Neil Sternthal leads the Thomson Reuters Legal and Tax businesses in Canada, and the Legal business in Australia and New Zealand. In his role at TR he has championed the cause of helping the legal profession adapt in a period of tremendous change. He holds an undergraduate degree in International Relations from the University of Toronto and a Master’s in Modern History from Oxford University. Neil graduated from McGill in 1995 and worked for Goodmans LLP as a summer and articling student and associate before leaving for Thomson Reuters where he served as the general counsel for Canada. In 2005 he left the practice of law and moved to New York where he took on a number of senior business roles, global in scope, with Thomson Reuters.
Let’s start with the basics. Did you always imagine yourself going to law school?
No. I was one of those graduates who was a good student and didn’t know what I wanted to do. Law school was interesting; it was an environment where I thought I could put my academics to good use. Before coming to McGill, I did my undergrad in International Relations at the University of Toronto and went on to do a master’s in Modern History at Oxford University. Law school seemed like a safe landing pad in terms of career development and keeping my options open.
What did the journey from big law to your lawfully uncommon career look like?
I clearly remember my first week at McGill. I had a friend who had just graduated and she asked me if I knew what I wanted to do with my law career. I told her I didn’t know but I was certain that I didn’t want to end up as a corporate lawyer at a big Bay Street firm. Guess where I ended up?
I worked in corporate finance and M&A at Goodmans. I was a summer student, I articled there and I stayed for over 5 years. I have no regrets. I had an amazing experience at Goodmans. I’m grateful for the practice skills, the transactional experience and the community exposure it afforded me.
I was approached by Thomson Reuters to take on a general counsel position in Canada. At Goodmans, I liked the client engagement aspect of my job and feeling like I was helping our clients achieve their goals. As a transactional lawyer, I always felt a bit dissatisfied at the end of a deal as I wanted to know post-closing how the client’s business would evolve. Moving to Thomson Reuters allowed me to immerse myself in the business and gain even closer proximity to the 'client’ – as general counsel and as a business leader.
After being there for 3 years, I had the opportunity to take on a more senior position in global business development and moved with my young family to New York, where I lived from 2005 to 2015. In mid-2015, I moved back to Canada. I was asked to lead the Legal and Tax divisions for Thomson Reuters in Canada, and the Legal division in Australia and New Zealand and of course, I accepted.
What got your juices flowing or tickled your fancy while at law school?
For me, a big highlight was working at Chez Doris, a local women’s shelter that supported at risk indigenous woman. It was an unforgettable experience allowing me to apply my legal training to public service. Working for the legal aid clinic had a profound impact on me. It showed me how lawyers can really have a profound impact on the lives of individuals and society.
As well, I enjoyed the Socratic method of teaching with smaller classes and more room for discussion. This was really stimulating to me. At law school, you learn to consume huge amounts of information and distill it to the essential facts and significance - this is really an invaluable skill. In my first year, my case summaries were 10 pages. By my last semester, my summaries were reduced to 3 points. In a world of Big Data, this skill is so well attuned to the needs of our times. I also loved the mix of students as their diversity of experiences and level of engagement was so inspiring and stimulating.
On another note, Skit Nite was a ton of fun.
What made your blood boil or made you snooze while at law school?
I found law school academically homogeneous. My previous experiences included students from far more varied academic disciplines – Modern History, Latin American, African and Middle Eastern Studies, Economics, Political Philosophy etc. Law school felt a little like going back to high school. You’re always with the same group of people doing the same thing for a long period of time. Because I’m from Montreal, I sometimes felt I was taking a step back, going from living with students abroad to being back home.
Do you still see law all around you?
Yes. Thomson Reuters provides legal information and software solutions to lawyers across the profession – private practice, in-house, government and academic. One of the things I love about my job is that I’m still a part of the community but engaging with it in a different and more global way.
You are at a coffee house speaking to a first-year law student. What advice would you give them?
You’ve made a great choice. There are so many opportunities for lawyers. With the way the world is evolving, legal skills can be applied in so many arenas. There is more opportunity now than ever before. Law school doesn’t mean you need to apply your legal skills in a purely legal context.
You’re good at extracting and communicating complex information. You can apply your capabilities in so many different ways within or beyond the profession. Legal tech for example is a robust and booming field in Canada. There are over 60 start-ups today and you can be a part of this dynamic community. We have emerged as a global centre for AI and tech innovation. If you want to be a venture capitalist, an entrepreneur or a process engineer, you can do all that. There are still so many parts of society and the economy that are susceptible to disruption and they need the help of lawyers or those with legal skills. Law firms and government agencies perform a critical function in our society. They all need top legal talent the likes of which McGill Law produces. Think outside the box and you will find opportunities.
Given the pace of change, legal training is great because it is really adaptable to change. There aren’t many university programs where what you learn in your first year will remain relevant by the time you graduate given the pace of change. Law school teaches you to think in a structured manner, consume complex information and communicate a solution to legal, business or policy problems. These tools can always be applied to new situations and scenarios.
What does a day in your life look like? Give us the rundown!
I always try to spend time with customers because ultimately that’s who we work for and they provide the most insight in how we need to add value. I spend time with product developers, technologists, lawyers, editors, people in HR or finance department and the list goes on. There are no two days alike. I try to stay close to the changes in the profession and try to problem solve in both internal and external contexts. I also try to engage and motivate our talent and identify new talent to attract to Thomson Reuters. At the end of the day it’s all about your people and fortunately our mission is a very attractive and motivating one – helping to enable lawyers and the rule of law. I’m going to Australia next week and to Hong Kong the week after. My work takes me around the world which is so interesting as I get to learn from and compare developments in the profession from all sorts of lawyers applying their skill in different jurisdictions. I’m so lucky to view the profession from a global perspective.
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 take the time to decompress and just think. The pace of change is so quick these days. I would love more time to sit back and reflect on challenges, opportunities or new developments. When you take the time to decompress, you often have your best ideas and insights. When you’re super busy you sometimes become overly transactional. You’re only going to be given more things to do in less time so it’s important to find ways to work more efficiently and consider what you should stop doing to free up bandwidth. Sometimes you have to slow down so you can actually go faster.
Any regrets? (Yeah, we are retrospective like that)
Honestly, I really don’t have any regrets. I don’t think that way. I often get asked if I regret leaving the practice of law or leaving New York. I don’t look backwards other than from the perspective of learning, inspiration, and foundational relationships. I take whatever deck of cards is laid before me and I use my past experience to work with it.
Any final thoughts?
Being a student at McGill Law was a fantastic experience. The institution has a world-class reputation with a bilingual and bijuridical tradition. McGill students have such an advantage and I believe with that advantage comes an obligation to do something important with your legal education and career. Best of luck to my friends at the Faculty!