“I've always felt it was important to give back to the community and to get involved. So volunteer work has always been an important part of my life in all I've done,” says Sébastien Guénette, Head of Legal at JUUL Labs Canada.
Whether it is making Santa Claus phone calls every year to raise money for The Lighthouse, a charity that specializes in family-centred pediatric palliative care in his hometown of Montreal; sitting as Chair of the National Circus School’s Board of Directors; volunteering as mentor for young lawyers; or participating on various CCCA-CBA committees, he is an inspiring role model.
This sense of social responsibility carries over to his choice of workplace. After 20 years of practice, which has included in-house roles at GE Capital, SNC-Lavalin and, most recently, JTI-Macdonald, where he was in charge of litigation for the past nine years, Sébastien began his current position in June of this year at the Canadian subsidiary of JUUL Labs, a vaping company founded by former smokers with the goal of improving the lives of the world’s one billion adult smokers by eliminating combustible cigarettes.
“I did my due diligence before joining. I wanted to join a responsible company,” he explains. “The business is always very careful to do the right thing. Everybody works under very strict guidelines and there is no walking the line. The company really operates in a model where no risks will be taken. [For instance,] the company is doing everything it can to ensure that youth don’t have access to vaping products.”
As for the role, “it’s an incredible challenge because it's a job where I'm the first lawyer. The business opened in Canada in August 2018, so it is exactly like joining a start-up—on steroids! So high energy, a lot of work—and a bit of disorganization,” he laughs.
This environment suits him perfectly. He had been looking for his next professional challenge, and while “JTI is a really good company” with “really talented and wonderful people,” advancement would have meant being mobile. With a young family at home and aging parents nearby, this did not work for him. “JUUL Labs offers me the possibility of being the head of the department while staying in Montreal [for the most part].”
“The experience I'm having now is such a thrill, and I feel like I'm a bit reborn. I haven't worked so hard in a gazillion years, but I'm having a lot of fun every day,” he says. “And my new colleagues are highly motivated, talented, passionate and very warm. I feel that I've been a part of their family for years.”
Family and community
Although Sébastien may be spending a lot of time on the road as he settles into his role, his family remains his top priority: “I try to spend as much time as I can with my kids, who are 4 and 6.” To be his best for them, he realizes his health and well-being are important. He used to be a skydiver—a career that is currently “on pause, not over, until my kids get older”—and has now turned to running.
“I have really developed a passion for it, “he says. “Nowadays, every time I travel, my running shoes are in my bag. It is the first thing I do when I get up or when I get off a long flight. It gives me the energy to get through the day.”
He brings this energy and enthusiasm to his other priority as well: community involvement. With a long history of board involvement beginning in high school and continuing through law school and the CCCA, he joined the board of the National Circus School Board in 2013 at the encouragement of a former boss, without any particular circus knowledge or experience, and “was really caught off guard by the passion, the talent and the grit” of the students. He became Chair of the board in 2017.
“I went from a vague interest to a full-on passion about training circus artists,” he explains. “I’m very proud to be contributing in my way to their success and the school’s—it is the best circus school in the world!”
He has personally benefitted from his involvement as well: “It’s a really fascinating board with various professionals. We have people from law firms, from the finance industry, from the advertising industry, from the film industry and more. It's a very diverse board.”
“I think it is important to [emphasize] that,” he continues. “Diversity on a board is crucial. It is the various experiences from everyone sitting around the table that make the process so rich. Some things will be flagged by lawyers and will be appeased by others around the table, for instance, and sometimes it's the reverse. I really love working with the people on this board.”
Mentors and friends
People are the cornerstone of Sébastien’s success: “To me, the best career investment is to always maintain the relationships I have developed over the years.”
“When you're in a law firm, your office is generally located in the centre of the action. You can go to lunch with a variety of people, and you're always in touch with someone,” he explains. “When you move to in-house, very often the offices are in the suburbs or just outside of downtown. It's very easy to isolate yourself. And I think that it’s important, professionally, for in-house to stay in touch with their colleagues. You'll find a lot of richness in the experience of your peers, and there are a lot of takeaways from what others have gone through and are experiencing. It's an incredible resource.”
“[For example,] I have a friend whom I have been remotely in touch with over the years who is now head of legal for a big start-up,” he continues. “When I was considering making the jump, I met with her. I had some [reservations and concerns]. Being in touch with her really helped me make the decision to move.”
He is quick to point out the relationships must be two-way: “I also think we have a responsibility as lawyers to mentor other lawyers. I think everyone should take the time to connect with someone who's starting in the profession, or has only a couple of years under their belt, and help them navigate this profession. And be there for others who may need guidance or are seeking support. It's a duty that we have, but it's also something that's very rewarding.”
Thinking back to his beginnings in the profession, Sébastien recalls, “I had always been interested in politics and economics, and I thought law might be interesting. So I went to law school, not really knowing where I would end up. Then I was hired by Lavery, a Montreal-based firm, and I found my way. Thankfully, I met some people along the way who were really good mentors. I learned a lot from them.”
“It's funny,” he smiles, “because when I was articling, I remember there was a lawyer who I really liked. He was my advisor, my sounding board. He was, I think, 43 at the time, and I was young. I thought he was so old! Not like an old person, but he had so much experience, and he had seen so much and done so much. Now I look at myself, just a year older than he was. I still feel pretty young.”
This article was initially featured in the Fall 2019 issue of CCCA Magazine.