Going global Canadian-style

Jim Middlemiss
Peter Lukasiewicz has seen the inside of many law firm mergers during his long career at what is now Gowling WLG. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Gowling joined forces with five law firms, including Lafleur Brown in Montreal, Montpellier McKeen in Vancouver, Code Hunter and Ballem MacInnes, both in Calgary, and Ontario’s Smith Lyons to form a national juggernaut with more than 700 lawyers, making it one of the biggest law firms in Canada.

With its latest foray — a blockbuster deal last summer with the United Kingdom’s Wragge Lawrence Graham & Co. that was finalized in February — the firm has firmly set its sights on growing an international legal brand with a Canadian name.

While stalwart Canadian legal brands such as Ogilvy Renault and Fraser Milner were dumped on the merger slag heap, the Gowling name lives to fight another day.

However, putting together two 700-person law firms operating on three continents with offices in 10 countries is no easy task. What surprised Lukasiewicz about this merger was the amount of effort that went into discussions about the web site.

Lukasiewicz, a commercial litigator who joined Gowling in 1981, says, “The importance of a web presence now compared to 15 years ago is night and day. In terms of the mechanics of the mergers, to me that was the single biggest difference — the amount of time and energy spent on the web site.” The combined firm built a new web site from scratch, notes Rob Landry, chief operating officer of Gowling WLG.

Landry, a former in-house lawyer and COO of ING Direct Canada, cites “nomenclature” as one of the more interesting challenges a Canadian firm faces when it enters merger discussions with foreign partners. In Canada, the legal business focuses on practice groups and industry sectors. But in the U.K., it’s service areas and teams. “They mean the same thing,” notes Lukasiewicz. The question was “which language would we adopt so that it’s uniform on the web site?” The firm now touts its “sectors” and “services” against a backdrop of the purple-hued site.

Lukasiewicz, who took over as chief executive officer on Jan. 1 from former CEO Scott Jolliffe, says when building an international law firm, “you have to think how this is going to be looked at [and] understood around the world, as opposed to in Canada.”

Landry adds the new firm launch also required an extensive re-branding effort, which he describes as “daunting.”

“It was a scientific process. We really built the brand from the foundation and floor up.” It meant looking at everything from the colours the firm would use to “what are the promises that we are going to make to clients?”

Of course, there were the usual integration issues. “The biggest challenge is getting people to know each other and putting people together,” says Lukasiewicz. It’s best done, he says, through face-to-face meetings among smaller groups of lawyers.

Interestingly, one area that wasn’t a sticking point compared with past mergers was the name. The firms quickly settled on Gowling WLG. “In all the mergers we did in Canada . . . the name was one of the most challenging aspects of the merger,” says Lukasiewicz. The big difference this time, he says, was information about legal brands, which was absent 15 years ago. Gowling has built a globally recognized name in intellectual property waters. As well, name consultants found that Gowling was easy to say and translated well in different languages, meaning it wasn’t culturally offensive. “It was a relatively easy conversation,” he says.

While a Swiss verein has been the model often used to grow professional service firms internationally, Gowling used a U.K. structure known as a “company limited by guarantee,” similar to a non-share capital corporation. “The effect is the same as a Swiss verein,” says Lukasiewicz.

So why merge versus growing the Gowling brand by opening offices? Lukasiewicz says, “Green fielding an office requires a very significant investment of time and capital.”

He says partners decided three years ago that it was time to go international, because “we saw that as the future.” However, rather than join one of the existing firms shopping for a Canadian dance partner, the firm’s lawyers had a specific goal in mind. It did not want to upset existing relationships with U.S. law firms, so it deliberately decided not to join with a U.S.-based firm or one that wanted a U.S. office. It meant finding a partner that was like-minded.

It turns out that Wragge, which Gowling had worked with on files, had also undergone a similar strategic review and wanted to find a merger partner that wouldn’t uproot its U.S. connections. “Once we had a few conversations and realized that our strategic plans were very similar, the conversations thereafter went relatively quickly,” Lukasiewicz says.

The challenge now is simple enough: Grow an international law firm. On that front, the firm has already won an international mandate involving cereal maker Weetabix Food Co. It was a retainer that neither firm could have secured independently, says Lukasiewicz. “We’re seeing the fruits of working together.
It’s those kind of retainers that to me are proof that we have correctly selected the way forward for both our firms.”

Jim Middlemiss is a legal writer and principal at WebNewsManagement.com.

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