Practice, prepare, perform, repeat: Stikeman Elliott's Allison Kuntz

Kuntz is constantly fine-tuning her symphony of skills

Practice, prepare, perform, repeat: Stikeman Elliott's Allison Kuntz
Allison Kuntz, partner in Stikeman Elliott's Litigation & Dispute Resolution Group.

This article was produced in partnership with Stikeman Elliott LLP.

Growing up and throughout her undergrad, Allison Kuntz was a clarinet player — the instrument of champions, she notes — and spent much of her time practicing and playing in orchestras. Eventually she realized she wouldn't pursue music professionally, but the question remained as to what shed do instead.

Kuntz decided to go to law school because she “had this idea that being a litigator and going to court would have parallels to what I enjoyed about music — practicing and ultimately all of your work coming together in a performance of some sort.” In the end, those parallels bore out.

"The principles of preparation and sharing that work with any one of the different players in litigation — clients, opposing counsel, courts or arbitrators — reminds me of why I was first attracted to this career,” Kuntz says. “You practice, prepare and perform.”

Being further down the road in her career, Kuntz is also pulled to her practice because it’s constantly challenging and stimulating — you can't get around that even on the days you want to, she notes — and she’s had the opportunity to work on a wide range of litigation. She spent her first six years practicing in Toronto where large class actions, pharmaceuticals, some cross-border insolvency, D&O liability and oppression actions stand out as the big themes, then made the move to Alberta 11 years ago where oil and gas in the context of joint ventures and audit rights joined the rotation. Over the years Kuntz has also done an increasing amount of arbitration in oil and gas, technology, leases and other contractual disputes.

“It’s the constant expansion of the skillset that I find really rewarding and continues to draw me to the practice,” Kuntz says.

From law school to starting her practice and beyond, Kuntz is always struck by the fact the profession is filled with so many smart, interesting and generous people. Looking back at the time people have given to help her improve her skills, get through a stressful moment of practice or understand for the hundredth time a component of their business that they know really well, “it’s incredible the effort people put into each other in such a competitive profession,” she says, adding it’s a tough job but those connections are what makes everything else manageable.

One example of this was a case Kuntz was involved in where the arbitration clause included an appeal provision. The original decision was overturned and Kuntz went to the court to argue that wasn't proper because the appeal panel decided it on the basis of fairness and not the law. It was under the International Commercial Arbitration Act and there wasn’t much precedent — “We had an Egyptian case and a German case,” Kuntz recalls — and although they weren’t successful, it created quite a stir in the arbitration world.

“Many people reached out to discuss the case, and I found that rewarding,” Kuntz says. “It truly is a bar that’s engaged and interested in how the law is developing and the people who are advancing the cases.”

Kuntz counts “many great years of working with bright, committed people who it's been a pleasure to go through the files with,” and that now includes the group she’s getting to know at Stikeman Elliott LLP, where she recently came aboard as partner in the Litigation & Dispute Resolution Group in Calgary. The firm’s premier reputation in the market as a global leader in business law attracts premier litigators and premier litigation files, drawing work from across Canada and around the globe, and Kuntz jumped at the chance to join an all-star team. Starting at a new firm in a new market is invigorating, because “change causes you to step up and be better by virtue of the fact you're exposed to new people and issues.”

Kuntz admires Stikeman Elliott’s style and how the firm presents its method for dealing with litigation: they zero in on the business reality for the client and use that to manage the litigation. It’s not just winning or losing from the lawyers’ perspective, it’s about how the wins, losses and settlements impact what clients can do in their business and how they’re able to move forward — and that’s the ultimate focus of taking the client through the case and resolving it.

This approach aligns with Kuntz’s, who notes that litigation takes up significant time, finances and mental energy. First and foremost, she strives to instil in clients the confidence that they have someone in their corner who understands the issues and how it impacts their business, is well-equipped to help move them forward and is ultimately looking out for their best interests “even when that means hearing something from me they don't want to hear,” Kuntz says.

“My goal is to provide clients with sound advice and confident direction in respect of how to manage their disputes in the context of their business needs. I enjoy building a trusting relationship with clients, which I believe allows me to convey difficult advice effectively.” 

But no matter the calibre of the firm or the files, you can’t enjoy doing the work if you’re not dealing with people you enjoy working with. Kuntz is all about team work and team spirit, and she finds that same ethos in Stikeman Elliott’s value statement, which reads in part that the firm believes in the “unceasing, uncompromising pursuit of professional excellence … diversity and individual initiatives that promote the overall interest of the team … respect, dignity and fairness” and that it “thrives on the spirit of adventure.” 

Kuntz sees those values in action around her, as the lawyers at Stikeman Elliott have “already made it clear to me that we can work on these amazing files for great clients while enjoying ourselves — and I think that’s very important.”

When it comes to what Kuntz brings to the table, as her background both in music and law will tell you, there’s no substitute for digging into the work. While that might look different as you progress in your career, such as building on the more granular work from juniors as you rise in seniority, no matter how senior you get you have to know the case.

“As a partner, the buck stops with you — you have to ask as much of yourself as you do your associates,” Kuntz says. “You’re all in it together and as the leader of a file, it’s really important to be involved in the details and not just rely on information from others to argue and understand the case.”

Another responsibility as a senior lawyer is taking the time to make sure juniors are receiving the input they need in order to develop and enhance their skills, which includes sitting down with them and giving them tough feedback. Kuntz says she’s certainly been on the receiving end of a lot of that in her years of practice, and not only is she thankful for it but she still actively seeks it out from clients and more senior partners. She’s notorious for using her own tough learnings for what she jokingly refers to as her “tips-of-the-day,” and also provides real-time feedback “frequently and informally over the course of any mandate while the experience is fresh and on-going.”

“I try — and hope — to give feedback in a positive manner and with the express intention of trying to build an associates confidence in their skills,” Kuntz says. "I also allow team members to ‘convince me otherwise’ when we have differences of opinion on how something should progress. I think sitting back and considering how I could be wrong or do better, versus why I’m right results in the team considering all angles — and therefore a better result for the client.”

Armed with her best practices — dig in, do the work to understand the case on all levels and make connections with your team — Kuntz’s first order of business is to fully integrate herself into Stikeman Elliott by advancing the firm’s key values and being as generous with her time as others have been with theirs throughout her career.

“There is no archetype for a successful lawyer as far as school, firm or background — recall I have an undergrad in clarinet performance,” she laughs. “As I come aboard Stikeman Elliott, I aim to understand their business and contribute to that in the best way I know how: providing excellent legal services and being a great team member.”

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