Unsung Heroes 2023: Michelle Dunlea is busting myths as head of product management at Clio

Michelle Dunlea challenges the idea of linear career paths by showing up as herself.

She challenges the idea of linear career paths by showing to Clio as herself

Michelle Dunlea’s family has a hard time wrapping their minds around what she does for a living. Her parents are confused beyond “I work in tech,” and her fiancé tells people that she “builds an app where lawyers speak to their customers.” A hefty eye roll over a Zoom call makes it clear that there are only so many times she can explain it.

As the senior director of product management at Burnaby-based legaltech firm Clio, Dunlea has been responsible for a number of different products since she joined in 2019. Right now, she looks over the company’s flagship product, Clio Manage, as well as its new payment processing software, Clio Payments, which gives clients and attorneys the flexibility of entering long-term payment plans.

For some 15 years now, the cloud-based company has been helping lawyers and law firms manage cases with its legal practice management software. The software offers support with client intake, communications, tracking and billing and digital payments. Clio has some 900 staff spread out around the world, with physical locations in Burnaby, Toronto, Dublin and Australia.

When Dunlea joined four years ago, it was a 400-person company with one product. Since then, it’s grown rapidly to achieve centaur status (a business that hits $100 million in annual recurring revenue), made a ton of impact on the industry with its software solutions and transitioned to a completely remote work environment.

Dunlea remembers being really impressed on her first day. “I regularly felt like the dumbest person in the room, but they were all very nice about it,” she says with a laugh. “And there was incredible alignment across the entire organization, from [CEO] Jack [Newton] down, and that was really appealing to me.”

While Dunlea seems to enjoy the clear vision from the organization, she admits that her journey here took a winding, uncertain path. Like many others, she grew up aware of linear career options where your education dictated your profession—such as doctors or lawyers.

 “I think people feel like they need to have a path, like they need to know where they’re going and what they’re going to be in 20 years. And in my experience, it’s just not like that,” she contends.

Dunlea didn’t even know what product management was when she was in post-secondary school in County Cork, Ireland. At one point, she considered being a doctor just because her initials are M.D., but when she found herself torn between studying law or design, she chose graphic design.

“I don’t think my mom ever fully forgave me, but it’s kind of come full circle now that I’m building products for lawyers,” she says.

When she arrived in Vancouver in 2006, she fell into a recruiter role that she describes as a “thankless job.” She soon moved to Gastown startup called Strutta, where she served as the director of operations for a number of years. One day, she read an article about product management, a profession that she hadn’t heard of before, and realized that she’d already been performing this role for some time now, “purely based off of intuition.”

That led her to spend five years at social media management platform Hootsuite, where she climbed the ranks from intermediate manager to senior director of product, responsible for running the company’s flagship offering and leading multiple teams. Zeroing in on her interest in working for a product company where her role is a central part of the business, she came onboard with Clio, possibly in a subconscious effort to tie a loose end from her past. 

Dunlea points out that while lawyers are trained to practice law, many unintentionally end up as small business owners who don’t know too much about running a business. It was these kinds of “human problems” that drew her to Clio’s product management division, which now consists of Dunlea and her team of 15 product managers. Together, they work to evolve existing products as well as develop new ones to address problems in the legal industry. 

In terms of a typical day, there’s no such thing. Whether she’s attending meetings, context switching between tasks or catching up on Slack, every day comes with its own set of challenges for someone in Dunlea’s position. At the end of the day, her approach is to just to show up as herself. “I probably swear slightly less at work than I do in my personal life, but other than that, I’m the same,” she says matter-of-factly.

But as a highly empathetic person showing up as yourself at work, managing people can start to weigh heavily on the mind. “Over the last few years, some of the most difficult challenges that I faced have been on the people leadership side of the job,” she maintains. An overnight move to remote work, and then coping with a global pandemic and all of the loss associated with it, was one of the most difficult things she’s had to do in her career as a people leader. There were times when she questioned her efficacy as a manager because she took on the responsibility of her team’s happiness beyond the realm of work. 

“It almost resulted in burnout,” she admits. “And it also meant that I didn’t challenge my team, or give all of them constructive feedback, which is a prerequisite for building a high-performing team.”

Over time, she’s developed a new mantra to show up as a better leader for herself and her colleagues: “To listen, to be clear, and to be kind.” She now sees her role as one where she needs to be clear in her communication and feedback and kind in her motivations behind it, and accept that any resulting emotion that the recipient experiences is their own responsibility. 

In January 2023, Dunlea received the MVP award at Clio’s annual company kickoff. She now spends much of her days working with both designers and lawyers, seemingly busting the myth of the linear career path just by being herself.

And although she’s not one for having a road map, she does see herself as a consultant in the future. “There are so many questions that people have, especially at smaller companies where they haven’t established the discipline yet, and I think that there’s a lot I could do to help them,” she says. “But I think that’s a ways away yet.”