Based in Montreal, Guy Tremblay is national co-managing partner of Heenan Blaikie. At 62, Tremblay has been practising law for 37 years and has seen a lot of change. He talks about managing a firm of 480 lawyers and the value it places on creative individuals, part of what has made the firm one of Canadian Business magazine’s Top 50 Best Places to Work in Canada.
Tragically! My predecessor got terminal cancer. There was a meeting of our executive at the time. They said: ‘look we need a temporary solution. He has decided to step down, and dedicate . . . the last year of his life . . . to his health.’
The firm in Toronto was big enough to adopt a temporary structure where Norm Bacal [also national co-managing partner of Heenan Blaikie] and myself would share the responsibility [of managing the firm]. And it was temporary. It happened in July ’97 and they said at our partners meeting, ‘in September, we will review first of all, the choice of you guys, and we will review the structure, is it going to be two managing partners.’
In September they met and said, ‘it’s going fine. The structure is permanent and so are you guys.’ Simple as that. It was not a planned thing but it came in that context. For sure it has evolved. Now, whoever will replace me, or Norm in Toronto, will have their mandates restricted to two mandates of five years. When we made those rules, I was grandfathered. But I was reappointed by the partners in January  for another term. So stretched to the limit, I could hold this position for 16 years, which is a lot! So I could be there until Dec. 31, 2013.
What do you feel are the greatest challenges in your position?
The greatest challenge. It’s a people business so the biggest challenge, and we always try to focus on that, is to make it a livable environment for our lawyers. It is a value for us to create an environment where people will feel happy to come to work. As you know, we took a lot of pride of being selected in 2007 as one of the 50 Best Places to Work in Canada by Canadian Business magazine. That reward comes with value and they are not spontaneous values. They have to be durable: have been there for a long time and sustained always. So it’s a challenge to create that environment because what it underlies is that resources are quite scarce and to retain our people with the new trends going on is more and more of a challenge.
The new generation [doesn’t] necessarily in law firms [take] the path the older people have taken. It’s not to say they are deprived of passion, it’s not that at all, but we have to set the perfect framework to make that passion blossom. We need to accommodate. In my days, the ratio of women and men in my profession was not even 1:10. Now those dynamics have completely shifted. [W]e have to deal with and try to accommodate the work-life balance. We’re addressing it.
It’s purely a matter of attitude and how you deal with the issue. If you come at it with a bias and you see it as an onus or if you see it as an embarrassment that you have to deal with, that’s the key for failure. But if you come at with it that people are valuable and they have these concerns, you can find solutions . . . which we do. There’s also the other side of it: the clients. How do you serve them? The RFPs . . . as soon as a client comes to the conclusion that the services they’re requiring from an outside consultant reach a certain amount of money in a year, I’ll say $500,000, and it is recurrent, he is going to bring it into the commodity chapter and he is going to say ‘what price could I have for this sizeable amount that I’m throwing to the consultant and that is recurring? So give me a price.’
It has become a climate of competition. Clients are smart. They come with very sophisticated RFPs and they ask a law firm to play against each other. We were not used to that 20 years ago. I remember the first that went that were the accountants and they survived and we will too.
What are the greatest rewards?
The biggest reward could be the money we make, but money is so funny a value. It’s the people that feel at home, that feel it’s a great environment, that are happy to work here, and that we have a name that attracts people and makes them want to come and work here . . . You know a great place, a great name, a good reputation, a good corporate citizen. . . . It’s a great reward to see that.
There’s always tensions, we’re lawyers after all. But there’s always a way through, a solution. . . . They’re very bright, they’re very smart but sometimes they come with big egos. It’s the nature of the beast. I won’t fight that. But they’re great people. Lawyers are very motivating.
What would you say are your firm’s strongest areas of practice, what are you best known for?
I would say that we have a balance of service. We’re very well known in labour and employment across the country. We have, I think, 110 lawyers strictly that practise labour and employment, Charter, pay equity, pension funds, and so on.
