Managing Partner: Focusing on growth

Jim Middlemiss
The words “business development,” “entrepreneurial,” and “growth” flow off Howard Drabinsky’s tongue with the smoothness of water over Niagara Falls. That’s because Lang Michener LLP’s managing partner of its eastern division exudes a confidence in where his firm is headed and what it takes for one of Canada’s oldest law firms to survive in the cutthroat legal services marketplace. The subject of perpetual merger rumours, Drabinsky says do not believe everything you read. The 200-lawyer firm, which is a member of two law associations, TerraLex and Eu-Lex, isn’t looking to grow simply for growth’s sake. It’s quite content to continue operating as a tri-city firm, with a presence in Toronto, Vancouver, and Ottawa, and wait for the right opportunity to present itself. Drabinsky comments on a wide range of topics, from what it takes to compete against mid-sized and national firms to business development, mergers, and compensation.

On the Lang Michener’s strength . . .
One of our strengths is our diversity. That goes along with our entrepreneurial spirit. We have different people who are interested in different things in terms of their own practices but who are committed to the same goal of practising in a firm that is growing, focused, profitable, and competitive.

On how to compete . . .
A firm like ours has to be very focused. We can’t be everything to everybody. That, to us, is a recipe for disaster. It is very much a business-like model, an entrepreneurial approach. How do you continue to grow, because growth is critical to our business?

On the biggest challenges the firm faces . . .
The challenges that we face are very similar to what our competitors face. The business of law has become just that, a very competitive business. That’s both with respect to keeping your existing client base, attracting new ones, and keeping and attracting top-level talent to service those clients. The days of clients remaining with a single firm no matter what are long gone. It’s both an opportunity and a challenge. Not only do we see opportunity to take clients away from other firms, they see the opportunity to take away our clients. You have to be focused and very strategic in managing your assets and executing your business plan.

On being an entrepreneurial firm . . .
Entrepreneurial is someone who can go out and create something rather than someone who sits in their office and waits for the phone to ring. We’re prepared to work with clients that are developing and meeting emerging clients as well as the biggest clients. We’re willing to take a chance.

We pride ourselves on our entrepreneurial spirit. It arises from necessity. We’re a big firm but not the biggest. For us to succeed we have got to be entrepreneurial. That means being innovative, flexible, and having the ability to adapt to the ever-changing needs of our clients and the marketplace. We look at how are we going to build relationships. Business development is all about relationships and to me entrepreneurial means someone who figures out how he can establish that personal client contact. And you do that by first of all assessing what are my opportunities. Then you look at how do I get to know that business. You’ve got to do your homework. Then you have got to figure out how to distinguish yourself from everybody else who wants that client’s business.

On lawyer compensation . . .
It can’t just be lip service to business development. You have to back that up with dollars. We don’t have a formula, but we certainly have a very strong emphasis — and it’s mandated by our partnership agreement — to reward people who go out and bring work to the firm and pass along that work to others. We’ve developed bonus compensation programs that operate with respect to objective standards and goals. By merging management and compensation functions within a single committee we feel we have the tools to reward people — to incent people to go out and do what we want them to do.

On expansion to Calgary and Montreal . . .  
Our approach typically is not the “build it and they will come” approach, but to respond to an opportunity or an articulated client need. At the present time we don’t have expansion plans. We would have to have a compelling business reason to do that, which I expect would be client driven. That could change. We pride ourselves on being flexible and being able to react. Certainly if we saw that opportunity, we would move on it. We recognize the importance of those two cities in the overall scheme of Canada.

On mergers . . .
We’re not convinced that bigger in law firms is necessarily better. . . . It’s not something we are planning for in the immediate future. We’re committed to growing the firm. Obviously, one of the ways to grow the firm quickly would be a merger, but it would have to be for the right reasons and with the right firm. If that opportunity presented itself we would have to consider it.

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