Embracing the future while preserving storied history top of mind for Andrew Penhale

'Perfect blend' of technology and personal service key, says RSS managing partner and CEO

Embracing the future while preserving storied history top of mind for Andrew Penhale
Andrew Penhale, managing partner and CEO of RSS

This article was produced in partnership with Robinson Sheppard Shapiro LLP

Mallory Hendry of Canadian Lawyer sat down with Andrew Penhale, managing partner and CEO of RSS, to discuss his plans for the future of the firm.

When Andrew Penhale was appointed managing partner and chief executive officer of Robinson Sheppard Shapiro LLP, in many ways it was like coming home. Penhale’s legal career was born at RSS, where he first came aboard as a lawyer with less than a year’s experience and worked his way up to partner before leaving the firm, 10 years later, to take on new projects. But when he found out RSS was looking for a managing partner, he “jumped on the occasion.”

“I was proud to take on the role because this is where I grew as a lawyer,” Penhale says. “Now I’m part of the team that’s playing an important role in Robinson Sheppard Shapiro’s future by shaping the way we’ll practice law over the next 10-15 years.”

Penhale took up his post on Jan. 1, 2020, aiming to tackle critical aspects of the business such as greater social responsibility, an enhanced service proposal and ramped-up succession planning. He was drafting his report for the management committee when COVID-19 arrived and “pretty much everything I was doing went out the door.”

“It was a good deal of learning on the job from that point on,” Penhale says. “I leaned on the collective expertise of management – some of whom have been with the firm for 20 years – to see us through.”

From the short-term goal of keeping everybody onboard to a focus now on finetuning the processes that were put in place when the firm went remote overnight, the team walked through the fire of the immediate crisis and Penhale resumed his mission to weave together long-standing and much revered traditions with the trappings of a modern firm. The goal is to gain efficiencies and strengthen the firm’s presence in the market, but in a way that works with RSS’ existing principles – and that’s the most difficult part of planning for the future, Penhale notes.

“We need to review our operating style, embrace a new way of working that’s the perfect blend of technology and personal service and fine-tune our vision and values,” he says of his mandate.

Much of the firm’s success is tied to the fact that its members are essentially a big family, and it’s important to the workplace culture that it continues to operate that way. Onboarding new lawyers over the period of remote work was difficult and Penhale found a hybrid work policy fit the need to accommodate expectations of flexibility while also preserving the collegiality that’s at the core of RSS’ identity. While it wasn’t necessarily front and centre before the pandemic, they’re now heavily investing in enhanced work-life balance through wellness and self-awareness because “that’s what the firm is all about: we’re not just in the business to help lawyers develop professionally but want them to develop personally too,” Penhale says.

Looking towards the future, Penhale has turned his attention to service expansion through existing expertise. For example, a few years ago the firm realized there was an area of opportunity in trust wills and estates, and lawyers from both the business group and the family law group came together as a subgroup to meet that need.

“It is precisely these types of business opportunities we want to seize in the coming months,” Penhale notes.

RSS is also emphasizing its service offerings in areas that are unknown or too little known to clients. From class action defence to defamation and media law to professional liability, Penhale is shining a spotlight on the firm’s capabilities while ramping up growth within its four walls. Fostering expansion from the inside out is a hallmark of RSS as unlike other firms with lengthy histories, it isn’t the product of several mergers: it grew from within, evolving into a leading firm made up of exceptional people driven by common passions.

The firm’s recent 100th anniversary – along with the events of the last few years – gave occasion to pause and appreciate the core principles that still guide RSS today, including its long-standing commitment to promoting a culture of diversity, equity and inclusion. The firm’s dedication to bias-free hiring culminates in impressive statistics: 40% of decision-making positions at RSS are held by women, and the firm’s members speak over 15 different languages. This open-mindedness is something Penhale continues to foster as a key tenant of the firm’s success.

Joining social and philanthropic organizations has also been a core value of RSS from the start, with the RSS Foundation in place to support the local community. Penhale celebrated the firm’s centenary by making a significant donation – above and beyond the regular annual donations to various organizations – to La Fondation des Camps Odyssée in recognition of its efforts to provide underprivileged children with the benefits of a camp experience such as autonomy, self-esteem and leadership skills. The mentality at the office is to assist each other and those in need, and as people who are lucky in life Penhale says it’s natural to want to pay it forward.

“RSS without all of its history is not RSS today – it’s just another law firm,” he says. “To us it’s normal to give back, and our deep roots in the local community are part of the advantage of working here.”

The recruitment process also reflects how important it is to young lawyers that the firm they work for take social responsibility seriously. Knowing what the next generation expects is critically important to business objectives, because Penhale’s top priority heading into his second term as CEO – other than planning a party to properly celebrate the firm’s 100th anniversary now that COVID restrictions have eased – is talent retention. From improving training and mentoring programs so they evolve with the lawyers’ specific needs and goals to putting in place a strong knowledge transfer program to solidify succession planning, Penhale is emphasizing the changes he’s making that “show our lawyers we are investing in them and in the future.”

“We will continue to embody the spirit of our founding partners, but the world does change ­– and changing along with it isn’t always easy,” he says. “But like all big families, at the end of the day we’re happy to be together: that’s the culture at RSS.”

In addition to managing the firm, especially the team of professionals, Andrew Penhale is in charge of implementing our strategy, preserving our standards and presence on the Quebec market and supporting our initiatives with national and international clients. Recognized by his peers for his leadership, his capacity to foster unity and his acute business acumen, Andrew has extensive knowledge of legal mechanisms, having been a litigator with our Insurance Law Group for several years. His practice was then focused on malpractice cases involving advocates and notaries, but also included cases reflecting the variety of insurance cases. Andrew left the firm for five years, to head the Claims Department of the Professional Liability Insurance Fund of the Barreau du Québec. Cases handled by the Fund under his direction have contributed to shaping the responsibility of professionals in Quebec as we know it today. Back with the firm, drawing from his experience with the management of the Fund’s team of professionals as well as his business administration education, Andrew became our Chief Executive Officer in 2020.

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