How one of Stikeman Elliott's newest partners approaches life, law and mentorship
Coming aboard Stikeman Elliott LLP, Kevin Ackhurst knew exactly what he was getting into. Throughout his career, he’s worked on a number of transformative deals “and a good number of the most interesting files involved Stikeman Elliott on the other side.”
From the AOL/Time Warner merger; to Inco’s planned merger with Falconbridge where Vale, represented by Stikeman Elliott, came in to ultimately acquire Inco; to Nortel selling off their various businesses with Stikeman Elliott acting for a number of the potential buyers, “I've worked opposite their talented competition team for years, and respect the work they do and how they do it,” Ackhurst says.
“It's a fantastic firm, full of driven and passionate people doing excellent and complex work, and joining their ranks is a career milestone for me,” Ackhurst says. “They have a great pipeline of merger work given the strength of their M&A practice and very deep relationships with foreign firms — and when your bread and butter is working on merger clearances, having those mergers to work on is super critical.”
Ackhurst wasn’t always on track to practice competition law at one of Canada’s foremost business law firms: coming out of law school, he was more interested in communications law. But after expressing a broad interest in federal regulatory work at the firm he was articling with, a senior associate told him there’d be some work coming out of a little deal they were working on — the Royal Bank/Bank of Montreal merger.
“That was my introduction to competition law and I was hooked,” Ackhurst says. “It was a steep learning curve, but ever since the majority of my practice has focused on securing merger clearances under the Competition Act and Investment Canada Act.”
Once his sights were set on competition law, Ackhurst jumped in with both feet. He got involved in the CBA Competition Law and Foreign Investment Review section, serving as vice-chair and Chair of both the mergers committee and the foreign investment review committee, collaborating on policy issues with counterparts at other firms and government officials. Being aware of bigger picture issues translates to the ability to provide better advice to clients, Ackhurst says, because in order to effectively advocate for them — and in order to explain to government officials the impact of a particular transaction and why the deal won’t lessen competition (for the CA) and will be of net benefit to Canada (for ICA) — you have to master how the client’s business works, including where they fit into their industry, who their competitors are and what their strategy is, all against the backdrop of the larger policy environment.
“The legal tests to clear deals are complex, and I use my experience and judgment to help translate what the government is looking for because there’s not always 100% alignment between what’s being asked for and what they really want to know,” Ackhurst says. “It’s important to give practical advice in industry-speak for the client, and ideally lessen their burden in collecting the information.”
Over his 20 year career, Ackhurst has had a hand in a lot of interesting work, including his involvement in Nortel’s sale of its wireless business to Ericsson, the first deal to undergo formal review under the Investment Canada Act’s national security review provisions. Fleshing out the boundaries of the vaguely worded “injurious to Canada’s national security” test was exciting, and while people in the industry were trying to push the bounds of what it meant “we [together with buyer’s counsel] were able to keep the agency narrowly focused on national security and not national interest, and got that deal through.”
Through his involvement with the CBA, Ackhurst had some input on the government’s draft guidelines, which continue to be an area of focus on the Investment Canada side. First issued in 2016 to help interpret national security provisions, the guidelines were recently amended to add to the list of industries which could give rise to concerns. It’s an area where clients strive for deal certainty, but due to the opaque nature of the national security analysis it’s hard to provide that certainty, Ackhurst notes. Again, he says, it’s all about using your experience — and the limited disclosure the government provides in their annual reports — to interpret the grey areas.
In another career highlight, Ackhurst had the chance to work on competition policy matters in the International Affairs branch of the Competition Bureau, where at the time an international organization of competition authorities was just getting off the ground. One of the reasons behind the new International Competition Network was a number of significant multi-jurisdictional mergers where the United States and the European Union came to different conclusions. There was a desire to work together to develop best practices and accomplish what they called “soft convergence” by taking similar approaches based on objective measures.
Though as a lawyer he naturally has “a certain amount of competitiveness and the drive to achieve the right results for clients,” it’s important to be mindful of your reputation and your firm's reputation, Ackhurst says, adding “deals come and go, but your reputation with the regulator lasts forever.”
“You can’t cry wolf, treat everything as an outrage or make outlandish arguments and expect to be taken seriously,” he says. “Civility and treating all parties with respect is important.”
With the benefit of experience, Ackhurst often advises junior lawyers to be mindful of that critical bigger picture, pick their battles and “don't be a jerk — kindness costs you nothing.” Sharing the keys to his success with the next generation of lawyers is a priority for Ackhurst, as it’s something he’s benefited greatly from. The realization he’s been practicing as long or longer than the partners who trained him in his early days “drives home the importance of offering that kind of mentorship” to his new associates at Stikeman Elliott.
Beyond giving junior lawyers the comfort of knowing they're not supposed to have all the answers right off the bat, Ackhurst’s overall approach to mentoring once again ties back to that big picture. Before sending anybody off to do discrete tasks, Ackhurst finds it improves morale and boosts team-building if they understand what the team is trying to accomplish, how their role fits into the transaction and why it matters in getting the deal approved. He also stresses the importance of a life outside of work: it makes you a more well-rounded person, and that makes you a better lawyer, he says, because although clients are interested in your technical expertise “it's also important to be able to have a conversation with them about life outside the law.”
Over the last decade, Ackhurst has rarely seen the sun set from his office because — barring time-sensitive matters — he makes a point of being home to have dinner with his family, turning back to his work in the evening hours. If working remotely throughout the pandemic taught us anything — other than forcing everybody to confront the fact that lawyers are actual people with lives that include pets, kids, partners and interesting wallpaper and office decorating choices, Ackhurst notes — it’s shown that it doesn't matter where or when you work. If you’re driven to succeed, as most lawyers are, you’ll meet your deadlines, he says.
Switching firms in the middle of a pandemic has been a unique experience, and while his immediate goal is to actually see his new office, when he once again takes a step back to consider the bigger picture, Ackhurst is most looking forward to contributing to the continued success of the team and helping to mentor a great group of associates.
“You can do a lot of things virtually, but you can’t do it all — I’m ultimately really looking forward to getting into the office and sitting around the table with my new colleagues.”
This article was produced in partnership with Stikeman Elliott LLP.