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Managing Partner: A good environment at Willms & Shier

|Written By Gail J. Cohen
Managing Partner: A good environment at Willms & Shier

The lawyers at Willms & Shier Environmental Lawyers LLP were practising environmental law before it became cool to be green.

{mosimage}The boutique firm has grown over the years to its current size of 12 lawyers, who practise environmental, energy, natural resources, and aboriginal law. Managing partner John Willms discusses the challenges and advantages of running a firm this size, whose main competition comes from the environmental law departments of big Bay Street firms.

Q: How did you become managing partner?
A: I’ve been managing partner since the firm started in ’77, but I never had a title or anything like that, I just was. Of course, in those days there were only two of us and I was the oldest! So that’s how come I became the managing partner. A number of years ago, I figured the time had come. One of the challenges of growth for us has been to adopt an organizational style, so we went from very informal organization with relatively few lawyers to, as the number of lawyers grew and as the number of assistants grew, we found that we had to become a much more formally organized business with things like organization charts and policy manuals and a written partnership agreement (that was a big one), a salary for the managing partner. All of these issues come with growth.

Q: How would you describe your partnership and management structure?
A: It’s a consensus-driven, decision-making model that has partners participating in really any aspect of the firm’s business that they want to involve themselves in. But we really have partners dealing at a more general level, such as approving the year’s budget, a strategic planning process that the partners would approve the strategic plan for the next year. As long as we’re operating in the framework of the strategic plan or the budget or our firm policies or our partnership agreement, these things make the constitution of the firm; then it’s up to me, at some level, and Josephine Schembri, the managing director, and Barry Spiegel, our director of marketing, to implement.

Q: Your firm is relatively small; what are some of the challenges and advantages of running a firm with 12 lawyers?
A: The challenges are to maintain quality of production, a level of technology, a level of training for the lawyers and assistants that allow us to be as productive or, really, more productive and efficient than the large firms. To be as practical and as effective for our clients as the large firms, to stay on the cutting edge of the law and technology for delivering our work products. We don’t have the economies of scale so [keeping up with the big firms] is a challenge to being small.
I think informality, teamwork comes easier, I suspect, but this is as big as we’ve been, so it’s hard for me to comment on how things would be if we were significantly bigger. I’d say a major challenge is in fact getting the message out that we are a national firm, that we do practise across the country. Another major challenge has been to get the message out that we have the depth, the number of lawyers, and the range of abilities within environmental law to provide environmental law services to larger corporate entities, whether it’s business or municipalities. We certainly have been told numerous times that we couldn’t possibly deliver at the same level, deliver the same continuity of service, etcetera, which is, of course, entirely not true. We really pride ourselves on being able to deliver the services in a very timely manner, and I think it’s an advantage of our size. We have sub-specialities in our office, whether it’s litigation, whether it’s working on transactions, whether it’s working on due diligence for industrial clients, providing legal opinions, and so on and so forth, we have terrific depth here. And getting that message out has always been a challenge.

Q: What sort of billing structures do you use?
A: We’ve had a lot of opportunities to present clients with “creative” billing arrangements. We have found over the years that notwithstanding clients may even ask for creative billing arrangements in proposal calls, they’re not really that receptive to it. And when it comes right down to it, most clients seem to prefer to be billed on a straight hourly rate basis. Things like fixed fees, blended fees, discounts for time spent over X hours, and so on and so forth have actually not been that well received. One thing we did have was a rate structure for every person. We were very accommodating over the years in negotiating rates that seemed to suit particular files and combinations of particular lawyers and clients. So in our computer system, we had A rates, B rates, C rates, and eventually we got to R, I think. So this year, we made a very specific decision to cut out all those rates. We now have two rate structures. One is a very traditional hourly rate that would be competitive with the environmental law departments of the large downtown firms. And the other is a blended rate. The blended rate allows us to quote a lower rate for our senior lawyers that is much more acceptable to institutional clients — municipalities, government agencies, and so on — who do not want to be seen paying the high hourly rates that senior lawyers charge. We are still very flexible and amenable to negotiated arrangements.

Q: Over the last couple of years there’s been a lot more environmental consciousness both with the general public and government. How is that changing your business?
A: I’d say it’s changed the nature of the services we provide to industry, in particular. In years gone by, our industrial clients were just starting to feel their way into environmental management and they needed a lot of help. They got themselves into a lot of trouble from time to time. At this point, most of our industrial clients have quite sophisticated environmental-management systems. More and more, environmental management is not simply an add-on tacked onto someone’s job description with no real authority or responsibility. Environmental management is becoming much more central to decision making in most of our industrial clients. So that means they’re not having the spills, they’re not disturbing their neighbours as much, they’re not getting into the kind of trouble with regulators that they used to. So it’s certainly forced us to expand and become more sophisticated in the kind of services we deliver. One of our responses to that has been to broaden our areas of practice and into energy law, aboriginal consultation; things we had always been doing at some level or another, but we’ve incorporated it into our practice description. As of a year so ago, we describe ourselves as environment, energy, and natural resources lawyers. And we’ve been marketing those aspects of our practice.

