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Managing Partner: BLG in the game to compete and win

|Written By Gail J. Cohen

Borden Ladner Gervais  LLP is one of the largest law firms in Canada with offices in Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, Vancouver, and Waterloo, Ont. Sean Weir is the national managing partner of the firm, which employs close to 2,000 people across the country, including 700 lawyers, of which 400 are partners. Weir makes no bones about being the head of a highly competitive firm that asks for hard work and a strong commitment from its lawyers. While BLG is not a touchy-feely place to work, the firm provides strong support mechanisms to help lawyers stay on top of the game.

Q: Tell me a bit of the background of how you got the managing partner role in this firm.
A: I’ll tell you a bit about Borden Ladner Gervais and that comes from it. We were formed as national firm in March 2000. There were five major regional firms at the time: Ladner Downs in Vancouver, Howard Mackie in Calgary, Borden & Elliot in Toronto, Scott & Aylen in Ottawa, and McMaster Gervais in Montreal. I was on the executive committee at Borden & Elliot at the time. As we moved towards our merger, of course, we decided we needed a national managing partner, so the group that had worked together to form the merger asked me if I would like to take that on. And I said, ‘Yes I would.’ That started March 1, 2000, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

Q: Do you have a set time period for doing this job?
A: No. The firm gave that a lot of thought as part of its governance. Our senior governing body is what we refer to as a national council; in a corporate mode it would be a board of directors. There are 15 members on that body elected by proportional representation from each of the offices. When they asked me to do this, they suggested a three-year term, but I said I wasn’t interested in that but to become a full-time manager subject to an annual review by the national council. I do still do some legal practice in the pensions area, but it is more managing of relationships with clients rather than legal work.

Q: Can you tell me how the management of the firm’s six offices is structured?
A: As I mentioned, we have the national council, it operates like a board. It meets five or six times a year and is primarily involved with strategic planning [and] oversight. There are 15 members on the council. Then we have an executive committee, and I chair that committee. It’s comprised of five regional managing partners and two national department leaders [litigation and business]. We are in contact on an almost daily basis and meet every second week. And then within each location, we have a similar management substructure. Our professionals are divided into two departments — business and litigation — with six groups each.

Q: How do you balance the needs of different offices?
A: I don’t necessarily think we necessarily have different needs for different offices. We are a single partnership, so what’s good for Toronto should be good for Vancouver. Through the national executive committee meeting on a regular basis we make sure that we have a good feeling of what’s happening in the other regions. And we encourage people to work in teams across the country.

Q: Do you think that each office has its own personality, or is there an overarching BLG ethos?
A: There’s an overarching ethos. There’s no question that each region has differences, but one thing that that creates is the common culture that we subscribe to being the best at everything we do. But one of the things that made BLG’s merger a success is that we get along.

Q: Associate retention is a big issue these days. What is BLG doing in that area?
A: We are, without a doubt, one of the best development committees in Canada, if not North America. We spend a tremendous amount in investing in professional development, more than the average firm would do. We invest a lot in education and programs, and do a lot of intensive training from new associates to junior partners. We bring people in to do this training and we’ve developed programs based on what we’ve seen has worked best in the U.S. and the U.K. We used to go and learn from other firms but now other firms are coming and learning from us. For us, in terms of recruitment and retention, this is one thing that works really well.

Q: How has the merger of firms across the country worked out over the last few years?
A: I think the business and litigation sections are about even. Each firm at the merger was strong, and we were looking to build on that. Each legacy firm had a very strong stand-alone litigation department but also had its own business law section, which mostly served corporate clients. I think common background of business and litigation lawyers getting along and then projecting that on to the national stage . . . I certainly think that that has given us a common bond. That really worked to pull this firm together, so that we didn’t have competing regions, competing philosophies. We really had a lot in common with each other, so that’s something that binds us together.

Q: Were there a lot of conflict issues when the firms got together and how has that changed?
A: Yes, there were some conflict issues and we had to end our relationship with a couple major firm clients at the time of the merger. Conflicts continue to be a big issue for us. We have a very sophisticated conflict identification program. We have a team of paralegals that are constantly checking them and we have a national committee of conflict partners. They do an excellent job of dealing with these things. We try to identify potential conflicts as quickly as possible and deal with them. And our partners are getting much better at dealing with them, understanding areas where you can’t act. But also understanding some areas where it may be possible to act and approaching clients to get consent. Five or six years ago, people would simply say, ‘Well if there’s a conflict with my client, I have to turn the brief down.’ Now, they can look at it and say, ‘Is this an issue that the client will look at and understand and accept our acting for the other folks,’ and we’ll approach the general counsel or the decision-maker about it.
Most of our major clients understand. They don’t want to be denied their choice of counsel and when in-house counsel want to hire somebody, so they understand that there has to be certain level of understanding, of give and take. So our lawyers are getting better at dealing with them. The profession, as a whole, is coming to grips with this. I am sitting on the Canadian Bar Association task force that is dealing with conflicts, and we are, a subset of that group, coming up with, and I believe it’s close to being final, a standard engagement letter that we recommend law firms use as often as possible in engaging new clients. That will help in identifying new conflicts. I would say that within a relatively short period of time such letters would become standard. All law firms, we have standard engagement letters already, but not very many firms have made it mandatory to have an engagement letter before taking on a client.

