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Managing Partner: Masters of their own house

|Written By Jim Middlemiss
Managing Partner: Masters of their own house

Corporate commercial lawyer André Vautour, managing partner of Québec’s Desjardins Ducharme, LLP, talks about the challenges of running an independent regional law firm - with offices in Montréal and Québec City - at a time when the legal market is consolidating.

Corporate commercial lawyer André Vautour, managing partner of Québec’s Desjardins Ducharme, LLP, talks about the challenges of running an independent regional law firm - with offices in Montréal and Québec City - at a time when the legal market is consolidating.

Many of the independents in Montréal have merged with firms outside Québec. How long can Desjardins continue to remain independent?
It’s a funny question in the sense it (presupposes) we would eventually not be independent anymore and would merge with another firm. If something interesting came along we would look at it, but it’s not something we are pursuing. That’s not our strategy, at least for right now. I don’t see changes to that in the foreseeable future. The strategy we adopted in 2002 is to be a strong business law firm in Québec, with strong ties to firms in other provinces and links to firms outside of Canada with our membership in Lex Mundi.

How did the McMillan Binch-Mendelsohn merger impact you?
One of the things we noticed, of course, was referrals from McMillan Binch decreased. Overall, our referrals (from other firms) increased by 20 percent. I would characterize that as a success.

Why not merge?
We see there is a space in the market for a strong, independent business law firm. Québec is special. What we’ve been seeing the past six months to a year is those firms that merged have started to consolidate operations and act as one firm with a lot less decentralization than they had when they first merged.
The market in Montréal is quite different than the markets in Toronto or Calgary. Clients are not willing to pay the hourly fees asked for by the national firms. They want to have services more attuned to the local market. Strategically, we think we have a niche position that is appropriate to what we are and the markets we serve.

What are the advantages to remaining independent?
You’re the master in your own house. What we see and hear from our colleagues in national firms is that most of the strategic decisions are made in Toronto. It varies from one firm to another, but there seems to be a tendency to really be branch offices. Being independent means you still make your own decisions and you are more attuned to the realities of your own market.
In a national firm, a strategic decision may be detrimental to the Montréal, Vancouver or Toronto office. We are still small enough and close enough that we’ve always been able to reach compromises between the two offices. There is a lot of co-operation between the two offices and we will accommodate either the Montréal or Québec City office when these decisions are made.
One of the advantages to being independent, and an area of growth, has been the ability to service independent firms. In the past five years, we have increased significantly the amount of work we receive from these firms in Toronto, Calgary, and Vancouver and also in the Maritimes.

What are the challenges to managing an independent firm?
Our pockets are not as deep as a larger firm. Having 75 partners is not the same as if we had 300 or 400 partners, which means we have to be much more careful in the investment decisions we make. You have to be much more focused.

How have conflicts impacted your firm?
It’s a mixed bag. It has impacted us a lot less than national firms. We don’t have to look at our partners in Vancouver, Calgary or Toronto when we deal with conflicts. We only have two cities to look at. On the other hand, we have the same concerns with the broadening of what is a conflict. That has had some impact for us, as it has had for others. Clients are aware that it is a small market and are willing to accommodate the firms.

Where do you see growth?
There are a significant number of independent firms we don’t do business with. Two of our partners are actively pursuing opportunities with independent firms in other parts of Canada.

What’s next for Desjardins Ducharme?
First, we will continue to pursue opportunities with independent firms outside of Québec. Second, there are small and medium-sized businesses in the provinces that are not willing to pay the hourly fees asked for by national firms. They don’t have the need for that level of expertise. These two areas are strong areas of growth.
What we’re trying to do... is think globally and act locally. We decided we would act locally and be a regional firm and masters in our own house. Our decisions will be anchored in our jurisdiction.

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