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A capital practice

|Written By Gail J. Cohen

Wayne Kerrick is the managing partner of Gowlings'' two Ottawa offices –– one in the downtown core and another in suburban Katana –– that boast 170 professionals including both lawyers and patent and trademark agents. Kerrick, whose practice focuses primarily on real estate, secured lending and mortgage enforcement, talks to Canadian Lawyer about practising law in Ottawa and how the scene has changed since he was called to the bar in 1989.

How do the two Ottawa offices differ?

For our internal structure, no. We try to have an as integrated approach as possible but for external purposes, we really do have a particular focus in Kanata, which is technology. . . .That was the impetus for locating the office there as well, it’s the hub of technology in the area. By having an office there we felt we were closer to the people we needed to be close to and try to build up our technology practice.

What’s the main focus of the Ottawa office?

Even downtown, the interesting thing about law these days is that geography is less and less relevant. I guess to some degree it seems a little counterintuitive that we put an office geographically proximate to the technology businesses but for some reason, I think the research we did in terms of Kanata was telling us that people did care, that it did make a difference to the technology people, that they have services providers, and lawyers and people were part of that local community. . . . We have practices that really vary.

There are people who have local practices, there are people who have national practices, and we even have international practices here. I think historically some of the things in the area that we work in — for example, we have a very strong presence in intellectual property — that practice developed because a lot of that law was focused federally. So being located in Ottawa with the Federal Court, with the various IP bodies for the government being located here, there was a natural development of that practice.

Another area that we’ve always had a strong presence in is the Supreme Court of Canada, again because the Supreme Court is here. In the old days, people would actually even rely on people at Gowlings to argue Supreme Court of Canada cases for them.

Now, because it’s easier to travel and the flow of information and documentation has been made much easier, we still have a role to play, but people will often travel from another jurisdiction to come and argue their own case. In the past, they relied on us to do a lot more with the court. It’s really difficult to try to break it down. There’s a real mix of local, national, and international practices.

On a national level, you’ll see a lot more co-ordination and co-operation between offices on an industry level. So we’ve got a financial services industry group that focuses on banking and lending and the type of work you’ll get out of financial services. And an energy and infrastructure group that’s very busy these days. They’re actually branching out internationally now.

We’ve got a life sciences group. We’ve got a technology group. There is a government relations group. These are more natural organizational groupings for what our clients want and need. That’s the common thread that you’ll see running through the offices. If you talked to anybody at any of the Gowlings offices, you’d tend not to see any radical differences in the way they’re organized internally. . . . more and more the focus of the firm is on the external relationships and that’s where we’re building ties from one office to another.

Tell me a bit about how you got involved in management in your firm.

I’m one of those people who’s always been involved in committees and activities. Even as an associate, I was on our marketing committee and got involved in a lot of things. I think there are just some people who naturally gravitate toward that type of activity; either running a project or different aspects of the firm. Then as a junior partner I was involved in more serious committees. I got onto our compensation committee for a time and then prior to becoming the office managing partner, I did four years as the business law department head. It’s been a steady progression for me. So ever since I was an associate, I’ve been involved in firm management and firm activities, slowly working my up to this position.

How has the legal landscape changed in Ottawa over the last 20 years?

I think I’d have to say that it’s the concept that the whole world in shrinking. Local practice mattered a lot more. Now because of technological advancements, now because of the ability to move information around very easily from one place to another, because of the trend for a lot of businesses to try and consolidate head offices or certain actions in certain places, the local presence is not as important.

So for people to try to survive from a work perspective, I think everyone needs to look a little further afield. You can’t simply think that if you hang out a shingle on Elgin Street in Ottawa that you’re going to have a whole range of work that’s going to be open to you.

There’s work that’s going to be available, but if you want to do different types of work, you’ll have to look somewhere else other than downtown. Banking is an example. The banks, to a large extent, they’ve commoditized a lot of the work they do . . . previously the local banks or branches would have had a lot more autonomy on how they could direct the work or larger transactions would have been handed out or dealt with by local people. That’s not so much the case anymore.

Often, they’re divided differently internally, so the larger work or different types of work may be allocated by somebody sitting in Mississauga or Burlington. So a local relationship isn’t necessarily what it was 15 or 20 years ago.

Also, I think, with varying degrees of success, the difference in Ottawa is that we clearly do have the national firms. Gowlings, to a large extent, a lot of [us] like to feel that there’s been a Gowlings and Henderson in Ottawa and the firm has very strong roots in terms of its growth.

The original Gowling and Henderson firm started back in the 1880s in Ottawa. So we have a very strong presence here. To a degree, I think a lot of people feel there has been increasing competition from national firms that have either set up offices — again because of technology there are law firms that are in different parts of the country who do work in Ottawa but have not even set up a presence here — they’ll do a transaction or be involved in some matter but the physical location is not as important as the client relationship.

I think geography matters less than it did 15 years ago. Just being here isn’t enough. You’ve got to have contacts, relationships, and you’ve got to look and work very hard at making sure that your relationships allow you to do the work that might have some tie to this locale.


What is your biggest challenge in managing your offices?

It’s my first year, so I did have some experience sitting on our management committee as a department head. This year there has been a learning curve. I think just learning what you need to do; being available 24-7, which is what people expect and what I think is necessary for the job.

