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A woman takes the reins at Parlee McLaws

|Written By Gail J. Cohen

In February, Jerri Cairns became managing partner of Alberta-based Parlee McLaws LLP. At 47, she is the first woman to head a large Alberta law firm.  Founded over a century ago, the firm has 110 lawyers in its Calgary and Edmonton offices. Cairns, who practises insurance litigation, has been involved with the firms advisory committee since 2004 and sees a bright future for the firm in Alberta’s hot economy.

Q. Do you think it’s a big deal that you’re a woman named to lead a large large firm???

A. I am proud to have been elected managing partner of our firm and proud that our firm partnership has elected a woman to such a significant position for the firm. I am aware that there are only a very few women managing partners of large law firms in Canada and believe this is an important step, not only for our firm, but also for women in law and, for that matter, in all areas of business. I do feel that it’s more an issue of hard work and integrity than gender.

Q. What do you feel your appointment says about the ability of women to advance to upper management in the profession?

A. My election as managing partner shows that women are advancing within law firms to levels where they will now lead a firm in its business decisions, including management of the professionals in the firm and management of its business and growth. Women are advancing in all businesses more so than in the past, and that’s reflected in the number of women in senior roles.

Q. What kind of management structure does your firm have and who elected you??

A. Our firm has one managing partner who is elected by the partners for a three-year term. There are 49 partners who can vote. I was elected by my partners in late January 2008 and took office on Feb. 15, 2008. We also have an advisory committee comprised of six members. The managing partner is automatically one of those six advisory committee members. The advisors are also elected.  The managing partner has certain duties including overall leadership of the firm. The advisory committee also has certain specified duties for which it is responsible to the firm. There are also various practice groups, each with a practice group leader. And we have a CEO who looks after the financial matters.

Q. Will you continue to practise while you are managing partner???

A. I will continue to practise while I act as managing partner. There will be some duties devolved to practice group leaders and the advisory committee. Our firm had two managing partners at one stage, but, with a CEO, we’re in a position where we can have the managing partner maintaining a practice. And at my age group, many lawyers don’t want to get completely out of practice for any length of time.

Q. What do you think will be some of the greatest challenges in this new position??

A. One of the challenges we face includes acquiring and retaining legal talent. This is an issue for firms across the country but particularly so in the “hot” economy in Alberta. Another challenge is to manage and promote growth in the areas of practice that our firm focuses on. As with any law firm, increasing profitability is a challenge to be faced and addressed as well.

Q. What are your firm’s main practice areas???

A. Our firm’s main practice areas are aboriginal law, litigation (insurance and commercial), commercial real estate, business services, financial services, intellectual property

Q. Do you see your firm expanding beyond Alberta?

A. As to expansion beyond Alberta, our firm is always open to opportunities that make business sense for our lawyers and our clients. We review this on an ongoing basis. We are a strong regional firm but always open to other opportunities.

Q. What do you see driving future growth of your firm???

A. I see the strong Alberta economy continuing to drive growth in our firm as well as the very talented young lawyers we have. We commit significant time and effort to hiring our young lawyers and then training and mentoring them to ensure professional excellence and exceptional client service, as well as with a view to having a happy and committed professional as part of our team. Our focus is on teamwork within our firm. I expect we will also grow some based on client needs.

Q. How do you think Alberta’s current economy will bode for legal practice in the province?

A. Alberta has been booming for a number of years and the forecast is to keep doing well. I see that strong economy as continuing to drive demand for sophisticated, effective, and practical legal advice to clients to assist them in their ongoing successes and business endeavours. With that sort of economy, it’s important to be very adaptive and make sure you’re in touch with the business sectors. Lawyers are becoming much more a part of their clients businesses and we have to do what we can to assist those clients.

Q. If you were in a heated negotiation for a brilliant candidate, what would you tell them about the firm to convince them to join Parlee McLaws??

A. Our firm offers candidates the opportunity to work with and learn from experienced and highly respected legal counsel, as well as to work in a very collegial environment. Aside from working hard, we like to have fun together. We have sophisticated and challenging legal work from our clients and a base of clients that we value highly and work hard to please. As noted, we strongly encourage teamwork, as it is one of our firm’s core values. We believe teamwork is one of the best ways to develop new lawyers. We use a team approach for both client work and client development. We are also accommodating to the needs of our lawyers at different times in their careers — that can include families or other life plans they have.