Q: Are you looking to expand or open other offices?
A: We look at that on a regular basis, but there are no plans to open any other offices at this point in time. We spend a lot of time on airplanes going to see clients in Europe and other places. We are always looking to expand our relationships with other firms. We’ve assessed the representative office model — that’s opening an office and putting one or two lawyers there to source business — to be expensive. We have determined that . . . they offer mixed results. The money that gets invested in that type of an office, in our view, can be better spent on other models. Our view is that we prefer to work with firms already established in other places.

Q: What are the firm’s growth areas?
A: International growth is huge for us. Now 25 per cent of the firm’s revenue is from offshore sources. Last year, in the third quarter, BLG was number one in capital-market deals. That’s a new thing for us and we’re very pleased. One large component of that is foreign issuers tapping into the Canadian market. Canada is a middle market and the markets here are very receptive to deals that would get lost in the U.K or U.S. We did a lot of income-trust work but with the demise of that work, we’ve become a leader in cross-border, high-dividend transactions. That’s a major source of international growth. We do a lot of international arbitration, particularly out of Vancouver. We have done a lot of work in China  in that area, as well as helping Canadian businesses set up in China.

Q: Has there been pressure from corporate clients to create or negotiate custom billing arrangements?
A: Typically our corporate clients still want monthly billings based on hours worked. But most of our corporate clients have been trying to put discipline into these expenses. We’ve had to compete and so we will offer value-added. In some cases, blended hourly rates and volume discounts. Some clients want fixed fees for certain transactions, even on larger transactions valued up to and over $500,000. Clients have demanded it and we are a client-focused service industry so . . . .

Q: Personally, what do you find the biggest challenge to managing the country’s largest law firm?
A: It’s a great firm to manage because we’ve got good people. I think managing any organization like this, with the delivery of services, is making sure you have a firm that everyone is happy to be at. People issues are the biggest challenge, but for the most part we don’t have many of those problems. My job at the top is to find out about those problems and deal with them before people vote with their feet.

Q: What would you say are the firm’s main or strongest practice areas?
A: I think that there are a couple areas we can say we are strong in. We have the leading practice in investment funds — infrastructure generally, and electricity in particular. We really are the leading firm in the country in infrastructure projects. We really have depth and strength in that area all across the country.
 Our health law practice is also very strong. Our litigation practice is the largest in the country, and one of the subspecialties that’s really staked out a claim is class actions. BLG is coming into its own with class action defence work. Right now in Toronto we have 90 class actions, with 50 in Montreal. What we’re seeing now with class actions — a lot of class actions have started in the last few years and there’s been a lot of sparring back and forth between the plaintiffs’ bar and the defence bar with respect to certification of the class — procedural wrangling before the main event, if I can call it that. Now a number of these actions are starting to be tried on their merits and they are huge, with respect to the type of plaintiff, the complexity of the documents, and the thousands and thousands of documents and witnesses. So you need a very large and experienced bench in order to properly deal with those cases. With the greatest respect to our friends at the litigation boutiques, they don’t have that bench. So this is a natural strength for BLG. It’s an area where I’m betting BLG will become the dominant class action defence firm over the next 10 years.
BLG’s capital markets tem is growing . . . we’ve invested in it we’ve continued to grow. It’s a very competitive marketplace and I’m glad to see we’re moving ahead.

Q: What’s the best thing for you about working at BLG?
A: We care about our people. We are a big shop — there is bureaucracy — but we try to keep a human face on things and be supportive of our people. We are not a “lifestyle” firm; we are here to compete and win. But if you subscribe to that, we will do everything to support [lawyers] in dealing with the stresses of practising at this level. We bring people in and they talk about how to manage childcare and so on, but not so you can have a leisure-style work environment. We’re in a high-performing environment, and accordingly you will need some tools and assistance to help you achieve work-life balance and stay at the top of your game. We try very hard to provide our folks with that kind of support and flexibility here.

  • Bob Chisholm
    I knew very little about BLG until reading your article. Thank you very much for "filling me in."

    Two questions:

    Does BLG ever represent plaintiffs or defendants in Ontario small claims court?

    If they do, do you have any idea what their hourly fee might be?

    Thanks very much,
    Bob Chisholm.

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