When an issue comes up, one of the most important things people want to see is they want to see response, they want communication, they want to feel they’re being heard, and that there’s action being taken. That can be challenging at times because you don’t always have one ball in the air. It’s keeping several balls in the air, being able to respond and meeting the expectations of what often can be a pretty demanding constituency.

Do you have a certain time period for which you’ll be managing partner?

Yes, our new governance structure sets out that it would be expected that the managing partner of an office would sit in their position for four years. I’m now in my 10th month.

As a lawyer who practises real estate and mortgage enforcement, what are your thoughts on how the current economic situation will affect law firms?

Gowlings is a little bit different because we do have a nice variety of practice. While we do have the people who can do the big, corporate M&A work and the securities work and we have a number of those deals, we don’t live and die on the big deals. Things have actually been quite good for us this year. . . . But I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say that there is a great deal of concern throughout our office. I could give you some sort of prediction but that and $3.75 gets you a grande latte at Starbucks.

The reality is that I don’t think anybody can predict what is going to happen. When you see governments across the world — large governments, G8 governments — taking all sorts of drastic measures to try to shore things up . . . I don’t think that anybody can tell you what’s going to happen.

For us, we try to control the things that we can. We try to continue to do the best work that we can for our clients. We try to offer advice that is useful to our clients. In terms of managing our business, we try to make sure that we are billing and collecting on a regular basis.

It may mean that we have to be a little more vigilant about ensuring that we don’t allow accounts to stay out there too long. We are all concerned about the availability of credit and what the lack of credit might mean to business in general.

So far, I can’t say in this market that we’ve seen a huge impact. I think things are still functioning but to be honest with you, in Ottawa, we’ve got a business sector but a lot of that is tech. Ottawa has had some boom years and a lot of that was on the strength of the tech sector, and to be frank, that industry has been hurting quite a bit for the last couple of years. So while things are generally slowing down in the economy, we’ve been feeling the effects of a less-vibrant tech sector here for about 18 months or so.

For a young lawyer, what would you say are the biggest draws for working in the nation’s capital?

One thing is that it’s a lot more manageable. . . . I grew up in Montreal, my wife’s from Boston and she worked in New York City. This is still a place where you can live downtown and walk to work. It’s affordable. If you choose not to live downtown and you want to live in one of the suburbs, you’re not more than 15 minutes away. And even with our rush hour, it’s not that bad.

There are a number of people who live on the Quebec side here who at 15 or 20 minutes away they are actually in what most people would consider to be a cottage. I think there’s a great quality of life to be had. That’s not to say that people don’t have to work hard because I think you’ll find that if you go to the larger firms here, they’re working extremely hard. When the work is there, people do it. I think in terms of a young person looking to settle down and perhaps raise a family, the quality of life here is second to none as far as I’m concerned.

If you happen to wind up with the right firm, a firm like ours I’d say, I think the quality of work and the type of work you can get is again second to none. We have access to lots of good work. We have some of the leaders in the country in a number of different areas. So you can have a balance between having an interesting and satisfying career and also great quality of life.

Do you have any kinds of team-building events for your lawyers and staff?

Absolutely. That’s something I believe in quite a bit as do the rest of our management group and the partners here. We have regular social events, we have professional dinners. Obviously there are national events and meetings, but on a local level we have professional dinners that tend to focus more on . . . recognition of particular happenings in the firm.

This year we had a very good dinner in the spring, we were celebrating the retirement of four of our senior people. It was extremely well attended. . . . You could feel the sense of history and collegiality in the room. We also do simple things though. We have a professionals lounge in the office, so we have a regular TGIF. . . . Also one of the lawyers in our business law group has a Friday afternoon scotch time in his office.

We also, in different groups, we’ll often have a fall or winter event, which might be a bus ride up to Tremblant for skiing or a golf or a biking day. We also encourage the associates to do that and this summer they had a [go-karting day]. So people got to jump in a go-kart and speed around the track in a controlled situation. . . . We really encourage mentoring. We have just come up with a new plan to encourage greater interaction between mentees and mentors. We’re going to give everybody coffee cards . . . and they’ll have a credit on their cards and they can invite their mentor out for a coffee so they can at least spend 15 or 20 minutes catching up. Then there’s the usual professional development events. . . .

What do you like best about being a lawyer?

It’s hard to answer that question without saying a little bit more about myself. When I was 10 years old, I drew up retainer notes for my friends. I actually had a few of my friends on retainer for five cents a month. They signed these things [and] I would give them general advice.

I’m a checklist kind of person, I like to get things done. I like to feel that I have a sense of accomplishment. For me, one of the best things is the feeling that I’m actually helping people, that things are getting done, and that I’m able to solve problems. With clients, that’s great.

When you have a good relationship with a client, that often transcends the legal aspect of things because they begin to believe that you’re a trusted adviser to them and they can look to you for help. . . . And now as a manager, to think that I can help and make a bit of a difference to the way things work around here and hopefully make things run a little better. I go home and I feel good about that at night. When something good has happened, I find that very satisfying and gratifying. . . . Being a lawyer has put me in a position where I can satisfy this need to feel that I’m actually accomplishing something with my life.

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