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Managing Partner: MLT riding hot markets in both Alberta and Saskatchewan

|Written By Gail J. Cohen

MacPherson Leslie & Tyerman LLP has been around for about 70 years and is one of the largest law firms in Saskatchewan. About six years ago, the firm expanded into Alberta, opening an office in Calgary and in Edmonton in 2006. The firm now has about 90 lawyers in its four offices in Regina, Saskatoon, Edmonton, and Calgary. Managing partner Donald K. Wilson chats with Canadian Lawyer about operating in four different hot markets and the challenges of staffing and maintaining MLT values.

Q: Are you one of the bigger firms in Saskatchewan?
A: We have a full-time managing partner, which I’ve been in the position of since 2000. The managing partner reports to a seven-member executive committee. The managing partner has a three-year term in that position, and the members of the executive committee also have a three-year term, but there are no limits on the number of terms that either the executive committee members or the managing partner can serve. The executive committee essentially serves like a board of directors.

Q: Are there many other firms that have offices in both Saskatchewan and Alberta?
A: There are none to my knowledge. I’m sure we were the first Saskatchewan firm, and I think the only Saskatchewan firm, to open an office outside of Saskatchewan, to my knowledge. There aren’t any others that have done that.

Q: What are some of the differences in the markets in the four centres and why did you wanted to locate there?
A: That’s a darn good question. We asked ourselves that quite a bit. Certainly Saskatchewan is the market we’ve been in for 70 years or so since the firm was started. We opened the Saskatoon office about 20 or 25 years ago. We opened the Saskatoon office to take advantage of a lot of the resource development in northern Saskatchewan. There’s a lot of uranium and natural resource work up there. That has obviously done well and now we have about the same number of lawyers there as we have in our Regina office. We just felt with that number, probably 70 lawyers, we were probably getting about as big as we could in Saskatchewan. Obviously with Alberta sitting right beside us, many of the types of clients or the sectors in Alberta are very similar to Saskatchewan. They certainly have oil and gas, as we do here. They have a lot of resource work and the people are the same. And quite frankly, a lot of our clients had expanded into Alberta. So we thought, given the proximity of the two provinces, the very hot Alberta marketplace, our connections there through many of our clients who are there . . . we thought it was an opportune time for us to open up a Calgary office and really tap into that resource. We also found that we were able to be quite economic in terms of the rates we could offer to the Alberta marketplace because, frankly, our administrative stuff and our head office effectively are within Saskatchewan. . . . It was a normal evolution, I would say.

Q: How did you fit in to the Alberta market?
A: We have found that certainly the Alberta and Calgary marketplace is extremely robust. Rather than being the big boy on the block, we are obviously a new enterprise there. . . . While it was a natural place for us to evolve and grow because of the similarities, we also as a firm didn’t have the footprint there we had in Saskatchewan. What we found, frankly, is because the economy is so hot there and the demand for legal services so high, many of the very large public companies — the Shell Oils of the world — the large Bennett Jones and such Calgary firms were focused on those and there was a fair segment of folks that were perhaps not that large but were still looking for law firms that could their work — reasonably good, sophisticated, commercial and other work. We’ve been able to tap into that. We don’t purport to compete with the Bennett Jones and the Macleod Dixon and those firms that are after one segment of the market, we’re quite comfortable in the niche that we’ve found. . . . [T]here’s a bit of a void there in the marketplace in terms of the provider of legal services and we, and I’m sure a number of the smaller Calgary firms, have been attractive to those businesses that aren’t as attractive to the large Calgary firms. It’s worked out well; it’s different. It’s taken us a while to get used to the Calgary scene, but we’ve managed and we’ve sent over a lot of partners and people who were part of us in Saskatchewan because it’s important to us to keep the same MLT values wherever we are.

