Co-Managing Partner of Stikeman's Toronto office, corporate lawyer, law firm talent management pioneer—and lily pad enthusiast

Anne Ristic, LLB 1986Interview by Lucianna Ciccocioppo / Photography by Jim Ryce

From the Fall/Winter 2017 issue of Nexus

Lucianna Ciccocioppo:    What do you love about your job?

Anne Ristic: I love the variety of it. It's not a siloed role. I spend a lot of time on the people side but also linking talent to our financial success, strategizing about how to deal with client demand, changes, or risk management issues. Technology obviously is an increasing focus for us. Not just how we do our work now, but new ways of doing our work. So I do love that, because it's new and you're always learning. Here I am, 33 years after graduating from law school, and I feel like I'm still learning just as much every year, as I did when I first started out.

LC: Did you foresee that you would be landing in this type of role?

AR: No. It didn't exist when I graduated. I tell our students that there are really two different career strategies you can take when you come out of law school. One I’ll call the homing pigeon approach, which works when you know your destination. One of my colleagues wanted to become a leading litigator in Canada after she graduated. And she is now that. That was her goal from day one, and she did all the things that got her there.

I did not know what my ultimate goal was. Like everyone I wanted to do interesting, rewarding work, but in my case I wasn’t sure what that would be.  I call my path the lily pad approach, where I go from one to another, looking around to see where the next lily pad with interesting opportunities might lead me. I've been at Stikeman Elliott my whole career since graduating from UofT but I have done a lot of different things on my various lily pads here. And I'm hugely grateful to the firm for those less traditional opportunities that I've been able to have.

LC: There's a debate about the best mentors or sponsors for women lawyers. What are your thoughts on this debate, and is there a mentor or sponsor who stands out in your career?

AR: There’s a real difference between mentors and sponsors. And both have been very much a part in my career. I think you can have a lot of mentors, including peers or mentors from outside your industry. I had and I still have a lot of great mentors.  By contrast, I would say you can't have very many sponsors, because they need to know you very well in the work context. When I started out as a practicing corporate securities associate, which I did for about five years, I had two or three people, men and women, who sponsored me and gave me opportunities on their files but also got me new opportunities with clients and other lawyers. They would say: ‘You know you should give Anne a try. She could do this, or this would be a good opportunity for her. I think you'll find she does a good job.’ And that helps promote you and get your reputation out there. But most importantly it gets you work assignments where you can gain new experience and develop into a better lawyer.

When I shifted into the then-newly-created role running our student program, I had a core group of 3 or 4 partners, men and women, both mentoring me and sponsoring me. In those days, there weren't very many non-practicing lawyer roles in law firms. So my role could have been viewed as a pure support role. But this sponsorship, which included the managing partner, helped people look at it as a much more serious role, and look at me, as a result, as a sophisticated, strategic business person.

I often hear it said that women are poor at sponsoring and mentoring other women. But I don't think that, and that was not my experience. I have had lots of great mentoring, support and sponsorship from women as well as men.  You need to have both, and that was especially true in my day in the ‘80s, when there weren't that many women ahead of me.

LC:  You're considered a pioneer in what has become the law firm talent management industry in Toronto, and in Canada. What are the greatest value adds of these roles in your view, and how has this accountability increased over time?

AR: All law firms, not just Stikeman Elliott, have had a growing recognition of the importance of professional management. And by that I mean, needing the same level of excellence in the business management roles as you expect in your legal client services roles. For your business to be successful, you have to marry up legal work and financial success, so early law firm professional management roles were focused on finance.  And that's obviously an important piece. But a second piece would be the connection between legal and financial success, and talent management and talent development. Our product is our people and our intellectual capital. And most of our intellectual capital is wrapped up in our people. So talent development is really product development for us. And then the third piece is connecting the legal, technical, intellectual capital to clients and clients’ demands. Each of those areas has a lot of complexity, and can become siloed. I think what professional management roles have brought is that big-picture, integrated thinking about law, connecting the people side, the financial side, the client side and all the other elements that come into it.             

LC: How has the large legal firm model evolved in Canada?

AR: Central to our model is our people—the human beings who work with our clients as trusted advisors, project managers and guides through the legal maze. To grossly oversimplify, our people are our service offering.  I think two broad forces are now influencing this model.  One force is the changing demands of our clients and the other force is our workforce, which is also changing.  On the client side, clients are much more discerning, educated consumers of legal services than they were even 10 years ago.  In our experience they still very much want those human being trusted advisors, project managers and legal guides, but they also want more. They want to know what else are we offering, what is behind the person – new technologies, more efficient processes, new ways of staffing, better access to legal information, new ways of pricing and so on.  As a result, our model has evolved so that we can offer expertise and excellence in these areas to supplement our traditional legal work.  On the workforce side, consistent with these client demands, our people now need a much broader skill set, and that skill set will need to change a lot over their careers.  Technological fluency is high on the list but there are a host of other skills we need to be recruiting for and developing in our people.  Probably the top of the list is intellectual curiosity and the ability to constantly listen, learn and change – not sure if there is one word for that skill!

LC: Many firms like Stikeman's talk a lot about diversity and inclusion. Yet the ranks at the top usually are not so diverse. How do you reconcile this?    

AR: Our strategy is to deconstruct the pipeline to leadership and to try to pinpoint where interventions are needed. To get women and diverse communities into the partnership ranks at the top, you need to start with recruitment, then you need to focus on retention and engagement, you need to look at promotion of your people, particularly to partnership, and then, very importantly, you have to look at how partners develop their practices and grow their practices with clients and firm leadership positions. At each point along that pipeline, you need to analyze what is happening at your firm, and whether there are barriers. Hadiya Roderique’s article in the Globe & Mail held up a clear mirror for us all on where there are barriers.  And if there are barriers, what are the interventions available to break down these barriers?             

At Stikemans, the entry level recruitment is actually quite even in terms of gender diversity. When we look at our retention, it's a little bit different, but still fairly even. And then when we look at our promotion to partnership, it's quite different, and within the partnership different again.  There are places along the pipeline where we've really had to dig deep to diagnose what was happening and why. So for us right now we do a lot of training and awareness-building around unconscious bias. Because that affects how people make decisions all along the leadership pipeline. And I would say in particular, we are focused on how people get work assignments and “stretch” assignments.  There are a bunch of micro-decisions that lawyers make everyday about who to staff on a particular file, who to offer a particular opportunity.  People might not spend as much time on their micro-decisions as they do on larger ones.  But these decisions have a huge effect on career development.

LC: What has been your most proud career achievement to date?                                    

AR: When I started out at Stikeman Elliott, there were only 45 lawyers in Toronto, and now we're around 200. And when I started in the '80s, Stikeman Elliott was a relatively new law firm in the Toronto market, an up-and-coming firm. Thirty years later, we're a leading Seven Sisters law firm in Toronto. That comes from the people we have recruited and developed over the years. And I feel like I had a part in a huge team effort in building the law firm from a promising early beginner, to a real powerhouse of fantastic lawyers.