We have a large litigation group that counts for about another third of the firm, and we have a commercial/securities/tax/M&A practice, what we call corporate financing. Sure, living what we’re living now, we’re not as severely hit as other firms may be if their business model is strictly transactional.
I can tell you the labour and employment sector is very busy, our litigation sector is very busy, and our corporate sector feels the pinch as anyone who’s working in that sector. But because we are [a] mid-cap and low-cap business and many of [our clients] are in the private sector, we don’t feel it as much.
What do you think makes Heenan Blaikie one of the best places to work?
I think we have values of collegiality, we have values of entrepreneurship, we value always that making sure that wherever it comes from — it could be a young associate, a young partner, an older partner, a non-equity partner — it’s never top down.
If you have a good idea and it makes sense, we will develop it, we will push for it. So really what makes us partners is that creativity is always valued. People say because you don’t put money as the first value that that means that you’re not in the game. That’s not true. People live well here, make a good living.
Our prime value is not to be the law firm that pays the most in the country. Some may have that value, it is not us. And if you have a value like that, you will agree with me that it comes with some sets of problems. But we have other values, people will feel more appreciated, more accepted for what they are: lawyers with good talent, good values. That if ever they have an idea they can put it forward and it won’t just be pushed away because it didn’t come from a committee or people with grey hair or from the chairman or one of the managing partners. They feel that they’re part of the deal.
How does your firm recognize and nurture talent in young lawyers?
I would say that after two years, then you’ll have a good idea of how the lawyer is performing. Sometimes crucial decisions are taken at that time and sometimes it’s for the good of the young associate whose future will probably not be in private practice. Once we have recognized the talent, and we have a lot, the way to retain them with all the other things I’ve said about the environment is to have a good platform. They are intelligent people who want to do intelligent work, and want to do interesting work.
This is how you always feed their appetite. Because work and what they’re doing as a professional will define them in life, will reveal them. If they’re good, they’ll create a network, the network will increase the confidence they have in themselves, they’ll attract people that will give them the mandates.
This year what we have done if they have reached a certain level here in Montreal (and in Toronto it’s a little more integrated), I’ve offered a coaching program. The program was tailor-made for our group here. We took  associates above five years and we have a program that has common phases, where the coach will meet them collectively . . . to make them understand who they are; what are their strengths; if they have any weaknesses, where are they; what do they really need; how could they work on it. Because there’s always a rule of thumb that you can invest a lot of time in your weakness but sometimes there’s nothing to do [about it].
But taking the same amount of time to work on your strengths can make you a way better professional. There is a part that is purely individual because they are not alike. The idea is to make them come with something that is very simple . . . I would call it an action plan: what do you want to do as a professional in the next three years . . . and how are you going to implement it. This is how you separate the kids from the grown-ups.
It’s not for everybody for the moment because we cannot, in a firm of our size, send everyone per year to that. But it is a recurrent program. They all liked it. When a young partner or associate is retained to go to that program, it means we trust them. We trust their talent. We have recognized that he’s a professional of the future in the firm.
There are some large multinational firms that have decided to cut the number of key clients they serve. In these tough economic times, would your firm have any plans to do that?
We have to take, sometimes, some decisions in some sectors. It’s not to say that we want to get rid of a client to focus more on another but choosing to represent a client sometimes means that we cannot represent others. Sometimes we have to be strategic about who we want to target and who we want to serve and, yes, we’re doing that. And it’s by necessity sometimes.
It’s a competitive world out there and you cannot sometimes, as we say, serve two masters. If you go with one, it means you’re not putting yourself in a position to serve another. There are countless examples in the food, bio-pharma, transport, whatever type of example that forces you to do that.
Has there been pressure from corporate clients to create or negotiate custom billing arrangements?
Sure, clients have approached us and are telling us, ‘here is the work we would like you to do; here is how we would like to see it manned; here is what we’re prepared to pay for lawyers over 20 years call to the bar; and we don’t want to see them spending more than five or 10 per cent of the time.
