Syncrude's In-House Counsel Relishes Role of Generalist

Navigating many aspects of oilsands operations is exciting, rewarding

Ben Freeland - 11 June 2018

"The oilsands aren't for the faint of heart," says Ray Hansen, QC '81 LLB.

After more than 30 years as in-house counsel for Syncrude, the company's vice-president of law and land knows that fact better than anyone.

"When I first joined Syncrude in 1985, this was a frontier industry with many interesting challenges, and that is what attracted me to it. Thirty years on, it still has a frontier feel and continues to evolve, and this is why I'm still here."

As a UAlberta Law graduate in 1981, the Calgary-based lawyer knew next to nothing about the energy industry, or what the role of in-house counsel for a major oilsands operator would entail. After four years at Brownlee LLP in Edmonton (then Brownlee Fryett) as an articling student and associate), he joined Syncrude as corporate counsel in 1985. He was promoted to manager of the company's law department in 1989, and in 1996 was named general counsel. He assumed the additional responsibilities of corporate secretary in 2008.

For Hansen, the role of in-house counsel has proven deeply rewarding in a number of respects.

"I enjoy the fact that as in-house counsel you're required to be a generalist," he says.

"One of the appealing aspects of my job that I hadn't anticipated early on was the full-cycle nature of the work. This industry is incredibly complex, and the work I do touches on everything from compliance to intellectual property to consultation with First Nations. I've never thought of myself as an oilsands expert and I still don't, because my work encompasses so much more than oilsands regulation. In private practice, your file is typically limited to a single aspect of a client's operation. In my case, the work is the whole, and the interplay of all the pieces is very exciting."

He also deeply appreciates the sense of kinship that comes with being a team player in a company.

"I've had the opportunity to work with fantastic leaders and learn from them, and then graduate to a leadership role myself and thus be able to coach others on what I've learned. That experience has also been tremendously rewarding."

The former president of the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association, Hansen serves as a member of UAlberta Law's External Advisory Board in Calgary. He credits the Faculty, and the tutelage he received from instructors such as current Alberta Court of Appeal Justice Peter Costigan and Ernie Walter, a former Brownlee principal and past Chief Judge of the Alberta Provincial Court, for the success he has enjoyed in his career. In particular, he cites the Faculty's fine balance between legal fundamentals and groundbreaking new curricula as having been instrumental in enabling him to succeed in the mercurial world of the oilsands industry.

"UAlberta Law has proven itself to be very adaptable with the times and forward-looking, while maintaining a strong focus on teaching the basics," said Hansen. "It's a great law school that prepares students extremely well for bar exams, articling programs and the demands of practice. It does a superb job honing students' critical thinking, including analytical skills and relevancy assessment. Once you master the art of dissembling elements of a problem to ascertain the primary issue or obstacle, the decision-making process becomes a lot easier. And if you can do this well, you'll go far in large organizations like Syncrude where a high premium is placed on effective decisionmaking skills."

How does Hansen view his industry's prospects - and his own?

"We're entering a very interesting period in the oilsands," he says.

"We're seeing a lot of mergers in the industry right now in what essentially amounts to a repatriation of oilsands assets. Many of the newer foreign entrants are finding they didn't fully understand the challenges inherent to this sector, whereas homegrown companies like Syncrude, Suncor, Cenovus and others who have been here from the start are thriving and continue to see new opportunities. All this is guaranteed to keep me, my group and our company very busy."