After she finished her undergraduate studies at Duke University, Fitzgerald took a year off, working in Australia with Operation Raleigh, a London-based organization that offered its participants the opportunity to circumnavigate the world doing community service. During this time, Fitzgerald conducted research on the mallee fowl, but she also found herself living her dream: working with the Victorian Archeological Society, scuba diving off the coast of Southern Australia mud-mapping shipwrecks.
“I was a big scuba diver and thought I could do that as part of my career, but after a year in a cold wetsuite, the reality of living that life wasn’t appealing as a 30-year plan,” Fitzgerald says.
So she shifted gears, setting her sights on a career in law, in part because she was moved after reading “Gideon’s Trumpet,” but also because, as she puts it, “I wanted to have a career that gave me a label of being intelligent, despite my thick southern accent.”
A North Carolina girl at heart, Fitzgerald headed back to Duke for law school, and started down the path that would eventually lead her to be the chief legal officer of Toronto-based Cineplex Entertainment, one of the largest film exhibition companies in North America.
How did your career progress immediately after law school?
I did what a lot of Duke grads do: I went to a large law firm doing corporate litigation—document review and discovery, and I never saw the inside of a courtroom.
So in 1993, I took a six-month break from the large law firm life to run another expedition with a sister organization of Operation Raleigh (called Youth Service International)—this time in Alaska. When I came back to North Carolina, I found a prosecuting job very quickly. I thought I would do that for a few years to really learn to be a litigator, but I loved it so much I ended up doing criminal work for many years.
How would you describe being a prosecutor?
I loved it!! I loved the work because every day I did something that mattered. I got to help people—a lot of people—who were suffering, people who were experiencing a deterioration of life and were trapped by it. I loved that I got to help them, but it was emotionally draining. After a number of years of focusing on crime, I had gotten to the point where I was beginning to see nothing but the worst of people. I hated that. I woke up one day and thought, “I am tired. I can’t do this anymore.”
So what was your next move?
I was debating whether to go back to a firm when I ran into a former Duke undergrad professor, and he had just received approval from the university to hire a second person to help him run a program teaching leadership theory, and he offered that job to me.
It was totally different, which is what I wanted, but I certainly wasn’t an expert in leadership theory although I had studied it some and had participated with experiential leadership programs. So I went to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University to study leadership and then moved to New York to teach with the Duke Leadership and the Arts program.
In New York, I taught one course and administered the program for my former professor. It was something I intended to do for a few years, and then return to North Carolina. But while I was there, I met the man who is now my husband, and he is Canadian. When we meet, he had already decided he was going back to Canada, and I said I would never move to Canada. But here I am, I have been here 12 years now. So, it’s safe to say, I do not have a standard path at all.
What did you do when you got to Canada?
First, I got licensed to practice here in Canada, which was a pretty straightforward process. Then I met with legal headhunters. The first headhunter was blunt and said, frankly, that I was “unemployable”. What he meant to say was I wasn’t a square peg that fit into a square hole. I had a tough background. I was not cut out for a firm—I was too senior to be an associate, but I had no clients to bring in as a partner. I was not an easy sell.
So I ended up starting my own practice. I developed my own clients in the entertainment industry, and Cineplex was one of them. It had no in-house counsel and was about 35 percent market share in Canada. The company decided it wanted to acquire its largest competitor. So Cineplex hired me under contract to manage external counsel for the transaction, and then brought me on full time and put me on the executive team. That was 10 years ago. It’s a good fit and I love being here.
Please tell me a little about your legal department?
I have two other lawyers, three law clerks (comparable to a paralegal in the U.S.), our assistant, and government relations and the insurance teams. I serve as corporate secretary, sit on the executive team, and participate in drafting the strategic plan for the company.
I was hired as the first in-house counsel and was on my own for about a year and a half. Then I pitched hiring more lawyers as economies of scale. We were spending so much on external counsel. My budget is substantially less now than it was when I came on because we do as much internally as we can, and I love that.
This job was a huge learning curve for me. If lawyers were hiring for this position, I wouldn’t have gotten the job as I had never done anything like it! The business people who hired me didn’t know that I didn’t know how to do this job. So I was given the chance, and made the most of it.
What are some of your biggest challenges?
Time and resource management are always the biggest challenges. Prioritizing is a challenge; that is, deciding which projects must get done first and which can wait. Ideally, we should be doing more than just putting out fires. But you do the best you can with the resources you have.
How does practicing law in Canada compare to practicing in the U.S?
It’s similar except for litigation, which is procedurally very different. If I tried to practice litigation here, it would be like learning a new language. Copyright is quite different, as are competition law and securities law. I have had to learn some distinctions, but I like the challenge; these challenges keep me on my toes. Now, I’m likely more comfortable practicing in Canada than I would be in the U.S., but I’m sure I could pick that up again as well.
What do you love most about your job as CLO of Cineplex specifically?
I love the industry in which I work. My job is similar to that of a GC of a large retail organization, but the industry is fun. It brings pleasure to people’s lives. I adore the people with whom I work and respect my entire team.
Our department heads—the CEO, CFO, COO, CTO and our head film guy—have all worked for the company for more than 20 years. There is a lot of institutional knowledge within these walls.
We are a growing company and I have been in an active M&A role since I have been here. I enjoy deal making, both the negotiation side and the execution side.
Everybody knows Cineplex as a movie company, but we have 37 subsidiary companies. The company has grown substantially since I joined, and today, we have 79 percent market share in exhibition in Canada—and our businesses outside of the theatre walls continue to grow.
Please tell me about the mentors you had growing up in your legal career.
I’ve had many—in different places, and at different times. Starting off, there were two in North Carolina: one from my former law firm, Jim Blount, was a tremendous supporter of mine and encouraged me. It was the early 1990s so there weren’t a lot of women in senior roles. He always told me I could do whatever I wanted—I just had to define it and then go for it.
The second was Wade Smith, who is a criminal defense lawyer in North Carolina. He encouraged me to prosecute and get my feet wet in the courtroom.
Judge Leslie Crocker Snyder in New York influenced me in that she was older than me and she had broken through the glass ceiling. She was the first female prosecutor in New York and the first woman to try a homicide case in New York. She was an ally and always encouraging.
Have you been involved in any leadership training programs?
Yes, Duke sent me for the week-long Gallup leadership program and it was incredibly valuable to me. I learned how to define my own strengths and how it is that I learn, how I like to be communicated with. Everybody hears and learns differently. I learned a lot from that program and really enjoyed it.
What advice would you give a young lawyer who wants to be CLO in a company someday?
First, learn how to read financial statements. Our entire executive team is either an accountant or has an MBA. I’ve taken two three-day financial statement courses, but I wish I had an MBA. It’s so important to learn how business people communicate. Your advice will only be heard in a voice they understand. Second, be impeccable with your word. Say what you think and do what you say you’re going to do. Playing games is the worst thing you can do in any kind of environment, corporate or otherwise.