Dale Ponder is the managing partner of Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, which has about 475 lawyers in five offices, including one in New York. She took on her management role just over three years ago, and while Ponder is one of the rare women in the top ranks of law firm management in Canada, she is not the first in her firm. She also continues her M&A practice while juggling management duties. Ponder talks to Canadian Lawyer about women in leadership and her role at Oslers.
Q. Tell me a bit of the background of how you became managing partner of Oslers.
A. I had been involved in various management roles for the firm over the years preceding this, so this role was probably viewed as a pretty natural evolution for me by the firm. That said, when our executive committee asked me to take on a managing partner role originally, I was taken somewhat by surprise as I was a relatively young partner and fully immersed in my practice at the time.
Q. Will you continue to practise while you are managing partner?
A. Under the management model we’ve now had for some 10 years or more, we have two firm managing partners who continue to practise. We split the function of the management role so that we each have different portfolios. My role’s primary focus is clients, partners, and strategic direction generally. The second management role focuses on operations, our associate lawyers, and our practice group structure. When our clients need us, we’re there for them and we’re fortunate to have strong resources to back us up on the management side of things.
Q. Can you describe the management structure your firm?
A. We have a “one firm” model and approach to our practice, despite our geographic spread. This is an important part of our firm culture. We have an elected executive committee of eight members across the firm that is responsible for firm policy and to whom our two firm managing partners report. The executive committee is chaired by co-chairs of the firm. The appointment of the chairs and managing partners are taken to the partnership for approval. Each office, apart from Toronto, also has an office-managing partner responsible for local matters. At the service-delivery level, we organize ourselves by firm-wide departments and practice groups. Although we do have some industry specialty groups, our departments and practice groups are generally organized by area of expertise rather than by industry.
Q. As one of the very few women leading a Canadian law firm, what do you feel were some of the hurdles you had to overcome?
A. I didn’t have to blaze this particular trail, since Jeanie Fraser, one of our senior corporate partners, preceded me in this role some years earlier. Going further back, our firm has had a number of women in senior leadership roles, leading some of our largest departments and in various management roles, so women in leadership actually has been a continuing attribute of our firm for some time. Looking back, this, like so many things, is a question of “tone from the top,” and so I have progressive firm leadership from our past, as well as our present, to thank for our firm perspective on these kinds of issues.
Q. What do you feel are some of the greatest challenges and rewards of managing your firm?
A. I’m an M&A lawyer and have always been interested in business and how businesses are run, so I have to say that one of the rewards has been the learning curve associated with extending myself outside of the comfort zone of the practice of law into the business of law. I would also say that my role allows me a pretty unique opportunity to get to know our people, our practices, and our clients very well. With a firm the size of ours, and with the practice and geographic scope we have, that’s not always the easiest thing to do as a full-time practitioner. We have a team-based approach to practice at our firm, and among the most gratifying things in this role is seeing how much we can accomplish as a firm and for our clients when we turn our minds to a goal and work at it together.
Q. Does Oslers have any special programs or groups for its women lawyers?
A. We’re fortunate to have two great resources on this at our firm — our director of professional development and the director for our associate lawyer program. Together they have helped us develop various programs for all of our professionals, including programs focused on the professional development of our women, that I think help to differentiate our firm. Two examples of this would be our longtime participation in the Rotman program for senior women leaders known as “The Judy Project,” and, more recently, our sponsorship of a program co-led by the University of Toronto law school and Rotman for the professional development of our senior women associate lawyers.
Q. With five offices in North America, how do you balance the needs of each one?
A. We run ourselves as one firm with a common platform and so I’ve found that there really isn’t an issue of balancing needs between offices — largely because we have a common purpose and a common approach across our offices. That said, there are times when there are specific things happening in a particular office, like recruiting opportunities or local market initiatives, but in my experience it all works because we have strong local managing partners and we work in partnership to get things done.
Q. Do you think that each office has its own personality or is there an overaching Oslers ethos?
A. I think Osler has a distinct culture that crosses our offices. Apart from a small merger in Ottawa many years ago, our firm has grown organically and through lateral recruitment one person at a time. This makes it much easier for a common culture to endure, and when we recruit people we’re very careful that we share similar values and goals. I would also say, though, that each office has its own personality depending on geography. The cities of Calgary and Montreal, for example, have their own personalities as cities that are distinct from one another, and some of this gets reflected in the office environment too.
Q. What are your thoughts on how the current international economic situation will affect law firms in the next year or so?
A. Well, we’re still experiencing a global liquidity crises in the financial markets, and this is affecting our clients and the transaction world just about everywhere. We have a significant transaction practice at our firm, and although deals are still getting done, the pace of activity in M&A and finance has slowed. That said, we have quite a diverse practice, and a variety of other areas we’re in are somewhat counter-cyclical, like our restructuring and litigation practices, and they’re busier than ever. And it seems that some of our practices carry on at the same pace through any economic cycle. It’s not yet clear how long the markets will continue to be affected by these economic conditions, but like an investment portfolio, diversification in practice helps results over the cycles.
Q. Who do you see as your main client base?
A. We are a business law practice. We’re North American-focused by geography and have a long history of cross-border experience, so this is a natural continuing focus for us. We have a broad range of clients, however, with global and not just North American scope.
Q. Has there been pressure from corporate clients to create or negotiate custom billing arrangements?
A. I don’t think the current economic cycle has caused any significant change in this regard. Clients expect value from their advisors, regardless of the cycle.
Q. What advice would you give to young women lawyers just starting their careers?
A. Law is a great career. If you’re intellectually curious, it ranks among the top choices you can make for the long term. However, we all need to find the right balance for us personally and, from my own experience, people’s definitions of balance can be pretty individual. I think women need to be strategic in actively planning for both their professional careers and their personal aspirations and the necessary intersection between the two. Mentors can also make a huge difference, so I would encourage women at all levels to actively seek them out.