Having an ambition to be a professor of Greek and Latin literature in my younger years, I never dreamed I’d find myself being the managing partner of a national Canadian law firm — never mind one that’s now truly global and part of the fifth largest in the world. But after many years practising employment and labour law and almost 30 wonderful years with my firm, that’s where I am today. And I couldn’t be happier.
In the course of just over six months, our firm has completed two major mergers. The first was with international legal practice Norton Rose Group and the second with Calgary-based energy powerhouse Macleod Dixon. Needless to say, it’s been a very exciting time for us as we move in a new and fundamentally different direction for law firms in Canada.
First meetings with future partners
It was in my early practice of employment and labour law that I developed my love for the people side of our business. I learned a lot about it and this has helped me immensely in my role as managing partner. That’s what the job is all about in my view: the people. When I met my then-future partners, Peter Martyr and Bill Tuer, it became immediately clear that our firms shared a common vision and culture on this.
I met Peter, the group chief executive of Norton Rose Group, at a managing partner’s conference in London in 2009. A major topic at the event was how firms are dealing with the global economic downturn. Peter presented on how Norton Rose Group had launched a Flex program that year to avoid layoffs. Working hours were shared among employees — 97 per cent of London employees supported the initiative — and no layoffs were made. This really impressed me and showed how much the Group values its people. Peter and I talked after the meeting and it quickly became clear that our firms had a great deal in common. This led to more meetings with more of our people and then to negotiations of how our two firms would join forces.
Bill and I knew each other for many years and so did our firms. We had a great deal of respect for each other. Bill became managing partner of Macleod Dixon in 2000. Before Ogilvy Renault joined Norton Rose Group, we had talked about a possible merger between Ogilvy and Macleod, but the timing and our situations weren’t right at that point. After the announcement, however, things were much better suited to teaming up. Bill and I talked and then started working on the merger to create Norton Rose Canada. We negotiated through the summer and announced it on Oct. 4, 2011. It became official Jan. 1, 2012.
Both of these moves were driven by our clients. Many have become increasingly international or plan to be soon. We knew we needed to follow them into the new markets they’re operating in — as well as in the industries that are driving growth in Canada and the world. Our clients have been very supportive and many have told us they are happy we will be able to assist them with inbound and outbound transactions — especially with Asian, Latin American, and other key global markets.
Transformational trends for Canadian law firms
This continues to be a transformational time for law firms in Canada and around the world. When I started as managing partner in June 2009, the leadership at the firm knew what our global challenges were. We needed more than just a global perspective, we needed to have a truly global reach. Our clients have felt the intense changes that globalization has brought for decades. Canadian law firms have, too, but we’ve really seen it hit a breaking point recently. Many companies’ legal spend is larger outside of Canada than it is within our borders. Clients need access to legal services wherever they do business.
A global reach is important for inbound investment, too. Canada is more attractive than ever as a place to invest, particularly in the western Canadian energy sector. And there should also be more investments into the country as the Canadian government continues to strike, negotiate, and seek free trade agreements with key and growing international markets.
The shifting global economic balance is also reshaping what it means to be a law firm in Canada today. As Asia continues to strengthen, the pull to the East for our clients will only grow. Russia and Kazakhstan are increasingly influential economies. Greater north-south ties will be developed with Latin America as the diverse region keeps expanding. Realizing the tremendous potential of Africa has only begun. This adds to the many new economies our clients are and will be operating in — countries with distinct languages, cultures, regulations, and ways of doing business. For these clients, Canadian law firms will need on-the-ground expertise to help them succeed.
Canadian law firms also need to improve the way we operate as businesses. Technology has changed a great deal and is helping drive new levels of client service and profitability. Knowledge management is very important for success as well. Right now, U.K. and U.S. firms are far ahead of Canada in these areas and we need to catch up to compete. From my point of view, this shows why having a larger international platform to invest in is a great benefit.
The future of legal markets
I think going global represents the biggest shift the Canadian legal profession has ever seen from a business perspective. The scope of the change and new opportunities it can provide are just so massive. But it’s of course not the first fundamental shift we’ve been through. It’s another part of the evolution for Canadian law firms. When firms were allowed to go national in the 1980s and 1990s, that changed the market completely, and the effects are still being felt.
From my perspective, there is room for firms of all sizes in Canada. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. But firms need to decide where they will focus given the rapid pace of economic change. For us, joining a global practice was the best way to continue to grow with our clients and help them succeed in Canada and abroad. And I think there will be more mergers between Canadian and international law firms because clients will continue to ask for seamless access to legal advice around the world. On a global level, I see 20 or so leading international law firms and Norton Rose Group being in the top five.
The world’s new respect for Canada
In February 2011, I was at a partner’s conference in South Africa in our Cape Town office. One of our U.K. partners said how impressed he was that our Canadian, U.K., and Australian offices were already doing work together for a mining company so soon after our announcement that we’d join forces. It was a brief conversation, but this crystallized to me why Ogilvy Renault was joining Norton Rose, why we fit together, and why the timing was right.
It’s been an incredible experience as managing partner of Ogilvy Renault, then Norton Rose OR, and now Norton Rose Canada over the past two and a half years. I’ve had the privilege of meeting my counterparts around the world. And one thing that’s really struck me is the new level of respect and attention that people have for Canada. It’s genuine and one of the most rewarding aspects of leading and being part of a law firm in Canada today. The way our financial institutions weathered the global financial crisis set a new benchmark for excellence in the sector. The strength and resilience of our economy relative to others stands out in the world. People think highly of the soundness of our federal finances compared to the debt crises in Europe and the U.S. The enormous potential of our western Canadian energy sector and the economic growth it generates is envied by the world.
Today’s opportunities and a very promising future make this a point in time I feel privileged to be a part of.
John Coleman was appointed managing partner of Norton Rose Canada (then Ogilvy Renault) in June 2009. A senior partner, he has been with the firm for almost 30 years focusing his practice on employment and labour law.