Stuart “Kip” Cobbett is the chief operating officer and Montreal managing partner of 500-lawyer Stikeman Elliott LLP. His firm has recently become involved in a UN program with 14 other corporate law firms from around the world that are looking to identify whether and how national corporate law principles and practices foster corporate cultures respectful of human rights. He also talks to Canadian Lawyer about business and the current economic situation.
At the top of everyone’s mind at the moment is the economy. How do you see it affecting Stikeman Elliott?
Like everybody else, there’s been a decrease in the volume of work. Thankfully, we’re still reasonably busy but it’s an odd time because there’s virtually no visibility into the future. The last couple of years have been so busy that you could basically see three, four, five, six months out that you were going to be busy. We just don’t have that kind of sense at the moment. It’s all very much week to week and month to month. There’s very little going on in the capital markets. Some of the financial institutions are doing equity issues to shore up their balance sheets but there’s precious little else going on in the corporate finance sector.
Are the offices in different countries having similar or different experiences?
We have offices in three other countries: [New York in the U.S.], London in England, and a small office in Sydney, Australia. In terms of worldwide slowdown I would say that London and New York have probably been the worst hit as they are global financial centres. But our offices are slightly differently positioned than some firms: a) they’re relatively small, and b) a big part of their function is a representational function to generate work for Canada so they’re not doing much work on the ground in London or New York except where that work relates to Canada. But they’re affected by it, there’s no question things have slowed down in New York and London.
Is the recession having an impact in terms of hiring and retaining staff, particularly associates?
For us at the moment, it’s business as usual. In our Montreal office, we are embarking on our annual student recruiting program. It starts in March. We will be treating it as we have every other year. We expect to make the same number of offers to students and hire the same number of students as we always have because we’re going to come out of this recession. So whether we come out of it in six months or a year and a half, who knows, we’re always going to need good young lawyers. We’re not planning any hiring cutbacks at the moment nor are we anticipating any layoffs. And we’ve told our people that.
Is there a sense of anxiety among lawyers?
Everybody is feeling a little anxious whether you’re a lawyer or a municipal worker, whether you’re a journalist, no matter what you’re doing. There’s no question we’re living through an economic situation such that hasn’t been seen for many years. Everybody is feeling a little on edge but thankfully, so far, things are continuing reasonably well for us.
You have a somewhat unique position at a Canadian law firm being the managing partner and COO. Can you describe what you do in your position?
It is kind of unique in the sense that Stikeman Elliott is a decentralized firm. Each office and each office managing partner has a high degree of autonomy. We want each office to react to their local market conditions. Each of our markets is very different. Montreal is a very different market than Calgary and different from Toronto and so on. One, we give our individual offices, as I say, a high degree of autonomy. But having said that we are a firm and we are one firm, so we’ve got to have some form of co-ordination. So a large part of my role as chief operating officer is to ensure that there is communication and co-ordination among the offices. I work with Pierre Raymond, the chair, he is the CEO, if you like, of the firm. He has firm-wide responsibilities. He does not have any particular local responsibilities. He and I work together and I do whatever it is he wants me to do to make his job as chair easier. Fundamentally, it’s co-ordination and communication.
What does that involve?
It involves making sure that people talk to each other when we’re looking at taking on a significant mandate so what happens in one office doesn’t potentially conflict us out of another potentially interesting situation in another office. It involves such relatively basic things as making sure that people are using similar assumptions when they are making their budget preparations every year. And if the assumptions are different, we understand why they are different. Making sure the tests we apply to people on their entry to partnership are relatively the same across the firm. It’s delicate though, because we try not to have too heavy-handed an approach from a centralized point of view. But at the same time, as I say, we are one firm so we’ve got to have some degree between the plans and the operations of all the offices.
How does your position fit in with the management structure of the firm?
About 10 years ago we moved to what is close to a corporate model, although we are far from being a corporate structure. We have a partnership board that is made up of 12 partners, four from Montreal, four from Toronto, and four from the other offices. The partnership board meets essentially quarterly although we have more meetings as required. The partnership board functions like a corporate board. It’s responsible for focusing on strategy, for focusing on big-picture items, and giving direction to “management.” Then there’s an executive committee of the partnership board. The executive committee meets every week for about an hour and a half. It’s made up of the managing partner from Montreal, that’s me, the managing partner from Toronto, that’s Rod Barrett, one other representative from Toronto, one other representative from Montreal, plus the chair. So the five of us meet every week to talk about firm-wide issues. Then each office has a managing partner and typically a management committee that runs the local office. So the partnership board and the executive committee deal with firm-wide issues and try to ensure there’s some coherence across the firm. But we devolve a whole lot of individual responsibility and individual initiative to the local offices.
You’ve been practising law since 1974. What keeps you in the profession and what made you come back?
That’s correct — with a seven-year hiatus. I left and went and ran a film and television company for seven years. I’ll answer the second question first. I left the business world to come back to practise because I missed the practice of law. I missed the law firm environment. It’s a partnership. We’re not a corporation and it’s a very different culture in a partnership. A partnership, as somebody once said, is one of the few organizations where the owners come to work every day. There’s a high degree of collegiality, there’s a high degree of mutual respect and trust among partners. It’s a very good atmosphere. Practising law is intellectually stimulating, you get a high degree of job satisfaction when you’re helping your clients. It’s something I enjoy doing a great deal. It’s a little ironic, I’ll say, that here I am approaching the end of my career and I’m not practising law at all at the moment. I’m spending all my time managing. I miss it but this is what my partners want me to focus on, so that’s what I do.
What advice do you have for young lawyers entering the profession during these tough economic times?
It’s a good question and a very relevant one as our youngest child, our daughter, is just finishing up her articling period at Gowlings. Keep your head down and work hard. If you enjoy the law, then you’ll have a wonderful career as a lawyer. In society, there is a constant need for lawyers. There is a lot of government regulation, there are a lot of rules. The world is becoming increasingly more complex and increasingly more regulated and lawyers are needed to assist clients through all the regulations, let alone the whole issue of human rights and the rule of law, which are the bedrock of our society. It’s a wonderful career, the practice of law. If you enjoy the law . . . and you’re a lawyer, you’re lucky because people who enjoy what they’re doing are very fortunate. A law firm is a super environment. I wouldn’t have come back to it if it weren’t.
We spend a lot of time focusing on how we can make the practice of law at Stikeman Elliott more attractive to and interesting for our younger lawyers. It’s an issue because the practice has become very demanding. And it’s not just the practice of law, it’s the business world, the pace has picked up a lot. If you’re working on a transaction you’re fundamentally on call 24 hours a days, seven days a week and that’s tough. We make sure we have as good technology as we could possibly have so people can work from home and don’t have to come into the office. Try to be flexible in terms of having arrangements so people can work from home if it’s necessary. Things like that. Just a whole lot of little initiatives that we think over the long term and taken in the aggregate will make a difference.
It’s going to be a challenging year but challenging years are interesting. They provide opportunities. There are always opportunities that come out of challenging times. I’m more optimistic than some people. But you can’t ignore it, it’s going to be a tough year. And we’ve got to stay very close to our clients and do whatever we can to help them.