Q: Again, with increased consciousness, are you finding more young lawyers interested in these areas of practice?
A: Yes and no. I can’t answer that really. We do have some very smart, hardworking, very talented and dedicated lawyers who come to us looking for work. Recruitment used to be a big challenge for us and it’s really not anymore. There’s no doubt about it, the good law students who are really interested in doing environmental law want to work for Willms & Shier Environmental Lawyers. So it’s been very gratifying for us that we do have that kind of reputation in the law schools.

Q: Do you have articling students here?
A: We don’t. We used to have articling students, but we realized that we were not able to give young lawyers the kind of good, general background that young lawyers should have before they embark into a specialization. As an example, we have a young lawyer that we’re very excited about who worked with us as a summer student. He was an engineer at the Ontario Ministry of Environment for a decade before he went to law school. We sent him out to get an articling job at a firm where he can get a general rotation in litigation and commercial law and where he can have his own files, somewhere where they learn to manage their own caseload. We think that’s really important. For someone going into a kind of general practice, those kinds of skills and concepts may not be as important, but for us, the articling year is very critical. Because when they come to us, they have to deal with other lawyers who are having commercial transactions and who come to us because they need our help to unravel the environmental aspect of the transactions. So if we don’t understand where they’re at, what’s driving their clients, and the legal principles underlying the overall structure of a share-purchase agreement, for example, we can’t really be effective.

Q: Who would make up the majority of your clients?
A: Certain industrial sectors provide the majority of our environmental law work. We’ve had most, if not all, of the steel, mini-mill business (the guys who take recycled steel and melt it down). There’s not one of those mills in the province where we’ve not done some legal work at one time or another. Food processing industry: McCain’s, Maple Leaf Foods. Another important market sector for us is contaminated land, and in that situation we’re acting for all sides to transactions: purchasers, vendors, consultants, other lawyers, municipalities. Forestry products industry. We have some mining, especially in dealing with aboriginal issues.

Q: Any oil and gas work?
A: No, not really. A little bit of work in southwestern Ontario. And we haven’t opened a branch office in Calgary yet! My partners sent me down about a year ago and I came to the conclusion that that market is just a bit too overheated right now.

Q: Who do you feel is your biggest competition?
A: The environmental law departments in a couple of the larger firms. A couple of the larger firms have very high quality environmental law departments that do a lot of marketing, as we do, that write good proposals, that have very good reputations, and we see them at all the interviews. Our secondary competition, and it’s growing, is the consulting industry. We work with consultants constantly, whether it’s guys who do computer modelling of air emissions, or hydro geologists who are studying groundwater flow or contamination of the groundwater. The changing nature of regulation in the environmental field is creating major business for consultants and far less business for lawyers. So as regulations become much more specific as to quantitative standards and as to required processes and procedures, what people are hiring now are consultants — consulting engineers, scientists — who can understand and implement the regulations.

Q: Would you look to growing your firm by adding those types of people?
A: We’ve contemplated it, but certainly for now we feel that we would not be able to provide the quality of service that the consulting firms that we’ve worked with do provide and we don’t want to be in direct competition with those firms. We pride ourselves on our working relationships with consultants. We have quite a different ethic in working with consultants than we feel most lawyers have. We know that consultants like to work with us and we want to keep it that way. For all the reasons I’ve mentioned, we don’t feel it would be a good strategy.

Q: What sort of qualifications does a lawyer who wants to practise environmental law require?
A: First of all, they tend to be self-selecting. So we get applicants who have a strong interest in the environment and who are generally idealistic about the environment. We look for people, and they do tend to self-select in that direction anyway, but we do look for people with a science or engineering background. I have a bachelor of science in physics and chemistry from the University of Waterloo, 1967. I found my science and math background to be a real asset in law school. But we have a civil engineer, we have two masters in biology, we have a masters in urban and regional planning, we have a professional forester. Some of these people worked in their disciplines before they went back to law school and came to us.

Q: How did your firm first get established?
A: I started out after Bar Ads working for David Greenspan and Michael Vaughan, who had a small but very successful land-use-planning practice. The next thing that happened to me was that a friend from law school was staff lawyer at the Canadian Environmental Law Association, and he called me and asked me to come on the Canadian Environmental Law Association board of directors, which I did and I found it hugely interesting. And that’s how I started getting environmental law work. The early cases I had would largely have been for interveners in government decision making, people who are experiencing nuisance issues and so on. And the practice grew from there. At some point, David left to join Thomson Rogers and then Michael left. So from Greenspan and Vaughan it went to Vaughan Willms, and from there it went to Willms & Shier. Donna Shier joined the practice in 1978. She was a partner by ‘81 or ‘82.

Q: Are you looking to grow the firm?
A: We are letting our growth be driven by the level of work. Our strategic planning identified at one point that we’d like to limit our growth to 16 to 18 lawyers. Well, we’re not there yet. But really, I have to look at the numbers and whether the numbers justify hiring. That really in the end is how I have to base the decisions. That’s not to say that if we have a young star who wants to come and work with us that we won’t hire that person, we do because there are certainly other considerations for us other than the ratios that we’re trying to maintain. We’re always trying to build a good team. Certainly, as a boutique firm, one of the challenges that faces us is that boutique firms are often able to attract really good, young lawyers who hear all kinds of unpleasant things about the culture in the really large firms. But the reality is, they get poached.

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