
In a word: Civility. I find that lawyers today are taking more of a “winner-take-all” attitude. It was not as prevalent earlier in my career or when I was in the United States. It seems that intimidation tactics are becoming the norm – sue for that, bring a motion on this. Lawyers need to recognize that if you treat people with respect you will more often get further in your goals.
4. What advice would you give to someone starting his/her career in law?
Be certain that you are doing something that you really want to do. Once you are in that role, make sure that you first develop your basic skills. The practice of law is quite different from what you learn in law school. Drafting, negotiating – these skills are taught well in theory in law school, but really learned in practice. Find a good mentor and make sure you master your fundamental legal skills.
5. What was the last good book you read/movie you saw?
I really enjoyed the most recent, entitled “Little Bee”, a book about a Nigerian refugee struggling to survive in England. I don’t often get to watch movies, except on planes, but I am passionate about live theatre. A lot of people know about Stratford, Shaw, Dancap, Mirvish, but there are also a lot of great smaller companies in Toronto including CanStage, Tarragon and Soulpepper. One show I recently saw was “A Year of Magical Thinking” at the Tarragon Theatre. The story is about a woman dealing with the death of her child and her husband in the same year. It was superb. I had tears in my eyes and I am not an emotional type.
6. What is your favorite restaurant?
Le Moulin in Lourmarin, France. Before I joined SAP, my wife, three children and I lived in the south of France for a year. It was after Peter Mayle wrote “A Year in Provence”, and I highly recommend Provence as a wonderful place to get lost in.
In Toronto, my favorite restaurant is Auberge du Pommier, which I can see from the window of my office.
7. Where would you most like to travel?
Well, I am just back from taking my son to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and then met up with my wife to scuba dive in Zanzibar and the visit the Ngorongoro Craterand the Serengeti where we saw the early migration of the wildebeests. I enjoy visiting World Heritage sites like Angkor Wat, Cambodia and Petra, Jordan. We were recently in Uganda and Rwanda and had the opportunity to be near the highland gorillas, which should be on everyone’s bucket list. I prefer things with an adventure component: I want to ride a motorcycle across Australia and Europe…when I’m 80. For now, my intention is to visit amazing places while I can – before my legs give out and my heart stops working well. Our next trip will probably be to Antarctica in November.
8. If you were not a lawyer, what would you be doing?
Early on, I wanted to be a psychoanalyst. I grew up next door to a chief of surgery, and at age 16 he told me that I would need 19 more years after high school to be fully certified. I couldn’t fathom spending 19 more years in school (although I ended up doing 10 years in post-secondary education anyway). My dream jobs would be helicopter ski guide for old fogies or Canada’s ambassador to the Vatican as I would have the opportunity to live in the middle of Rome and, unless you accept what Dan Brown writes in The Da Vinci Code, what how many international crises could I possibly incite?
Barry Michael Fisher is Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary of SAP Canada Inc. and Assistant Regional General Counsel for SAP Americas for North, Central and South America. In addition to responsibility for the Legal and Contracts Departments at SAP Canada, Barry is the Chief Compliance Officer, the Chief Privacy Officer, the Fraud Reporting Officer, a member of the Executive Leadership Team and the Executive Leadership Advisory Council.
Following call to the Bar in Ontario and a judicial clerkship, Barry began his career practicing corporate securities and international law with a large law firm in the United States Midwest. He returned to Canada and practiced Canadian law with major law firms, and as a Foreign Legal Consultant opened the Toronto office of his U.S. law firm.
Prior to joining SAP, Barry was the General Counsel to a group of inter-listed mining companies. Barry holds undergraduate degrees in Economics and Philosophy, a Masters Degree in Philosophy, and a law degree from the University of Western Ontario where he was Editor-in-Chief of the Law Review. As well, he earned an LL.M. while in the United States.
Barry has held various executive positions within the International, Information Technology and Corporate Counsel Sections of the Canadian Bar Association, and most recently sat on the Board of Directors of the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association, chairing its Membership Committee. He was the founding Chair of the Committee on Canadian Law of the Section of International Law and Practice of the American Bar Association, and served on the Section’s Governing Council. In addition, Barry is bilingual in English and French.