Tips from the top - Fall 2008

Canadian Lawyer 4Students wanted to know how managing partners in the country got to the top and what advice they could offer aspiring young law students with partnership ambitions. We asked the following questions:

1. How do you balance your professional commitments with your family and social life?
2. What’s the most stressful part of your position, and how do you deal with it?
3. What are the most important skills and attributes for a law student with partnership ambitions to develop?
4. When you were a law student, what was your favourite class, and why?
5. Where’s the best place to go in your city to celebrate the latest business deal?

John Rogers

managing partner, Stewart McKelvey, Halifax

1. It would be a lie to say that it is not a constant challenge. Good planning is the key. I make sure all the “can’t miss” family events like birthdays, graduations, and sports and other events are in the calendar long before any professional commitments might arise. Same thing with family vacations — they are planned well in advance. Professional commitments tend to come in predictable cycles, so, on the flipside, my family knows I am not available on the night of the Chamber of Commerce dinner or a firm event, for example. It does get easier as the kids get older, too.

2. Being the managing partner of a law firm is often likened to herding cats; I prefer the analogy of “aligning stars.” Whatever your choice, neither is stress- nor risk-free. If you don’t enjoy what you are doing and have fun doing it, stress is likely to eat you up. To keep stress at bay, I run and cycle with a “fairly” competitive group of friends. I enjoy the exercise and the collegiality, and it seems to help keep things on an even keel. I also have places and times where cellphones and BlackBerrys aren’t on or do not even work. There are times when just thinking about those places takes all the stress away!

3. With all the advances in technology that provide lawyers with flexibility about where and when we do our work, it is still a profession built on relationships. Having strong people skills allows you to build relationships with more senior lawyers as a junior, and with clients as a more senior lawyer. Good business-development skills are a combination of business acumen and strong people skills. The most important attributes are impeccable ethics and a strong work ethic.

4. Professor Graham Murray’s first-year property course at Dalhousie Law School. While I am sure we did learn something about property law, it was more about life, literature, and learning. It was unusual and at times frustrating, but those lessons have been far more lasting.

5. Ten or 15 years ago in Halifax there were probably only a few high-end restaurants that people would consider to celebrate significant events, including business deals. These days, however, there are a significant number of places to choose from — many with private rooms, if you want the celebration to be more discreet. Halifax has come a long way in providing more sophisticated choices of where to celebrate events with business colleagues, so I wouldn’t say there’s a “best” anymore.

E.M. (Lisa) Vogt  
B.C. regional managing partner, McCarthy Tétrault LLP, Vancouver

1. Like everything else that is difficult but ultimately rewarding, I work at the balance. Constantly. As professionals, we exercise balance in all that we do, so in many respects work-life balance is no different. But it is fundamentally important. What works for me is organizing my day so that I always have breakfast with my family (yes, very early, at 6:45 a.m.) and I get home for dinner at 6:30 p.m. almost every night. This sometimes means working at home in the evenings, but in this, lawyers are no different from other committed professionals. Weekends are family time.

2. Anticipating and managing the often-conflicting expectations of my partners. I deal with stress by acknowledging how much I enjoy what I do: because law is satisfying on both an intellectual and social level; because I am surrounded on a daily basis by interesting, engaged, and intelligent people; and because, on many days, what we do is actually fun. I deal with stress by reminding myself to be grateful. Chocolate is also helpful.

3. In no particular order: the ability to multitask, to be resilient, to be inquisitive, to want to be challenged, to accept criticism, to have a sense of humour, and to find mentors among the partners you work with and model yourself on them.

4. Contracts, because it was so civilized. It made sense of the world. Consideration, mutual agreement, and even peppercorns made sense to me. These were rules that were based on fair dealing. Torts was just messy.

5. We often host special dinners with our clients and lawyers to celebrate. Best places are Brix in Yaletown and Caffé dé Medici on Robson.

Chuck Russell   

managing partner, McLennan Ross LLP, Edmonton

1. This gets much easier as the kids are grown up. It used to be very difficult to manage travel on business while they were younger.

2. Internal complaints about one another. You spend so much time trying to smooth over hurt feelings, implement decisions which are seen by some to be favouring others unfairly, etc. It is very wearing.

3. The willingness to work, and good legal skills. You can be immensely talented, but if you are not willing to put in the effort when the client needs the work to be done, you are unlikely to enjoy long-term success with clients.

4. Tax. It just came naturally, which is strange given that I am an insolvency/restructuring lawyer by trade.

5. Bonterra in Calgary, Violino in Edmonton.

Jane Steinberg

firm managing partner, external, Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP, Ottawa

1. It is actually quite easy for me to achieve a proper work-life balance today. I love my work, and so it is a pleasure for me to go to work. My brain gets tested every working day, and I like that. However, I would not love my work as much as I do if I did not have the appropriate respite from it. I have a cottage and love to loll about on the dock. Pulling out weeds can also be strangely satisfying. I’m hooked on current events and devour newspapers. I am a hopeless cook, so I love it when my eldest son cooks for me. My dogs and I never forego our walks to Bridgehead for lattes! Sometimes, I even tackle idiot-proof needlepoint. It is obviously easier for me to manage today, at the ripe old age of 55, than it was when my kids were younger. To the parents of young children out there, who might be ready to throw in the towel if they only knew where to throw it, I would say: be organized, focused, and disciplined every minute you are at work and you will be surprised how many hours are left over for you, your partner, and your children.

2. I am the most stressful part of my position. Sometimes, I feel that I should be getting much more done than I actually am, and I set unreasonable expectations for myself. I deal with this by banging my head repeatedly on my desk. When that doesn’t work, I put pen to paper and prioritize. When I’ve listed my tasks in order of priority, I clear my desk of absolutely everything (including the blood from the head-banging). I then place on my desk my coffee (it would be green tea if I had a purer spirit) and the papers relating to the task that I have marked No. 1 in priority. I am then back in control and working effectively on task No. 1.

3. There are many important skills and attributes but remember that in many places you work, there will be mentors to guide you. The following are important, not necessarily listed in order of priority: a commitment to teamwork; a willingness to push your brain beyond where it would normally want to go; pride in an excellent work product; recognition that the law is a service profession and any good firm is going to insist you serve up the best you’ve got to give; and an abiding interest in people, clients, and our world, because to succeed you’re going to have to be able to work well with people, serve clients faithfully, and be knowledgeable about the global environment.

4. Torts. Donoghue v. Stevenson. The snail in the bottle of ginger beer. It was the first thing I understood at U of T law school.

5. Lago Bar and Grill at Dow’s Lake, owned by the inimitable Dale Hill.

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