Greetings from Alumni: Michael Ristaniemi
10 June 2020
In the sixth part of our “Greetings from Alumni” series, we interviewed our alumnus Michael Ristaniemi, who currently works as Vice President, Sustainability at Metsä Group. During his time at Hannes Snellman, Michael worked in several different trainee positions. Since then, he has had a successful career, for example, working as a lawyer in Belgium, studying as a doctoral candidate, and most recently working on sustainability-related issues. We asked Michael about his memories from his time as a trainee at Hannes Snellman and about his interesting career steps since then.
Hi Michael, how was your spring?
Thank you for asking – my spring was very inspiring! Despite the exceptional times, I got married, have been finalizing my doctoral dissertation in competition law, and doing my best to lead Metsä Group's efforts in corporate sustainability. There is a lot of energy around sustainability topics at the moment. If you think about it, lawyers are in a key position to contribute: our training is about justice and fairness, about making sense of society and structuring it. Lawyers have the potential to see the bigger picture and analyse critically. Understanding of sustainability allows business lawyers to be more wholesome and strategic advisors.
Usually this time of year, I am teaching a competition law course with a few colleagues at the University of Turku. Occasional teaching at one's alma mater is great. This would have been our seventh year running, and we try to improve the course every year. In the past years, we have transformed classes more into workshops instead of lecturing. I can only encourage lawyers to consider teaching - it's a true win-win situation for both students and us alumni teachers!
You worked in various trainee positions at Hannes Snellman. What was the most important lesson you learned during your time here? How about the best memory?
Indeed, I was a KM trainee in 2008, an associate trainee after that, and also a thesis trainee in 2011. I believe traineeships at law firms are an essential part of one's legal education. You learn a certain professional way of working - one which allows you to both identify with and further our profession's traditions. This includes everything from how to write a proper email, to appropriate interpersonal interaction, but naturally also more substantial skills whether concerning doing legal research, analysing legal questions or formulating arguments. I improved all of the above during my time at Hannes Snellman. However, I would like to highlight a particular strength - the people. I have stayed in touch with many people I met at Hannes Snellman and continue to cooperate closely with Hannes Snellman lawyers in many ways.
You have had a long career as an in-house lawyer, in addition to which you have worked at a law firm in Belgium, and now you are a doctoral candidate at the University of Turku. At the beginning of this year, you also started in a new position as Metsä Group’s Vice President, Sustainability. Have you done any active career planning, or how have these opportunities come to you?
I believe a good compass for one's career is about what you would like your days to consist of - plus what you would like to learn. Interesting opportunities will follow. I have tried to stay curious and kept extending my comfort zone into areas I have found interesting: first into intellectual property and competition law, then into EU affairs and most recently into sustainability and corporate responsibility. In today’s world, it is useful to specialize in some areas, while trying to still understand a wider spectrum of what makes up society
In addition to the mentioned mind-set, I think it's important to interact with interesting people. Despite the prevalence of technology, the world is still run by people and companies consist of people. I would encourage everyone to think of people they find interesting and reach out to them - you never know what that might lead to.
What has it been like so far to jump from the role of a lawyer to your new role at Metsä Group?
In two words: inspiring and overwhelming. After working as an in-house counsel for many years, last September I was presented the opportunity to lead Metsä Group's sustainability efforts. My job changed profoundly. A lawyer's job is that of a specialist, while my new job is a leadership role. This includes more both people-oriented leadership elements, but also more detailed management work related to implementing targets and measuring progress. A leadership role entails having to endure much more uncertainty, but it is nevertheless very rewarding.
In my lawyer position, I was looking for ways to have a greater societal role. In this new role, it is inspiring to be able to help the company be a good corporate citizen and maximize its positive contribution to society. More than compliance it is about seizing opportunities. This critically involves understanding both our business and society’s expectations and then balancing the two. It has opened many related opportunities, too. For instance, I was flattered and surprised to have been selected as part of Talouselämä magazine’s "Finland's 35 under 35" listing this January. This both encourages to continue my work, but also puts pressure to be able to truly contribute to our society.
What career advice would you give to a law student or a young lawyer?
I have two tips. First, be curious and open-minded. Try to expose yourself to a variety of ideas and people. For example, learn fundamentals about political science, sociology and economics in addition to law - your understanding of the law, too, will reach a whole new depth. Second, invest in soft skills. There is much value in being considerate, helpful, and being able to listen to another person. Trust is the glue that keeps our society together and it does take time and effort to create it.
Finnish law students and lawyers are very diligent and take their work and studies seriously. When considering how to live a good life and maximize your potential, I however believe that the two points I mentioned are not as emphasized, at times. I guarantee that both tips will work as investments - you will get a good return on staying curious and taking time to interact with people.
Want to know more about working at Hannes Snellman? Please pay a visit to our Careers section. Make sure to also have a look at the previous interviews of our alumni Tuomo, Mirva, Maiju, Silja, and Antti.