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Making the big leap west

Managing Partner Forum
|Written By Mark Young
Making the big leap west

Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP was founded in October 1888 and for the entirety of its nearly 124 years has operated comfortably (and I’m pleased to say profitably) from offices in Toronto. Never occupying space located more than one kilometre from the corner of King and Bay streets, our firm serves a client base that continues to grow in its geographic scope such that there are very few corners of the world that are not home to a Cassels Brock client. Earlier this year, we announced the decision to open an office approximately 3,300 km away from that corner in Vancouver, B.C. How, and why, did we decide to take this giant leap?

The reality is, of course, that there are many reasons, just as there were many procedural steps to be taken along the path to making and implementing the decision. The formal procedure under our partnership agreement seems rather straightforward — a major decision like this one requires approval by way of a special resolution of the partners. It’s getting to the meeting at which this would be presented for approval that is not quite so simple.

Our firm has, like many others, considered the merits of opening or acquiring offices in other cities and jurisdictions numerous times over the years and particularly so in the recent past as we have continued to assess our positioning in the ever-changing legal services market in Canada. When the urge to merge resulted in the creation of a number of larger, national firms we gave consideration to opportunities to do so as well, but each time we concluded that we were well able to continue to service our Canadian and international clients from our single office in Toronto.

When Canadian firms opened offices in the U.S., the U.K., and elsewhere, we considered the merits of these strategies but declined to follow suit. And most recently when international firms came calling on Canadian firms, again we determined that this was not the course for us to take. We liked the fact that we were for many years the only law firm within the top 20 Canadian firms (by size) to operate from a single office.

Though changes in technology have in many ways made it easier to continue to advise clients from our single office, there are still advantages to the discussions, exchanges, and relationship-building opportunities that only face-to-face meetings provide. With that in mind, in August 2011 as part of an annual review of our strategic plan, and not as the result of any real moment of new discovery or epiphany, we decided to investigate the feasibility and desirability of opening an office in a second location.

Through the years, at each moment when opportunities or strategies were considered, as with others we hired consultants, established committees of wise persons, and debated merits at partnership meetings but ultimately our decision to stay on our single-office course was based upon our answer to a simple question: What should the firm do in order to properly service the needs of our clients and prospective clients?

After 124 years, our decision to open our office in Vancouver was based on suddenly coming to a different answer to the same question. Ours is a full-service firm with local, national, and international clients engaged in business in a wide variety of industries, but our single largest area of practice from an industry perspective is our mining practice. For many years the two main centres of that industry in Canada (at least from a head office perspective, if not from an operational perspective) have been Toronto and Vancouver, which reflects the advantage of local access to capital markets that truly understand a highly specialized industry and its financing requirements. For a firm with a strong national and international reputation in this industry, a presence in Vancouver as an addition to our Toronto operation and as a base from which to access pan-Pacific markets became an obvious strategic imperative.

We undertook all of the due diligence any business considering an expansion would do. We considered our strategic plan and whether opening a second office was a step in advancement of our strategic goals and objectives. We spoke with outside consultants and advisers. We spoke with key partners and senior management. And we decided we should test the water with a few of our Vancouver-based clients to see if they believed it preferable for us to have a local presence.

In so doing, we understood that after all, we are lawyers and therefore a strong possibility existed that while our clients need to see us and speak to us from time to time, they may in fact be quite content to do so only on an ‘if, as, and when needed’ basis, and that in particular they might be quite content to keep the ‘seeing us’ part to a minimum. But trial balloons were launched, and the feedback indicated clients would in fact be happier to have us located across the road and not just all the way across the country.

It was at this stage of the review that a desire for proper communication and transparency within the partnership, coupled with the niceties of procedural requirements, and more mundane issues like finding appropriate office space, all reared their ugly heads.

Once you ask a client if they think it would be a good idea to open a local branch, and they tell you they think it is a very good idea indeed, an expectation is created. Suddenly partners were being asked on a regular and frequent basis when we would be opening the office, and why the client hadn’t yet received the invitation to our opening party.

The clients we had spoken with didn’t seem too worried about 124 years of history, or the requirement for partnership special resolutions, or the need to find partners and associates who would volunteer to uproot themselves and their families and plant the flag so as to ensure our firm culture was as evident in the Vancouver office as the Toronto office. Having asked if it was a good idea to come to Vancouver, and having received answers in the affirmative, clients who had previously seemed quite content to deal with a Toronto-based law firm now couldn’t wait for our arrival. It was quite flattering, yet suddenly client expectation was about 3,300 km ahead of our ability to deliver.

But we are in the client-service business, and if there’s anything the lawyers at Cassels Brock have learned to do, it is to meet and to the greatest extent possible surpass client expectations.

Accordingly, we engaged people to hunt for office space, stressing the need for the utmost confidentiality. We spoke to recruiters and stressed the same thing. And we built the business case, which we presented to partners at town hall meetings designed to give them information, and allow for questions and answers in advance of any formal resolution being presented for approval. And we stressed the need for confidentiality (because even though everyone and their brother seemed to know we were going to Vancouver long before we really had made the firm decision to do so, that’s what lawyers do).

Weeks passed (though it seemed like months), and we struggled to find the right space. More time passed, and we held information sessions for partners, advised our associates of our plan, readied media campaigns, reviewed insurance and law society requirements, built the project plan, and assembled the team that would implement it, all the while continuing to tinker with the business plan and to seek out appropriate office space in a city where “vacancy rate” and “null set” have the same meaning. Clients were being told: “hang in there, we’ll be there soon.” Partners were being told: “Hang in there, we’ll be ready with a final proposal for your approval soon.”

To my surprise, a recruiter we frequently deal with in Toronto called one day to congratulate me on the opening of our Vancouver office. I, of course, denied this in order to maintain confidentiality, at which point he told me which building we were going to be renting in (and I vigorously denied), then which floor in that building (and I strongly denied), and finally which view of the mountains we would soon enjoy from our location on that floor in that building (at which point the best I could do was to pretty sheepishly deny)!

Finally it all came together: space was locked up and even before we had a single lawyer in Vancouver, we also had options to accommodate expansion of the office, a clear requirement given how our clients’ enthusiasm for the move had rubbed off on us, too. The business plan was polished and presented to our partners.

On Dec. 1, 2011, less than four months after the idea was first floated to partners at a town hall meeting, the leap to open the first Cassels Brock office outside of downtown Toronto was approved at a special partners’ meeting at which it seemed (at least to me) that the only real issue was how it could have taken management so long to put all of this together.

Our Vancouver office has recently opened for business — a truly transformative moment for Cassels Brock. I would guess that it won’t take us another 124 years to open office number three, and though I honestly don’t know where that will be, I know it will be wherever the pursuit of client service excellence takes us. And instead of puzzling that out, I think I’ll save time and just ask my recruiter friend to let me know where we will go next!

Mark Young is the managing partner of Cassels Brock, which now has two offices in Canada: Toronto and Vancouver.

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