Q: How do you manage the communications between your four offices?
A: It’s very important to us, and we have a tradition that probably sounds hokey, but we really have an MLT way of doing things and a set of values that’s very important to all of us. The only way we would expand is if we ensure that those would remain throughout all of our offices. We do that by a variety of things: we have get-togethers of all of the lawyers annually, we make a point of having social occasions where all of the lawyers and all of the offices get together. We really do that collegiality thing a lot and we go out of our way to do that, even though it can sometimes take up a lot of time in the schedule and it’s not inexpensive to do it. We put a lot of effort into trying to make it so that if any client walks through into our reception area in Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, or Regina, they wouldn’t really know MLT Regina from MLT Edmonton, except perhaps for the size of the office. The attitude and the values they would see would be the same everywhere. If you get too big that’s probably impossible task to achieve, but we still feel with the two provinces and the four cities that we’re able to do that.

Q: How do you manage or apportion clients between offices?
A: We also go out of our way to make sure that wherever the client is that we provide services from whichever office is best able to handle the client’s needs. For example, if the client has tax issues . . . most of our tax capability is in Saskatoon, so we would make sure we provided the best people and resources we had to the Calgary client and those could be provided from Saskatoon by e-mail or any other form of communication, and if that doesn’t work, by getting on a plane. What we say, and we mean it, is that we’ll service any of our clients from any of our offices, depending on what the best resources are for the client.

Q: Tell me what sort of management structure your firm has.
A: A managing partner, who is currently me, for all of the offices. Then we have an executive committee, which is made of group co-ordinators [who co-ordinate our practice groups in each of the cities]. . . . Those co-ordinators of those practice groups then serve on an executive committee. The executive committee is the body the managing partner looks to for guidance and support on management issues. The only other official committee we have is a compensation committee. That is an elected committee that has one member of each practice group. We have a chairman of the firm who is a former managing partner, Rob Pletch. The chairman provides assistance to the managing partner, appearances, and sort of the public persona of the firm, if you will. [That person] is a practising lawyer, but a senior in the wind-down.

Q: What do you feel are some of the greatest challenges and rewards of managing your firm?
A: I think, obviously, seeing the successes of the firm mean a lot to me. When I mean successes, it’s nice if we’re doing well from a financial perspective, but I think the successes are being able to attract and retain top professionals. We have very little migration from our firm. Certainly those we want to have around, we do keep around. We are a very stable group, not only the professional people but the support staff. We’ve had so many people who’ve been here for 35, 40 years in the support staff. The most rewarding is maintaining the traditions of the firm and seeing a place where people get along; they like working together, being together, practising law together, and maintaining those values that were around when I came here 30 years ago.

Q: What are the more challenging aspects of running a firm with four offices?
A: It’s just that. It’s making sure that people still feel part of a common vision and a common enterprise. And that they don’t see themselves as a splinter office. First and foremost, we’re MLT, and then you can add the city location after that. That is the greatest challenge, bringing people together. It’s important that we know each other. When you grow to 42 partners, it’s important to us that we know the spouses of our partners and that we know if they have kids and how many kids and whether they like playing hockey or doing dance. That’s a challenge, again, but it’s a lot of what we are.
The second challenge in this hot market . . . in Alberta and Saskatchewan right now, trying to find everything from receptionists to whatever, let alone the lawyers. It’s a buyer’s market when you’re providing services in these places, whatever it is. Right from the most entry-level person all the way up, it’s hard to keep pace.

Q: When you’re recruiting articling students and young associates, do you focus on your local law schools or do you go beyond the provincial boundaries?
A: We only do formal interviewing in the two provinces that we’re in but we have just a whole bunch of people who went to law schools in different parts of the country. . . . They’re almost always Saskatchewan people who’ve gone out there to law school but want to come back here to live.
Indeed, right now, of all our Saskatchewan professionals — we need to staff up in Calgary and Edmonton — none of our associates or partners is Saskatchewan right now will leave here. We never force anyone to leave, but we could certainly use some more folks in Alberta. There’s obviously been a huge migration of Saskatchewan people to Alberta, but right now I can tell you for a variety of reasons — the cost of living and the lifestyle here — we can’t get them to move other there. . . . It’s interesting now, because when we recruit people it gives us a great deal of flexibility because they may say, ‘You know, I may want to go try Calgary or Edmonton but, gee, I may want to come back.’ And we’ll say, that’s fine, you can article there and if you don’t like living in Calgary, we’ll have a place for you back here. . . . We’ve had some of the associates from some of the bigger firms in Calgary come over to us and simply say the lifestyle wasn’t for them. We’ve done very well by it. This isn’t intended as a criticism of those firms or the people who want to put in that time and have a different set of priorities, but we actually market ourselves to those articling students and associates who maybe want to work hard and do sophisticated work but not quite to the level that might be demanded of them in those other firms. It’s just an alternative; it’s not that one is better than the other.

