Katherine Gurney, Law’98, General Counsel with Northleaf Capital Partners and a member of its Management Committee, has won the 2021 Canadian General Counsel Award for Mid-Market Excellence.
Katherine Gurney, Law’98, General Counsel with Northleaf Capital Partners and a member of its Management Committee, has won the 2021 Canadian General Counsel Award for Mid-Market Excellence.

Katherine Gurney, Law’98, in-house General Counsel for the global private markets investment firm, Northleaf Capital Partners, is this year’s recipient of the Canadian General Counsel Award (CGCA) for Mid-Market Excellence. The award comes on the heels of Gurney’s successful management of legal teams to complete a trilateral transaction between Northleaf, IGM/Mackenzie and Great-West Life to create a strategic partnership, a considerable accomplishment given the constraints of the global pandemic. “We couldn’t all sit in a board room and have the discussions face to face, which can make a big difference when trying to get a deal done,” she says.

Gurney, who juggles managing the firm’s legal team, with working on the review, structure, completion, and management of investments as well as managing Northleaf’s regulatory and compliance requirements, is humble about her leadership success after the completed acquisition. “It sounds cliché, but it was a very collaborative arrangement,” she says. “There were no table banging arguments and ‘we’re going to walk away from this deal’ type moments. It was really just volume and complexity.” 

Volume and complexity were made more difficult by the arrival of the pandemic, which coincided with the beginning of negotiations. A minute book review, which details corporate activities for incorporated companies, is typically required by the acquiring company as a standard exercise of due diligence, but this process was not so straightforward when the offices were closed and staff transitioned to remote work. 

Recognition for in-house counsel work is quite the win, especially for Gurney, who only ever thought that she would be a partner at a law firm. “I never wanted to go in-house. It was never in my career goals at all,” she says. But while working in private practice after law school, her work for then-client TD Capital (Northleaf’s predecessor) impressed the company, which later offered her an in-house role. “It took me probably three to six months to decide,” she says. But eventually Gurney took the position in 2008, and soon found that she enjoyed the team approach and collaboration of an in-house counsel role. “Every day, I’m doing something completely different from the day before,” she says. 

Gurney also finds that being part of a rapidly growing company and the entrepreneurial environment has been both challenging and gratifying, as she has worked as part of the senior leadership team to grow Northleaf’s employees from 35 in 2008 to 160 now and expanded to offices in Canada, the U.S., the U.K., and Australia. “You just don’t get the same sense in private practice that you’re building something the way I do now,” she explains.

The practical approach of Queen’s Law classes gave her “valuable experience,” especially the Advanced Securities Law course, where practicing lawyers taught much of the course, showing students how to put all the cases, theory, and analysis they learn into real-world practice. “I found that really helpful for giving me insight into what lawyers actually do,” says Gurney, who later as a lawyer with McCarthy Tétrault, taught parts of that same securities law course at Queen’s (and at Western). The tax courses at Queen’s Law also provided her with a solid foundation for the work she does in her daily practice. “There’s always a tax reason behind what we do as corporate lawyers,” she notes. Gurney also took something else from the classes at Queen’s Law – she met her husband, André Nowakowski, also Law’98, during her time there. She continues to work with other classmates today. “I still have a lot of Queen’s Law’98 touchpoints,” Gurney says. “We’re still a pretty close group.”

For students and young lawyers considering in-house counsel positions, Gurney says understanding the client perspective and getting varied legal training is key. “People may not like this advice, but I think going to a law firm first and getting a broader base of training is really important.”

The solid foundations and management skills that helped Gurney secure the CGCA award, don’t just stop at the office; she manages the AA hockey teams of both of her children. “Managing a hockey team or managing a team at work or managing a project, it’s all about planning and communication,” she says. And while having a full-time legal career and active kids is challenging, it’s not impossible. “If you want it all, do it all,” she adds. “Make it work.”

By Geena Mortfield