What’s the biggest challenge to managing a regional, independent firm such as yours in a market where national firms are looking to grow and local firms are looking to expand?
It’s like being the meat in the sandwich. You are getting pressure on both sides. We feel pressure from large national firms and in Calgary the large local firms, which have the resources that allow them to have competencies in a wide range of fields. You also feel pressure from the smaller firms that
So how do you deal with that pressure?
Our business model is essentially focused on servicing very specific client groups. We don’t try to be all things to all people. What we do is identify who our major client connections are and we focus on them.
How do you grow your business?
We are very focused on having close personal contacts with our clients. One of the things that the national firms in particular aren’t able to do is to promote the personal relationships between clients and their lawyers. Often the complaints you get when talking to people about the service they get from national firms is not that they don’t get good service, but they often don’t know who is looking after them.
What about competing with the boutiques and smaller firms you mentioned?
We have to have a fee structure that relates to the needs of individual clients. We have a large base of publicly funded institutions and they are more fees sensitive than a lot of other clients, so we have to be focused on that.
What are the challenges of managing a firm in the hot Alberta economy?
Simply being able to find good people. We find that challenging, particularly on the support side — the non-professional side. People have all kinds of options and they can be attracted away. You have a lot of pressures there. And then just the overall cost model is scary. I’ll give you an example. We’re moving into new space in Calgary and the cost of that space will be four times what we are paying right now for space. That’s just the reality of an overheated marketplace.
What are your markets like?
Edmonton is generally viewed by most of the national firms as being a secondary market. It is a different market than what you find in Calgary. It is particularly well suited to our strength. What we have in Edmonton is a number of large but local institutions, which are very significant players but whose reach doesn’t extend beyond the borders of Alberta. That lines up with our view of the strength of the Edmonton office. In Calgary, we’ve tried to focus on clients who need the services of a local firm, as opposed to a firm that has operations across the country or across the world.
We are not in practice areas where there are wide cycles. We don’t have a strong securities transaction practice in Calgary. It’s a very cyclical practice. There are some advantages when you don’t have to ramp up for needs that may evaporate six months down the road.
Our client base is somewhat less impacted by the boom. It’s an institutional client base with strengths in insurance and in health law. One of the firm’s strengths is labour and employment. We are the largest labour and employment group in Western Canada. We have a very large health law team. We defend the hospitals in Alberta. We have strength in insurance and, in our Edmonton office, strength in real estate, and in Calgary in wills and estates. We do a lot of work in general litigation.
What do you see driving the future growth of your law firm?
There’s no doubt growth in health law. People are more conscious of their rights and obligations of health-care providers. There is growth in insurance because of the growth in the population and the economy. General litigation is a growing area. One of our largest single files relates to residential school victims . . . and will continue to be as we deal with the next phase of the claims.
Do you have expansion plans? If so, what are they and where do you see the opportunity?
We don’t see opening or acquiring any more offices. We think that we can service the areas that need our services from the base that we have. We don’t see a merger. . . . It’s not something we believed would have served us well. . . . There was a lot of discussion in the late ‘90s that the mid-sized firms were a dinosaur and weren’t going to survive. I think we, and others like us, have proven that’s not the case.