Gigi Chen-Kuo, LLB 1990, was named interim CEO of TransLink beginning in February 2021, after a long record of service to the organization in executive leadership and in-house counsel roles. In January, we had the chance to ask Ms. Chen-Kuo a few questions about her career path and law school experience.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
My family immigrated to Vancouver from Hong Kong when I was 2 years old, and I’ve lived in Metro Vancouver ever since. I completed three undergraduate years at UBC (pre-Commerce year in Arts and two years of Commerce) before entering UBC Law School in 1987. I met my husband at UBC and have two adult children, one of whom is currently attending UBC. In my free time, I enjoy travelling, hiking, reading, amateur mixology, and connecting with friends and family.
Tell us about your law school experience. Did you always want to go to law school?
I decided, at a fairly young age, to go to law school. As a child of immigrant parents, I had the somewhat standard set of career options – doctor, dentist, accountant, teacher, lawyer. I chose lawyer through the simple process of elimination!
Looking back, I do think that law school provides a good foundation for a variety of career paths, including ones outside the practice of law. Increasingly I see the in-house counsel path leading to careers in pure business roles.
What kind of law did you want to practice when you were in law school?
I knew I wasn’t interested in litigation, so I focused mainly on corporate/commercial and real estate law courses. That said, criminal law courses were my favorite because the cases were so interesting.
And what piece of advice would you offer current law students?
I would encourage law students to take courses that interest them, rather than just the ones that relate to the areas of practice they are expecting to focus on in their career. School is the place to be curious and explore different perspectives. There will be opportunities to further prepare for the practice of law, including the Professional Legal Training Course, articling, and their early years as a law firm associate.
Tell us about your career path. Were you always interested in a career as in-house legal counsel?
Yes, the idea of working in-house always appealed to me because In-house counsel are able to focus all of their energy on advising client departments. Although it’s great to have the support and guidance of senior practitioners in a law firm, lawyers in private practice need to spend some of their time on business development activities and billing processes.
Early in my career, I was the only in-house counsel in my organization, but I had access to a few senior external counsel who served as mentors. Based on my experience, I would recommend that any junior lawyer who is moving to a solo in-house counsel position ensure they have a network of experienced advisors to support their development.
What do you enjoy about working in-house?
I enjoy the ability to see how my legal advice informs and shapes business decisions. In a law firm, once you’ve provided your advice, you don’t always get to see how that advice was applied.
In-house counsel are immersed in their business, and are therefore uniquely positioned to help develop practical business solutions. As an in-house lawyer in a public agency, it’s satisfying to know you played a part in serving the residents of your region.
It would seem that you have worked for the same company (TransLink) for a long time. What has kept you there?
I joined BC Transit in 1993 and transitioned to the new regional transportation agency known as TransLink in 1999.
I’ve stayed in the same place all these years because the opportunity to work alongside dedicated individuals, who have a common purpose, never gets old. Also, I’ve never had a dull day at TransLink – there is always something interesting going on!
You have just been promoted to Interim CEO for TransLink. Congratulations! What do you think will be the most challenging aspect of your new job? What are you most excited about tackling?
As with other organizations, the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in various challenges for TransLink – decreased transit ridership and revenues, operational impacts, safety concerns, and remote work - just to name a few. The executive team will be focused on continuing to manage through these challenges in the months ahead.
I am excited to champion a number of workplace initiatives, including leadership development, flexible work, and equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives.
How has the pandemic affected your work over the past ten months? What aspects will eventually ‘go back to normal’ and what changes do you think are here to stay long term?
Prior to the pandemic, TransLink’s focus was very much on system expansion and keeping up with record ridership levels. Last March, our focus quickly shifted to how we could safely operate essential transportation services during a public health emergency. Even though there was a dramatic shift to remote work within our region, many essential frontline workers continue to rely on our system to get to work each and every day. We used our internal emergency management structure and processes to coordinate activities across TransLink and its operating companies and develop our Safe Operating Action Plan (S.O.A.P.).
In the longer term, I think we will all enjoy connecting in person with family, friends and colleagues once again, and our customers will return to the transit system. Even though I’ve managed to adapt to meeting virtually from my home office, I miss the relationship-building, creativity and spontaneity that comes with seeing colleagues in the workplace. However, I do think that the way we work will shift to a more flexible model that allows us to capture the best of both worlds. I’m looking forward to playing a part in shaping that future of work at TransLink.