Lorraine Shalhoub had her sights set on journalism when she first entered University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, in the late 1970s. But some of the classes she had to take to fulfill the requirements for the degree got her thinking: Maybe law was a better fit.
By the time Shalhoub graduated, the economy in Canada was struggling, and finding a decent job in journalism would have been a long shot. So she decided to pursue her interest in law. She applied to and was accepted by Windsor Law, the law school at University of Windsor.
After law school, she found herself working in various legal positions–as a clerk at the Court of Appeal, as an associate in a large law firm and as the director of a legal organization. Although she didn’t realize it at the time, her experience would lead her to one day stand at the helm of one of the most recognized names in the automotive industry–as the vice president and general counsel of Chrysler Canada–as well as receive the honor of being named Canadian General Counsel of the Year in 2010.
Q: What interested you about in-house practice vs. law firm work?
A: I like the idea of working with a specific product, and I like business generally. I have dual citizenship–in Canada and the U.S. We are situated in Windsor, which is very close to the border. I thought it would be a great opportunity to work for an organization that had operations on both sides of the border so I could use my full skill set.
Q: How did you end up at Chrysler Canada?
A: I joined in 1997. I had been completing my L.L.M. degree in the U.S. [at Wayne State University], and at the time there was an opportunity for staff counsel. I was teaching part time, but I thought this was a pretty cool opportunity. I was trying to decide if I should build my career on the academic side or take this position with Chrysler. I had both opportunities before me and had to make the decision. I chose Chrysler Canada.
Q: Tell me a little about the work you do as GC of Chrysler Canada.
A: I joined as associate general counsel 13 years ago. Then in 2002, I was offered the opportunity to become the director of external affairs, so I did a lot of government policy work for the next five years. Then, in 2007, I became vice president, general counsel and director of external affairs for legal. I was responsible for government affairs and public policy. So basically, I oversee all the legal issues and government policy issues that affect Chrysler Canada.
Up until March it was just me in the department. I was able to hire another lawyer, and I have a paralegal. So, now we are a department of three.
Q: Chrysler went through a restructuring last year, which Chrysler Canada’s CEO Reid Bigland has said wouldn’t have happened without you. Would you tell me more about that?
A: There was a lot of work to be done as part of the reorganization. We had issues on the table that needed to be looked at–labor rates, tax regulations and pension– that the company would face in a restructuring. The U.S. entity was going through its own restructuring, so we had to make some very important decisions relative to our U.S. parent.
What ultimately happened was Fiat had expressed interest in the company, and we were required to obtain financial assistance. We were able to get it from the U.S. and Canada. We received a government loan, which was part of the restructuring as well, which helped us keep going. We formed an alliance with Fiat and were able to continue working.
Q: You recently won the Canadian General Counsel of the Year award. Why do you think it was given to you?
A: It was quite an honor. It is a prestigious award and is given annually to an individual who manages a number of complex issues with a steady hand as well as analyzes and appreciates issues from a cross-border perspective.
I went to the awards knowing I had been shortlisted in the deal-making category for the deal I worked on with Fiat. I didn’t win that award. But it turned out at the end of the evening there was an overall award given for the best general counsel. So instead of receiving the deal-making award, I was receiving the General Counsel of the Year award.
I was really appreciative of just being there and being shortlisted and nominated. By the end of the evening, I was overwhelmed. I was shocked. I was honored and humbled by it. There are a lot of general counsel that are very experienced and very talented, and it was really nice to be honored by my peers in that fashion.
Then I was shortlisted for an award in New York as a result of winning the award.
Q: What do you love most about your work?
A: I really like the analytical aspect. I like the diversity of the issues. I find the work challenging and interesting. It is never dull. And it is associated with a product as well, and I knew early on I wanted to work on a product.
Q: What is the most challenging part of your job with Chrysler Canada?
A: It’s juggling the priorities. You are never really sure what is going to hit when. At the same time, it is exciting. You walk in every morning not knowing how your day will unfold, and that is fun in a way. You have to keep your eye on the ball and manage those priorities.
Q: Does your department have an internal diversity program? If so, tell me about it.
A: The diversity programs are a bit different here in Canada than they are in the U.S. It’s a multicultural society. It’s fascinating having grown up in a border town with both citizenships. I see very clearly some of those distinctions, and it’s interesting to watch. But we don’t deal with a lot of the same diversity issues here that come up in the U.S.
Q: What advice would you give a young lawyer who would like to someday become GC of a large company?
A: I’d advise a young lawyer to be well-rounded, to be a good listener, communicator and problem solver. I would tell him or her to get as much experience as possible. It goes a long way toward allowing you to build the career you want.
Q: Was this the goal you had for yourself once you decided to go into law?
A: No, I would have never dreamed I would end up in this position at Chrysler Canada. I didn’t really feel a law firm would be my place. But other than that, I wasn’t sure.
I like the interaction with people and the business, and that was a large part of what drove me to a company like Chrysler. It’s fascinating to be a part of its success, and I love the people I work with.
I had a varied background. I was teaching part time. I did volunteer work for University of Windsor. I guess I have a lot of interests, and I found firm life to be more narrow in focus.
Q: If money, family, etc. weren’t an issue, what would your dream job be?
A: I would like to be an HGTV host of a show like House Hunters International. I love different cultures and experiencing different countries, and they interview a lot of interesting people. It goes back my communication background, I guess.