I am happy to introduce you to Maryann Besharat, the leading lawyer profiled in today's blog post.
Maryann was introduced to me by Maneesha Gupta, who wrote the following about Maryann: "Maryann has been very inspiring to me and I would love for other female lawyers to hear (and benefit from) her story. From the moment she stepped on stage, she captivated our audience with her confidence, bright mind and unforgettable wit. Having put out many fires, Maryann drew on practical perspectives from her own career in a way that was empowering and encouraging to any female lawyer."
Please enjoy the profile:
1. Tell me a little about your practice or business.
I am the Vice President, Legal Affairs & Compliance Services at Intact Financial Corporation which is the largest provider of property and casualty insurance in Canada and a leading provider of specialty insurance in North America.
I am responsible for providing legal services and solutions-oriented advice relating to a broad range of legal issues including insurance-regulatory, compliance, ombudsman, marketing, internal investigations and employment matters. I oversee interactions with several regulatory bodies and am responsible for managing all aspects of Intact’s ethics, privacy and whistleblower programs.
My goal is to provide pragmatic advice regarding strategic initiatives of the company. My approach to providing legal advice is to simplify the issues, highlight the real risks and offer easy to understand solutions that balance legal risks with business opportunities.
I work with a fantastic team of professionals who bring new meaning to the phrase ‘legal eagles’! They’re sharp, bright and so much fun. Every day is entertaining, engaging and intellectually stimulating. Who says insurance is boring?!
2. Why did you go to law school?
My childhood dream was to become a lawyer. As the child of immigrants, I grew up with a deep appreciation for higher education and the understanding that every generation needs to strive to be better than the previous one. My father was in law school before his family emigrated to Canada and he was unable to complete his studies. He’s well read and a bit of an academic without the official credentials. He heavily influenced my desire to become a lawyer with his wit, intelligence and oratory skills.
In me, he saw the combination of leadership, social advocacy, drive, curiosity and brute hard work. His gentle prompts along with my mother’s tireless support played a significant role in my decision to go to law school.
3. How did you get to where you are today? Design? Chance? Both?
Design, chance and a bit of both. The primary force was chance. I went in-house during the economic recession in 2010 after practising on Bay street for a few years. I was not familiar with Intact, but I connected with the general counsel during my interview and the role appeared to be exactly what I was looking for….different. The position entailed creative thinking & writing, high levels of collaboration, and a multi-disciplinary approach that looked at problems from different angles. I knew I possessed these skills, and I wanted to use them more in my practice. I loved the job from day one. In fact, I kept wondering when I would feel like it was a drab to go to work, and that day never came. I quickly became highly engaged in my role and over time, I became personally invested in the development of the Legal team, the company as a whole and in my career growth within Intact. This is where ‘design’ came into the picture. At some point, I realised that I would like to play a leadership role at Intact and I began developing a plan to grow my legal skills, understand the business and enhance my leadership footprint.
4. What is your most significant achievement? What are you proud of?
I am most proud of becoming a lawyer. It was a significant achievement for both myself and my family. I found law school intellectually and emotionally challenging. During my undergraduate, I thought I studied hard, but law school took it to a new level. It was a privilege to study the law and I was impressed with how bright and dedicated the students were (if not intimidated).
Law school pushed my academic boundaries and helped me enhance my research, writing, analytical and advocacy skills. It also helped toughen me up, because there are all types of characters in law school and it’s easy to get distracted by minor irritants. I was a little naïve about things and law school helped illuminate human behaviour.
I was fortunate to have great family support during law school. Not only did they encourage me to become a lawyer, but they wholeheartedly pushed and cheered me on during law school. When I received my degree and walked across the stage, I fondly remember feeling like this degree also belonged to my parents.
5. What are some key challenges, and more importantly, opportunities for women in law?
Let me first start off with the key opportunities: In my experience, women in law are like a sisterhood. There is a great sense of community amongst women in law and we try to rally and support each other. I have benefited immensely from generous women who have coached me and now I am in the privileged position of paying this forward to younger women in the profession. Another key opportunity is to help progress and modernise the practice of law such that we move away from zero-sum outcomes and pivot towards a more balanced and conciliatory approach. Lastly, there is more progress that needs to be made on ensuring the practice of law is a sustainable career that does not destroy marriages and family life. This is not a women only issue and I am pleased to see the proliferation of men that are also helping set healthy work life boundaries.
Gender and race discrimination along with pay equity remain key challenges. These issues permeate all workplaces and are not limited to the practice of law.
6. What advice would you give a woman starting her legal career?
Strive for marginal improvements – instead of perfection, aim for progress. Every week do one thing to marginally improve.
Embrace brevity and simplicity – don’t write for lawyers, write for the average person. If you learn to master this skill, you will become a client magnet.
Support the business operations – become a student of the business and understand the key challenges and opportunities.
Let failure be your teacher, but keep a few successes in your pocket – the greatest learnings come from failure, but always keep reminding yourself of the big or small wins so that you don’t overly analyse and criticize your shortcomings. The more failures you have, the better you get at extracting the learning from the experience and not dwelling on your wounded ego or hurt feelings.
Thank you Maryann for this wonderful advice and information about your practice!
I started this blog series because I was tired of hearing about women leaving law and wanted to hear about women leading in law. The "Women Leading in Law" series focuses on good news stories and highlights amazing women succeeding in the legal profession. Each post includes the profiled lawyer's answers to six questions. Prepare to be inspired!
ICYMI - previous posts profiled the following amazing lawyers: Cynthia Mason, Roots Gadhia, Evelyn Ackah, Carrisa Tanzola, Sarah Leamon, Robin Parker, Lorin MacDonald, Karen Yamamoto, Victoria Crewe-Nelson, Lynne Vicars, Kemi Oduwole, Anne-Marie McElroy, Jennifer Gold, Jordana Goldlist, Megan Keenberg, Yadesha Satheaswaran, France Mahon, Sarah Molyneaux, Richa Sandill, Vivene Salmon, Kim Whaley, Alisia Grenville, Frances Wood, Maggie Wente, Anita Szigeti, Neha Chugh, Christy Allen & Nancy Houle, Suzie Seo, Kim Gale, Alexi Wood, Melissa McBain, Erin Best, Gillian Hnatiw, Melanie Sharman Rowand, Meg Chinelo Egbunonu, Lisa Jean Helps, Nathalie Godbout Q.C., Laurie Livingstone, Renatta Austin, Janis Criger, May Cheng, Nicole Chrolavicius, Charlene Theodore, Dyanoosh Youssefi, Shannon Salter, Bindu Cudjoe, Elliot Spears, Jessica Prince, Anu K. Sandhu, Claire Hatcher, Esi Codjoe, Kate Dewhirst, Jennifer Taylor, Rebecca Durcan, Atrisha Lewis, Vandana Sood, Kathryn Manning, Kim Hawkins, Kyla Lee, and Eva Chan.
Erin C. Cowling is a freelance litigator, researcher & writer at Cowling Legal Freelance and President and Founder of FLEX LEGAL, a network of freelance lawyers.