Managing Partner: ‘Culture is king’

Managing Partner: ‘Culture is king’
Jim Middlemiss
Bennett Jones LLP national managing partner Hugh MacKinnon has seen the best and worst of building a legal business outside your home jurisdiction. In 1999, the affable MacKinnon was parachuted in from the Calgary headquarters to fix the struggling Toronto office, after Bennett Jones rejected being part of a three-way merger involving Torys LLP and its now U.S. arm.


In six short years, he’s overhauled the Toronto office, growing it from just under 30 lawyers to more than 116 today, while landing top talent from some of Canada’s leading law firms. MacKinnon’s reward? Being named national managing partner of the firm at the end of 2004. He talks about what it takes to greenfield a Toronto office and why culture is so important at a law firm.

What was the goal in Toronto?
We wanted to be a topflight business law office in Toronto and be part of the Toronto community and it was a matter of building it. You know what the end picture looks like and you’re anxious to hire anybody who is part of that equation. The only chicken-and-egg issue as you’re bringing people in is that you want them to be busy in the short run as well as the long run. Initially you need people who don’t need a big platform to be successful as you grow. Then you can add pieces of the puzzle. Sometimes you take risks and bring people in who you hope are going to be busy or hope you are going to be able to support their practices from Calgary. We had no tax people for the first four years . . . now we have 10 tax partners.

In Toronto, you’ve recruited more than 80 lawyers, in terms of lateral hires and partners. What are they looking for?
Culture is king. We have a single-minded focus on culture. People don’t move for money, especially at the senior end. There’s a market and there might be marginal differences, but nobody moves for a marginal bump or incremental salary increase. They all move because they want to be in a better, happier home. We tell them what our culture is. They talk to people they know at the firm and ask around and verify. The new people come in with that cultural expectation; they reinforce the culture and you end up in a positive spiral . . . where they reinforce each other. They are all keen because they are all from someplace else.

So how would you describe the culture of your firm?
It’s evolved. When we first started recruiting partners for the Toronto office, we would describe the culture of our Calgary office — obviously the mother ship — as a place that reflected the culture of Calgary: entrepreneurial, dynamic, get the job done, and a serious distaste of bureaucracy. It’s open. People speak their minds, but they do it in a respectful way. There’s a high degree of transparency, which becomes very real. All partners know the information of the business of the firm.

What do you need to do to convince a lateral hire to join?
Sophisticated lateral hires are looking at culture first and foremost. They are looking at the platform of the firm; whether the firm can support the kind of clients that person wants. Quite often a lateral is concerned about the impact on clients they have had over the years. Is this going to be a client-friendly place for them to do their profession? They want to know they’re welcome. Some places don’t do laterals well. You’re always an alien. We do laterals well because every single partner in our Toronto office is from somewhere else.

The Toronto office had its challenges in the 1990s. What changed?
There were good people, but it just didn’t have the real focus . . . on anything. We did a change-up. Most of the people didn’t stay. It wasn’t culturally aligned to the firm itself as a whole. It wasn’t integrated into the firm. It had strong people but it was kind of an eclectic group. There wasn’t that consistent cultural alignment to the Alberta offices.

What impact did the non-merger with Torys have on the Toronto office?
That added fuel to the fire. That was part of it; that wasn’t all of it by any stretch in Toronto; it was part of the disquiet in the Toronto office.

So how do you fix things?
You start by ensuring that everybody understands the culture of the firm. Then you start building the Toronto office based on the culture of the firm in Alberta. The irony is that when you are telling people about the culture, you are telling people the idealized version of that culture and people joining in Toronto buy into the culture with all the zeal of a convert. They live the idealized version of the Calgary culture. So you end up with the Toronto office walking the talk. It ends up reinforcing the culture of the firm in all of our offices.

What are the pains of growing so quickly?
Sometimes it is just support. In the early years, the issues were you were taking a guy out of really good tier-one firm and he was used to having all sorts of support and services; if you go back four years we didn’t have a lot. We do now.

Any advice for others looking to build out their offices?
Make sure your players are culturally aligned.  If you don’t stay on top of it, it can split. In the book Good to Great, the first rule is get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus. The second rule is to get the right people in the right seats on the bus. In a business of knowledge workers like ours, once you do that the rest is really easy.



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