Q: What are your thoughts about how your firm fits in with the future of Saskatchewan?
A: We’re very fortunate. First off, we’re in what is a burgeoning hot market in Saskatchewan. The beauty of it is that we stay under the radar. Folks for a long time have opened offices in Quebec, B.C., and Alberta . . . we have been under the radar – Saskatchewan isn’t big enough or vibrant enough or doesn’t have a big enough population for the nationals to really be interested. So we in the legal community here, not just our firm but those that have been around for a while and understand the province, generally have been able to do reasonably well. And then when you hit a time as we’re in now where virtually all the commodity markets that make this economy hot, whether it’s the ag sector or hard-rock mining or potash, or oil and gas — all of the commodities are doing very well right now price-wise — and so it’s great for the economy and for those of us who are practising law here. You only stay a secret for so long! The real estate prices in Saskatoon and Regina over the last year have skyrocketed, gone crazy. And a lot of this is particularly Alberta people returning to the province. The strength of the economy is not now going unnoticed. We are having a lot of people come back to the province in all sectors, certainly that’s good for the legal community.

Q: Do you see growth for your firm?
A: Yes, we’ve grown in Saskatchewan. By Ontario and Alberta standards, growth is relative. We’re still only a million people in the province, so there’s only so much you can grow. We’ve certainly grown in Saskatchewan, aside from the growth in Alberta. I think what it is also is not only the amount of legal work but the type of legal work. There’s a lot of commercial activity and good first-class commercial happenings going on in the province, which produces first-class legal opportunities. I think it’s becoming more sophisticated and the province is humming. Things are going well.

Q: Who do you see as your main client base?
A: We have a number of large Saskatchewan-based companies that have been important to us over the years. These are in all sectors, but a lot of natural resource companies, be they mining companies, be they forestry companies, gold companies. We also have clients in the [agriculture] community. When we say the ag community, it sounds like the farmers, but it’s the people who manufacture nitrogen fertilizer, plants that are $700-million plants, but they’re still in the ag sector, big manufacturers of agricultural equipment and whatnot. We have a bunch of the medium-sized business clients in the province that are successful but would not be large by Ontario standards but are home-grown Saskatchewan companies that have been our mainstay for many, many years. . . . We do a lot of labour work where we advise employers, both private sector and government employers. It’s quite an eclectic bunch of clients we have.

Q: In which areas do you see potential future growth for the firm?
A: It’s probably different in Alberta than Saskatchewan, but certainly in Saskatchewan I think there is a huge potential in all the areas I’ve talked about that are booming in the province: the ag sector — things like ethanol and new things that are developing in the ag sector that are just changing and opening every day — and then there’s the whole natural resource sector — potash companies are announcing expansions and with the price of gold and uranium, those industries are doing really well. And then of course, there’s those that service those industries. When those grow, they need more equipment, equipment dealers expand, and those people need to drive cars, so the local car dealers and that trickle down. The natural resources and the ag sector in Saskatchewan are the two huge growth areas. Obviously in Alberta, the oil patch is not everything, but it controls it (and we really don’t do any oil and gas work there at all) and the strength of the oil and gas industry is what drives other industries, everything from commercial real estate to service industries are largely driven off the strength of the oil patch.

Q: So the future looks bright in Saskatchewan?
A: We are pretty optimistic. We feel fortunate to be here, we feel fortunate to have expanded into Alberta years ago. Nothing lasts forever, but we’re quite pleased with where we sit right now. If I were a young lawyer, I would certainly think that there were worse places to be than coming to us. The future looks pretty solid!