Staff it how you want, but here is the model.’ Or, ‘staff it the way you want, blend it the way you want, but you need to come to a blended rate that would be within a threshold.’ Some would say that ‘for that type of particular work, we want a bid, and you’re going to live with the bid you have given us.’ Some are going to come with ‘there’s an element of risk, price your quote on the type of work you’re going to be doing to reflect the fact that the transaction that we’re asking you to be involved in with may never proceed. So if we’re going to lose everything, what kind of effort are you prepared to do and what kind of premium do you want to negotiate?’
But I would tell you that being said, overall the hourly rate is still the prevailing formula on how we are billing our clients. Because to go into what I’m talking about comes from large institutions and they know what they’re talking about.
We’re interfacing with a lawyer on the other side who probably comes from a large law firm so they know the business. You cannot fool them, they’re too sophisticated. They just want a win-win arrangement.
In many other cases the clients are in desperate need of lawyers and the only formula we have are hourly rates, which sometimes we negotiate. I’ve seen stats that said [custom billing arrangements] didn’t account for more than 10 per cent in the practice’s billing. To move it under 50 per cent is going to take a while.
Heenan Blaikie has some high profile people in the firm such as former prime minister Jean Chrétien and recently retired SCC justice Michel Bastarache. What role do they play in the firm’s culture?
We have high-profile people since quite a while. As you know we had Mr. [Pierre] Trudeau, he joined us in 1984 until 2000. And we had also Don Johnston, he used to be a founding partner. The name of the firm when I joined was called Johnston Heenan Blaikie and Don Johnston left the firm in 1978 to be a minister in Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet and he came back and joined us. We have Pierre Marc Johnson, we have Mr. Chrétien.
First of all, they have a tremendous network. These people who have been at a level on the Canadian scene, and even internationally, come with a network and tremendous expertise of decisions that have been taken at a very high level. They come with that bag of expertise to the firm. It is very good for the firm. They are very well liked and appreciated.
I’ll give you an example. When Mr. Chrétien joined us, we were toying with the idea of doing work more and more internationally, but how do you make it work. You have to sit down and say ‘look, we have a tremendous asset with Mr. Chrétien who was perceived as a king in Africa. He has a great name there.
How are we going to make sure that we seize on that opportunity? It makes the ball roll. It creates interest. People want to be part of that. It creates opportunity. People definitely see that as a plus, they’re proud to say that we belong to the firm that mister and mister so and so are.
So we have M. Bastarache, former Supreme Court of Canada justice that we hired. We have in Toronto John Morden, who used to be the associate chief justice of the Court of Appeal. We have justice René Dussault, who used to be a judge of the Court of Appeal of Quebec. It’s a two-way street. They bring credibility because we have credibility. People like the names I’ve just given you could land anywhere they want.
What advice would you give to young lawyers starting out?
[Laughs] Hey that’s a tough one! It’s a tremendous environment in [to] which they’re coming. We always have the tendency to look in the [rear-view] mirror and say ‘look, it was so nice before.’ But the reality of globalization is there. The more we look at our practice, there’s no frontiers. Law is being customized. Even though we’re going through hiccups and a bumpy road, it’s a tremendous century into which we are going. If they are at the beginning, they should look at that.
It’s very exciting, it’s very optimistic. Just be patient and trust that it’s a good world. There’s tremendous opportunity if they see the world as their home. That’s the way I would look at it; a message of hope, of being patient. That’s what I would tell them. There’s a lot of dark clouds out there but it doesn’t mean it’s going to rain on your place. There are also a lot of sunny skies.
Because I’m 62 and I’ve been doing this for 37 years, I look what my area of practice, the size of law firm what it was. I mean 20 lawyers was a big firm in those days. And what it is today. And where are we called to do work — it’s abroad. Be patient, hope, [have] fun. Open their eyes. Look what’s going [on].