A mighty wind

It’s barely past the middle of January as I sit to write this editorial and already the waves of change, some might even call them disruption, are crashing on the shores of the Canadian legal business. There’s two more notches in the lipstick case of the globalization of legal practice with the arrival here of Axiom, which has purchased the general counsel business of Canadian legal services pioneer Cognition LLP, and international labour and employment firm Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart PC, which gets its first beachhead in Toronto.

Ogletree’s entry into the Canadian market seemed not so much part of a plan for global domination as a confluence of events. As Hugh Christie told our Legal Feeds blog, it started with a conversation with Ogletree’s managing shareholder Kim Ebert in which the two got to talking about how conflicts were impeding cross-border growth for labour firms. Christie, the former chairman of the national employment and labour practice group at Gowlings, saw great opportunities that just weren’t available to him in his position within a national, full-service firm.
Thus, a new Ogletree outpost was born, with a former partner and associate from Gowlings joining him to start the Toronto office. That adds to one of the world’s largest labour defence firms, which already has 750 lawyers across 45 offices in the U.S. and three global outposts in London, Berlin, and Mexico City.

While I wouldn’t yet tag it as a trend, Ogletree’s is the second global labour and employment boutique in the last six months to enter the Canadian market. Last August, 1,000-plus-lawyer firm Littler absorbed well-known Toronto boutique Kuretzky Vassos into its array of more than 60 worldwide offices.

But the entry of Axiom into Canada is perhaps more significant in that it validates that Cognition’s and others’ (such as Conduit Law’s) business model is working in this country. Axiom uses the corporate tag line “law redefined” and describes itself as “a leading provider of tech-enabled legal services. With over 1,500-plus employees across three continents, we experience a nerdy excitement from improving the way legal, compliance, and contracts work is done.” Put simply, it’s law done differently.

Axiom’s proven track record in the U.S. and the U.K. will mean that law firms will be attacked on their turf — which includes fairly routine work for very large buyers of legal service. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen faster than in the U.S. or the U.K. because the model is already proven. It took Allen & Overy and others more than three years to come up with an answer to Axiom’s incursion into its legal market. Canadian law firms will not have that much time.

So, with the winds of change already blowing quite strongly, there’s one more change in the legal landscape worth noting. Marc-André Blanchard, one of the first law firm leaders to boldly introduce significant changes to the business structure and service delivery models of his firm, leaves his post as chairman and CEO of McCarthy Tétrault LLP to take on a new post as Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations. He has had a great impact on the profession in the country that will continue to be felt.

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