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Managing Partner: Canadian takes helm of global law firm

|Written By Gail J. Cohen

Canadian Hugh Verrier was elected chairman of White & Case LLP, the 10th largest law firm in the world, last year. Trained at the law schools of McGill and Harvard universities, Verrier has been with White & Case for 24 years, most recently as the manager of the firm’s Moscow office. His four-year term as chairman sees him leading a firm of 2,300 lawyers in 36 offices across 24 countries. The firm’s 2006 revenues, the latest available, were $1.85 billion. Verrier talks to Canadian Lawyer about leadership, the economy, and his experiences so far.

Q. What kind of management structure does White & Case have?
A. We have a unified management structure that reflects the unified nature of the worldwide partnership. It consists of a directly elected chairman who appoints three partners to form an executive committee with wide-ranging executive authority. There’s also an elected partnership committee that consists of four partners with specific approval roles in relation to compensation and making partners, internally and externally. These are all across the firm. Then we are organized into practice groups as well as offices and each of those units has one or more heads. And then there are various other specific roles like general counsel and some other firm specific committees. So broadly speaking that’s how we’re organized.

Q. With so many offices around the world, how do you balance the needs of each office?
A. First of all, it’s not as though offices compete for resources, management time, or the things that management decides, so balance is not in that sense a matter of weighing competing opposites and finding some middle ground. In the main, all of our partners are part of a worldwide partnership and share a common set of understandings and values; therefore the balance is built in to some extent. Looking at it from another point of view, really we’re here to serve our clients and our clients are an important driver in how our firm develops. So I think management is looking heavily as well to where our client needs are and how to address those needs.

Q. Is each office full-service or do you have lawyers that move around to serve clients as needed?
A. We do move around quite a bit. It is a global firm and it is unified, which means that our resources are there to serve our clients wherever our needs may be. Of course, not all of us can get on a plane and fly anywhere for all purposes, so there are some practical limits to it. But we’ve aimed to be strong locally, so that is part of our idea of what makes us strong as a global firm. We are not thinly staffed at the penumbra with a deep centre. Rather, we are a leading law firm in most of the markets and countries in which we operate, and that requires a depth of resources in each of those markets, so that your ability to serve clients is not dependent on, say, that person from Dallas flying out. But that person from Dallas is there as needed if we feel we don’t have what we need.

Q. What are your thoughts on how the current international economic situation will affect law firms in the next year or so?
A. Probably it’s too early to tell. I think clearly that the credit markets are the most directly affected; therefore the financing transactions, at least at the moment, few [need to clarify the preceding with gail – ml] and that will have spillover effects into other areas that are dependent on financing, and it may also affect the capital markets considerably over a period of time. At the same time, for us, we have a wide base of clients, practice areas, and geographic distribution, so it still hasn’t had an impact on our operation overall. That is, other areas are busy. So I think we could probably expect more in restructuring and bankruptcy, more disputes, and probably increased or comparable levels of M&A around the world. Some of the markets that are very active now for us are in central and eastern Europe, the Middle East, China, Asia — these are all very active areas. We expect that those will be strong for us this year.

Q. You’ve been in the job a since October 1. What has been your greatest challenge?
A. I think learning the job. I was working as a head of an office, Moscow, and worked around the world in different offices, but all of those things help to prepare you for managing the firm but there’s no substitute for learning it. That takes time and effort. In simplest terms, that’s the greatest challenge for me.

Q. You have a four-year term as head of the firm. Is that renewable?
A. In theory, it’s like being prime minister of Canada. I can be re-elected.

Q. What made you want to move into management and out of practice?
A. What drives me in this is, I came to New York from Canada with the idea of working here for a year and I’d intended to return to Canada. I was very struck by the openness of the firm when I joined in 1983, although at the time it was a lot earlier on in its progress toward becoming international and global than it is today, I developed a deep sense of appreciation for the opportunity I was offered and then all the opportunities I was given as I worked through my career in the firm. I found I was inspired by the idea that we could become part of the transformation of a national firm into a global firm. That to me was exciting as a lawyer and as a Canadian. That’s what I feel excited to be part of now. The attraction to management is the attraction to participating in this ongoing quest toward becoming a truly great global law firm.

Q. Do you think after you’re finished as the firm’s chairman, you’ll want to return to transactional work?
A. I hope so. I’m trying to persuade my wife to move to Nunavut!!

Q. You’ve worked all over the world. What would you say is the most important personality trait in dealing with lawyers, clients, and people in general, in foreign countries?
A. I think the Canadian virtues of tolerance, respect, patience are the most important. I think Canadians have the sorts of qualities that allow them to move in and out of countries and cultures well and are therefore well suited to global law practice.

Q. You said you went down with the plan to be in New York for just a year. What made you decide to go there in the first place?
A. René Lévesque. By which I mean I grew up in Montreal. My grandfather was a partner at Ogilvy Renault. His name was Hazen Hansard. He was president of the Canadian Bar Association (1964-65). It was his wish that I would become part of the firm in Montreal, and like so many of my generation, the world we grew up in in Montreal was closed to us in many ways. The effect of that was that many English Montrealers moved to different parts of Canada. I thought New York would be that much more interesting to see and experience and would allow me to, as has happened with so many lawyers since then, acquire and see different things.

Q. What advice to you have for young lawyers who are interested in getting into international finance and other areas, or international law or global practice?
A. Canadian lawyers are very sought-after by global law firms. White & Case is probably the most active firm in Canada among the international law firms. But both U.S. and U.K. firms recruit now heavily in Canada, perhaps for slightly different reasons. The U.K. firms are partly attracted by the fact that Canadian lawyers can quite easily become U.K. qualified. The training allows them to achieve that. I think U.S. law firms are attracted by the highly trained skills Canadian lawyers have. I think the only advice is to seek out the opportunities that are easily found now among the global law firms. There’s a real market for those skills and those interests, and that is only going to increase.

Q. Law firms, especially in London and New York, are brining in first-year associates at very high salaries. How long do you think law firms, and clients, are going to be able to sustain these kinds of numbers?
A. That question has been asked as least as long as I’ve been practising law, and the salaries have quadrupled over the course of my career. I don’t see an end in sight. Ultimately, law firms are the balance point between clients, who demand certain services on the one hand, and lawyers, who, although they want to acquire professional skills, don’t want to be indentured servants. The balance point is the marketplace that sets the salaries.

Q. What do you think makes a good leader?
A. A good leader connects the history and strength of a firm with the aspiration of its members and thereby leads it to achieve greatness. Being a leader should be measured by the extent to which he or she can accomplish that.

Q. What is your goal while you’re chairman of the firm?
A. My goal is to help the firm realize more of the awesome potential that it has, specifically by working together and drawing on its strengths as a global law firm. The idea being, the larger the firm becomes, certainly a global firm, it has enormous assets spread throughout the world — human assets, clients, intellectual assets — the ability to connect those assets in a way that reinforces our ability to serve our clients is the way forward to really realize the strength of a global firm. My goal is to make it as strong and true a global firm as it can be.

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