Profile: What they don’t teach in law school

Profile: What they don’t teach in law school

Overseeing a large in-house legal team of 40 that continues to expand is a big job. But First Canadian Title president and COO Patrick Chetcuti says he works a “normal” business day and says employee satisfaction is a paramount goal.

 

"Imagine the reaction when we hire lawyers and tell them they won’t have offices,” says Patrick Chetcuti, who oversees a large and ever-growing group of staff lawyers at First Canadian Title. The reaction typically involves a certain degree of concern. What about confidentiality? How are lawyers supposed to function without a private space they can call their own?

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Such worries tend to disappear quickly, says Chetcuti, once the new hires settle into First Canadian’s newfangled building in Oakville, Ont. No one in this place — not even Chetcuti, who is president and chief operating officer — has an office. Instead, people use workstations. It basically means you go in and find a station to work at, and it might be a different one every day.


“We have a unique building,” Chetcuti explains. “It’s an office building with no offices. And considering the number of lawyers we employ, it’s remarkable.”


He recalls how the workstation idea took hold. “Many times we’d be looking for meeting space, and we couldn’t find it. We’d walk around the building and see all these empty offices. They were empty because people were out doing what they were supposed to be doing. So when we built our new building, we made workstations.”


All of them have access to natural light, he adds. “It’s very bright. People walk in and they say there’s something unique about the place. It actually vibrates with activity.”


Chetcuti has been presiding over a remarkable expansion at First Canadian Title, leading to an extraordinarily large in-house legal team — some 40 lawyers all told, including staff and contact positions. And the ranks continue to grow. “The numbers are growing so quickly because we have grown quickly over the last 10 years,” Chetcuti explains.


This growth seemingly came out of nowhere, and the basic reason is that title insurance came out of nowhere — it didn’t exist in Canada prior to 1992. Now it’s full steam ahead.


“Our growth over the last five years is in excess of 30 per cent a year,” Chetcuti says. He predicts that within the next five years, title insurance will be used in 90 per cent of real estate transactions across Canada.


“We’ve just completed a 35,000-square-foot addition to our building to make room for that expansion.”


Most lawyers at First Canadian are not in a traditional in-house role, Chetcuti points out. “They do more than just use their legal training. Our business is legal-related, but the skills are used in a business setting.”


He looks for people who have experience in real estate or litigation, but also have “talent beyond day-to-day legal work.” They engage in business development and cultivate customer relationships. Some have a significant number of employees reporting to them. Some lawyers do underwriting, deal with claims, and even draft title insurance policies.


“These are things they don’t teach in law school.”


Lawyers are a different breed, Chetcuti adds. “The dean of my law school kicked off our first term by telling us that it was the last time we would think like normal people. Lawyers are trained to look at situations and see things very differently. I’ve never forgotten that. It’s absolutely true.”


For one thing, he says, “Lawyers are educated and taught in the basis of precedent. We’re taught constantly to look backwards, not forwards. But when you’re in business, you not only have to look to the past, you have to anticipate the future.”


His legal staff includes the spectrum — from a two-years-out lawyer to a Q.C. who has been practising for 40 years. And the lawyers who work with him often are transformed.


“They tell me they’ve learned skills they never would have learned in private practice,” he says. “They help grow our business. This is a great place to expand your horizons beyond traditional legal work.”


It also affords a better lifestyle, says Chetcuti. “It’s one of the attractive things about working at First Canadian. It’s a normal business day. It ends at 6 or 7 p.m., then you go home. It’s not like you’re preparing for a case the next day and you’re working into the night. Lawyers tell me the stress level is lower than in private practice. There’s a better work-life balance.”


Having happy staff is a paramount goal, he adds. “We take great pride in providing an environment for people to feel good about coming to work. Without happy and satisfied employees, you cannot provide the customer service you need to be successful.”


First Canadian has made the Maclean’s magazine Top 100 employers, and he says employee satisfaction surveys tend to come out with flying colours. “I ask people one question — are you happy to come to work at least 85 per cent or 90 per cent of the time? If you can say yes, we’ve done our job.” 

 

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