James R. Christie’s 14 years in senior management at Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP will draw to a close at the end of this year.
Christie’s eight-year term as firm chairman, which was preceded by six years as managing partner, wraps up Dec. 31 when he will be replaced as chairman by Brock Gibson, a partner at Blakes’ Calgary office. Christie knows Blakes inside and out, having started his career articling there more than 30 years ago. The firm has more than 580 lawyers, 230 of whom are partners, with nine offices across Canada and in the U.S., U.K, and China. Christie talks to Canadian Lawyer about the firm’s strengths and how it fits in with today’s global economy.
Q. Tell me a bit about how you got involved in management and moved in this direction.
A. I originally got involved with student recruitment, and that led to involvement as the chair of the students’ committee many years ago. That led in due course to getting asked and being involved in more management matters, participating on various committees and such.
Q. How do you juggle your management duties and your practice duties?
A. That’s a challenge. It means you have to work all the time to try and juggle them. I’ve always thought it’s important, particularly as I went to law school to practise law, to maintain a client involvement and so I have.
Q. What percentage is practice versus management?
A. It’s difficult and varies from year to year — probably about 20 to 25 per cent of my time would be practising.
Q. Explain the difference between the managing partner and the chairman.
A. The chairman has overall responsibility for the firm: partner relations, client relations — although it’s not totally defined, but a focus on the external. The managing partner has responsibility for the operation and oversight of our various offices. It’s not ironclad but that’s more or less where it breaks down.
Q. Describe the management structure of Blakes.
A. We have a directly elected chair, a directly elected managing partner, an executive committee of eight, of whom two are the chair and the managing partner. We also have a partnership committee of 19, which meets more or less four times a year. It is effectively a policy body. The executive committee is comprised of partners elected by the partnership generally, and we try to get a cross-section of offices, practice areas, ages, and stages represented on the committee. In each office, we have an office-managing partner. Like many firms, we have some operating committees and practice groups designations. We have national practice groups across [offices], with a head or a co-ordinator or joint co-ordinators. It’s a matrix.
Q. With offices in different parts of the world, do they serve Canadian clients or foreign clients with Canadian legal needs?
A. They are both, although primarily foreign clients who are investing or operating in Canada and have Canadian legal needs. As an example, in China, a large chunk of our practice is assisting North American clients who are operating or investing in the Chinese market. So it’s a combination, but primarily the former.
Q. How important is it, particularly in the global economy, for a law firm to have a presence in China?
A. We think it’s important. Blakes is the only Canadian law firm with a physical presence in China. This is our 10th anniversary this year. It’s been an important contributor in terms of client generation and, I think, growing more important as the world globalizes.
Q. How many lawyers do you have in China?
A. We have two western-trained lawyers and we have five Chinese-trained lawyers. In addition, here in Canada, we have a China group that is part of our China initiative and they focus on China work and assist with the China work from the North American end and they supplement and support the lawyers we have in China.
Q. Also, on the global economy front, how do you predict Canadian law firms, yours in particular, will fare over the next year?
A. I think we are starting see a change in the nature of the work our clients are asking us to assist on: obviously less big-ticket M&A, although there continues to be a reasonably good stream of mid-size M&A work; more restructuring and insolvency-related work; and I think we’ll see an increase in litigation as we go forward. Overall I think it will be fine; it’s just a change in the mix of work. Fortunately, given the nature of our practice being a general business law practice, we have exposure to all the different areas, so it just involves a shift of resources.
Q. What practice areas do you think are going to grow in the next year?
A. I think the insolvency, the restructuring, and litigation areas. We’re already starting to see that.
Q. What do you feel is Blakes’ greatest strength as a firm?
A. Our greatest strength is our people are part of the integrated partnership. Blakes is the largest firm that’s grown organically, so it’s certainly a fully integrated operation. We’ve never done a merger (we did one small one in Vancouver many, many years ago). We’ve grown organically, and through that I think we’ve been able to attract good people. Obviously talent is a large part of what it’s all about. And I think the advantages that flow from the integrated partnership are truly seamless delivery of services. I think that’s important when you’re constructing client teams and so on. There are no divisions between offices, so we draw upon the best people you have in a particular area regardless of where they’re located.
Q. In many international business law firms, there’s been a lot of talk of layoffs recently. Do you see that happening here?
A. I don’t anticipate that. I certainly don’t anticipate that it’s going to arise at Blakes. We continue to have a need to attract and recruit lots of students, young lawyers. As I say, the nature of our practice is such that we don’t focus on one particular area, we have the ability to move people around between practice areas, and indeed, offices. So I don’t think you face the same layoff problems that some firms that are very narrowly focused will.
Q. What would you say to a young recruit to get them to come to Blakes?
A. Firstly, good work — great opportunities to move to other offices both nationally and internationally to obtain that sort of experience. I would focus on the fact that Blakes is, and has been for five consecutive years, been named one of Canada’s top 100 employers. I think that in and of itself says a lot about the environment and nature of the workplace. We’re certainly finding that is attractive to people who are considering lateral opportunities.
Q. What do you think makes a good leader?
A. I think you need someone who works with people to try and bring out the best in them and tries to, in the case of a law firm, get everyone more or less moving in the same direction — a challenge. I think you also have to have someone people trust and have confidence in.
Q. What were your goals as chairman and do you feel you achieved them?
A. I think everyone has the goal of ensuring their firm is pre-eminent and I hope I’ve achieved that with the support of everyone. Also, focused on trying to increase the size of our international practice and obviously the establishment of our foreign offices is part and parcel of that. The reason for that is, given the contracting business community in Canada, which gives rise to lots of conflicts and so on, the opportunities for substantial growth include, I think, the international practices. So we’ve been focusing on expanding that and it’s now a significant part of our overall practice and firm revenues.
Q. Are there plans to expand to any other countries?
A. At the moment, we’re concentrating on making sure the offices that we have are operating efficiently, effectively, and are fully integrated into the Canadian office network. So that’s been the focus. There are no active plans at the moment to open other offices but who knows.
Q. Personally, what have been the greatest rewards of this job?
A. The greatest reward’s working with good people, good lawyers, and trying to, as I said earlier, to help them develop their practices and develop teams of lawyers that are effective. That’s probably the greatest reward.
Q. What was probably the greatest challenge that you faced?
A. There are always lots of challenges. I suppose, of the challenges we face, I’d identify two. One is always trying to attract and retain the very best talent. That is always a continuing challenge. And secondly, the challenges that have been brought on by the contraction of the Canadian business community, and their consolidation, and the resulting conflicts issues that have arisen — their impact on practice, business development, and so on.
Q. Finally, what advice would you give to young lawyers starting out?
A. I think law is a great profession. A legal education provides one with lots of opportunities. Private practice is one of those great opportunities to work in a sophisticated environment with good lawyers dealing with interesting problems, both nationally and internationally. It’s pretty exciting stuff.