Spotlight Series: Richard Wong

This past October, our executives headed out east to attend the 10th Annual FACL Ontario Conference and Gala in Toronto. Needless to say, we couldn't pass on this prime opportunity to interview trailblazers and leaders of the community. Here to present the first of our three installments of stories: Constructive Conversations with Richard Wong. Stay tuned for more!

We were honoured to interview Richard Wong, the Chair of Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP’s Construction & Infrastructure Group, at the 10th Annual FACL Ontario Conference held in Toronto at the end of October.  As a 1995 graduate from the University of Toronto Faculty of Law with a passion for development and construction, Richard stayed true to his aspirations.  He followed his heart starting as an articling student at a boutique firm practicing real property and land development law and built that into his career with Osler today.  We are extremely excited to present his personal story and the lessons he has shared with us.

Q. Tell us about an accomplishment that you are most proud of and why?

One of my proudest career accomplishments is becoming Chair of the Construction & Infrastructure Group at Osler, a national team passionate about building major development and infrastructure projects including the Union Station Revitalization Project, the Bruce Power Nuclear Refurbishment, and various hospitals, power projects, and commercial and industrial facilities across Canada, to name a few.   I have always believed infrastructure to improve quality of life, whether in third world or first world conditions, and am very honoured and proud to be playing a part in this effort.

Q. So in reaching this position, what adversity or challenges have you faced, and how did you overcome them?

The truth is that my current position was not specifically in my sights when I started out, so the main challenge was to feel my way forward with my general aspirations to develop a practice that was specific and fulfilling.  For that reason, I will describe some more background about the steps that I took.  

I became interested in international development in university.  Part of that influence was from my father, a civil engineer who immigrated from Taiwan and worked in Canada for SNC, Canatom, and AECL.  My B.A. was in economics, and I was heavily involved in the international business exchange club where I saw the greatest need to be in countries south of the equator, so I brushed up on my French (I was born in Montreal), and also learned Spanish and Portuguese, to be better positioned to participate.

I articled in land development law at DelZotto, Zorzi LLP, a small boutique firm in the north end of Toronto.  I found that I preferred the front-end contract work, as compared to my litigation rotation, especially since development and real estate activity was strong at that time with the impending handback of Hong Kong in 1997.  I was fortunate to be mentored by Maurizio Romanin and Harry Herskowitz, two giants of the real property bar, and drank from the fire hose as there were not layers on layers of associates above me - one of the benefits of a smaller firm.  I emulated and absorbed and soon, they got me involved in various opportunities arose including teaching the LSUC’s real estate bar admission course which was very rewarding.  All of this experience was beneficial in confirming what a high-level land development practice was like, that I did want opportunities to work on infrastructure/public sector projects, and that for business reasons a boutique firm would be somewhat at a disadvantage in able to service that kind of work.

At that point, I started to wonder where my future was going.  Due to the scale and full service needs of such projects, it became apparent that larger Bay Street law firms were getting the work; however, I understood that they only hired from within and wanted direct experience in such projects, and so the legal headhunting firms I contacted were all very pessimistic about my chances.  I was disappointed, but knew that this was the direction that I wanted to go, and also got called to the New York State bar in the meantime to maximize my opportunities.  The breakthrough came when I opened up in confidence to a senior lawyer at my firm, with an entrepreneurial practice, for advice about my aspirations.  This could have developed into an awkward situation but, to my surprise, he mentioned that a law school classmate of his practiced in that very area and went out of his way to contact this classmate despite being out of touch for many years.  This led to a lunch with a partner at Osler in the Construction and Infrastructure Group and a further meeting with the other partners in that Group.

One thing that I now realize, looking back, is how quickly the practice of law was specializing and, with it, how important (and gratifying) it is to find people who genuinely enjoy an area as much as you do.  There are people who love tax, accounting, real estate, and yes construction, and when you come across someone with a real passion in what you practice in, and have the intellectual curiosity and creativity that go along with it, that is easy to recognize and want to select.  

However, there was a minor impediment – the economy.   While Osler was interested and would keep me in mind, back in 2001/2 it was not the right climate to justify and support hiring a lateral associate.

I decided to keep moving and took a position at Goodman and Carr, a very ambitious and entrepreneurial firm (despite its later demise), where I was encouraged to build a practice in infrastructure backed by my experience in land development.   While very encouraging, there was not a lot of direct experience in construction and infrastructure that I could draw from at the firm, so in practice it was harder than it appeared.    As a mid-level associate, single-handedly building a book of business is very challenging, but I had decided to take on that challenge because I saw it as taking one step beyond where I was towards my goal and so I attended numerous construction and infrastructure industry events and met as many people as I could.

Unexpectedly, Osler reached out to me after about a year and a half, with an offer.  I am very glad I made the decision to move again, as it has a great client base for construction and infrastructure project development and a great “one firm” culture while preserving a “small firm” feel in our group. 

The point of my story is that getting to where I am now was not a straightforward pathand it was shaped by people willing to vouch for me.  At times, I did not know where things were going to lead.  I had to keep pushing in the dark not knowing exactly how it was going to turn out, and most importantly not taking no for an answer.

Q. What would you say is the driving force behind your persistence?

Well, given how much I did not know back then, at least I knew enough to know that career was going to be an extremely large part of my satisfaction in life.   I was going to spend every day thinking about it, and if I was not happy with it, it was on me to change that situation.  I did not want to settle.  I do not know if I will categorize that as courage or desperation to move into the light.  I think this applies to all types of circumstances, not just in one’s career. If you are not happy about anything, I think you really owe it to yourself to find that area, place or thing that will make you genuinely happy. You owe it to yourself to stay true and do the best you can.

These days, there is greater fluidity in moving between different firms or going in-house, greater specialization, and more new practices opening up that did not exist when I started.  Organizations like FACL have grown significantly to provide more opportunities for networking than I ever had at the time.  You have to start from what your skills are and push forward to find a solution and never take no for an answer.

Q.  What is some advice that you would give to yourself as a junior lawyer?

I have two main pieces of advice that I want to share with my younger self.

The first is to find and cultivate your champion(s). To get ahead, it is vital to have someone who is where you want to be to recommend you and to talk about you in positive ways (and no, I’m not talking about my Korean mom).  That is what a champion does.  You need to be conscious of the fact that direct and indirect decisions makers talk about you especially when they are comparing different candidates.  Your champion needs to be armed to say more about you than the basics: there’s much more to it than just “Lisa bills 1,900+ hours per year” and many people believe that the numbers speak for themselves.  Not true.  You need a champion to recommend you and give others an elevator pitch about you at a qualitative level, and this is how I believe people end up getting ahead in the real world.  Those who have multiple champions to vouch for them become successful. It will take time, effort and investment to cultivate a champion who knows and trusts you.  And because law is continuously evolving and moving forward, you always have to cultivate the next champion(s).

The second is to be aware of and cultivate your personal brand.  Think of how odd it is to hear your voice on tape – now think about how you come across in your presentation, mannerisms, and what you say and write.  Edit that if necessary because people see you differently than how you see yourself.  Your personal brand is created by the everyday.   So you can’t just have one persona that you put on at a certain time when you think people are watching. That façade may not come across as who you truly are, and people can perceive that.  Whether it is imagining how people perceive you or getting honest feedback from people you trust, ultimately, looking at yourself from someone else’s perspective is invaluable.

Richard Wong -

Photo Credit: Marcia Cho

This is the first of three installments of stories, stay tuned for more!