Hélène Gagnon/ From Environmental Law to Public Affairs

A 1993 graduate of the Faculty, she has worked as a lawyer for 5 years and then moved into public affairs. First, she joined the mining industry and then worked for multinational corporations such as Bombardier and CAE in the transportation and aerospace industries.

Helene V.Gagnon.jpg

1.    Let’s start with the basics. What are you doing now? In a sentence or so, describe your work/practice(s).

I am Vice President, Public Affairs and Global Communications for CAE Inc., the world leader in flight simulators and pilot training.  CAE, headquartered in Montreal, is a true multinational corporation with 9,000 employees in 160 sites with more than 90% of revenues coming from outside Canada. I manage CAE’s reputation and strengthens relationships with all stakeholders worldwide including employees, media, communities and governments.

2.    Did you always imagine yourself going to law school?

Yes since I was very young I had envisaged myself in law school.

3.    At what moment did you realize you wanted to take your legal education and career in your own direction? 

During my maternity leave, I took the time to think whether I wanted to continue on the path of becoming partner in a big law firm or not. That’s when I decided I wanted to move into the public affairs and communications field instead. I had completed a M.Sc. in Public Administration and Public Policy at the LSE in London. So after my McGill B.C.L. and LL.B. I already had an interest for public policy and public affairs.

4.    What were the steps you took and opportunities you seized in order to get where you are? 

I have always been very involved in a lot of organizations and I most often acted as the spokesperson and as someone contributing to the strategy.  Through those numerous activities (I have sat on more than 50 boards of associations in my life from student politics to young chambers of commerce), I have developed my network and perfected my competencies as a communicator.  When it was times to switch careers, I bundled everything I had done into transferable competencies and skills: education, non-profit experience and involvement, 5 years of private practice in environmental law in a big law firm - and jumped in a different role.

5.    What makes your current practice “lawfully uncommon”?

I don’t practice law anymore but I keep my title as a lawyer with the continuous education. I leverage my legal background very often - being a lawyer adds credibility with governments when I am lobbying and also with colleagues on the management team of a multinational corporation.  

6.    Is there anyone influential in your life that helped you realize your goals? Mentors or role models in the field that inspired you?

Many people helped me and inspired me along the way.  In corporations, there are succession planning and leadership development programs. In addition to mentors (who speaks with you to help you develop), you need sponsors (people who will speak about you when you are not in the room). Very often, it is the sponsors that will really propel your career. I have been lucky to have both to allow me to become Vice President in a multinational corporation at 36 years old. 

7.    What got your juices flowing or tickled your fancy while at law school?


At the Faculty, I really enjoyed international public law. Our McGill team won the Rousseau moot competition in that field.  Right after the Faculty, I did a summer internship at the United Nations in New York.  It was one area where I thought I could develop but I decided to practice in environmental law in a big law firm instead to start my career. At the time, it was a new area of the law, not that many people practiced environmental law full time in Montreal. It was a good area to combine my interests in policy and law and work in an area I really cared about.

Hélène at her law school graduation in 1993 .

Hélène at her law school graduation in 1993.

8.    What made your blood boil or made you snooze while at law school?


I had less interest for taxation and corporate law at the time. I did not know I would later end-up on the management team of a publicly-traded corporation and manage the quarterly financial results disclosure! 

9.    Were there challenges you faced in the transition from law school to the profession?

Not so much.  The legal education received at McGill prepared me extremely well - the ability to structure my arguments, to think strategically and not to hesitate to be critical,  to simplify and distill complex situation and issues, to be convincing based on facts, etc.  

10.  Do you still see the law all around you?


Absolutely! In a corporation, communications and legal affairs work very closely on a daily basis! I understand the perspective of the legal department very well and can better work with them!

11.  What advice would you give to a first-year law student?


Take the courses that interest you now. It will never be too late to learn a new area of the law. I did not take the environmental law class at the Faculty, yet that’s what I practiced for 5 years!  And even though I do not practice law anymore, I have been leading Corporate Social Responsibility for two multinational corporations up until now and therefore kept a foot in sustainable development!

12.  If you were given the blessing and curse of an extra hour every day to do whatever you wanted, what would it be?


I would do more sports. It’s hard to fit exercise in a schedule with lots of business travel and meetings.  I exercise on weekends but would love to have more time to do it everyday. It releases stress and makes me feel so good!

13.  Any regrets?

I have traveled abroad very often when my son was young. I was lucky that his dad was very present and my mom really helped me throughout the years. Sometimes I regret not having been more present everyday for my son but it gave him good travel opportunities early on! He does not look too affected today  as a first-year student at the Faculty of Law !

The Lawfully Uncommon initiative is supported by the McGill Career Development Office.