Clarke is applying the lessons she learned in her health law group across the entire firm
Cindy Clarke knew from a young age that she wanted to be a lawyer, but her vision of practising law was very different from where she ended up.
“I grew up in Orillia, Ontario and my dad was a criminal lawyer,” says Clarke. “I’d never anticipated working at a large firm.”
But Clarke is now a senior leader at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP (BLG), leading initiatives to streamline how the firm delivers legal services to some of its largest institutional clients. Clarke’s current title is national group head, clients, sectors & new services.
For Clarke, though, her original vision and her current role in the legal profession share one important quality: they are focused on improving human relationships.
“Growing up in a small town, I really saw the impact that a lawyer can have, how you can know so many people and have an impact in your community.”
Clarke started at BLG as a summer student in the late 1990s and has spent her entire career at the firm. She gravitated to the health law group when she joined because of its strong client relationships.
“You get connected very quickly with nurses and other professionals whose license, reputation, skill and life’s work are on the line,” she says. “It’s just a wonderful group that had high expectations.”
Clarke joined the partnership in 2004, just after she had returned from her first maternity leave. She says her professional priorities remained unchanged despite the challenge of balancing young children and work.
Clarke says that for many young women, there is a risk that firms assume what kind of work they will want when they return instead of just asking them. In other words, although many women do shift their priorities, senior leaders should not assume that they all will.
She says firms should welcome women back as valued members of the team. “I don’t mean welcome back as in, ‘we expect you to do exactly what you did before in the same way.’ But I mean, welcome back, saying… ‘We want to engage you, we value you, we want you to work on our files. We want to continue to have any part of whatever it is we’re doing at whatever volume it is you think you can do.’”
Clarke’s work in the health law group gradually also shifted from doing work on individual files to evaluating client service more broadly.
One of the biggest clients of the health law group was the Healthcare Insurance Reciprocal of Canada, which insures large health care providers across Canada.
“HIROC was really growing, and BLG was really growing. We just were in a lot of discussions about how to manage the work and how to partner how to be better partners together,” says Clarke.
Clarke and her team began evaluating how they used paraprofessionals and law clerks to support the lawyers’ work and how they reported to clients.
She worked closely with John Morris, who was the client leader. The health law group developed a system to shift work measurement away from billable hours, use legal project management more rigorously, use a multi-year fee arrangement and help HIROC insource more work.
In 2013, BLG and HIROC won the ACC value Champion Award for this work.
“It really continues to be one of our greatest innovations and timesavers,” says Clarke. “Because the client told us what questions they want us to answer. What drives their business decisions? How do we help them succeed? What information do they need from us?”
Having worked with Morris on such a high-profile and successful initiative, the national board at BLG approached Clarke to gauge her interest in taking in a broader leadership role. After a brief stint on the partnership board, Clarke became the “national group head, specialized litigation” in 2014 when the firm shifted from a regional to a national focus.
For six years, Clarke worked to connect other litigation groups to focus on growth, innovation and client services, applying lessons from her work with the health law group.
Clarke says that this role required a balancing act between providing clear expectations and a willingness to explain why change is necessary.
“I do have expectations of our team that if we’re rolling out a new process with the client. I expect everybody to get on board. I think the clarity of expectation is important. But if I also need to be able to answer why if anybody says to me, ‘why are we doing this?’ And I challenged my team all the time to ask me why.”
Before the pandemic struck in late 2019, BLG appointed Clarke to her current role, which broadened her mandate to focus on client service firm-wide. Clarke also advocated for creating the “national business leader” roles at the firm, which BLG introduced in January 2020.
The firm now has twelve national business leaders who report to Clarke, and they are each responsible for the business development plan in their group.
While BLG has set its new structure to develop more client-focused plans, no one could have predicted that the ultimate client-service test was about to arrive at their doorstep: a global pandemic.
The crisis management needs were particularly acute in the health law group where Clarke started her career.
“For quite a period, [it] was all hands on deck,” says Clarke.
Although many of the in-person meetings and cross-Canada travel that Clarke had hoped to do in her new role were no longer possible during lockdowns, she lists several client-focused initiatives that BLG recently launched.
For example, senior immigration lawyer Brian Dingle recently helped launch “Beyond Business Immigration.” The firm wanted to apply Dingle’s expertise in client service from the film industry more broadly across the firm, says Clarke.
“It’s a good example of bringing together ‘What does the client need and how can we better deliver it?’ And how do we work [at] moving away from the legal knowledge, but to all the knowledge [and] put together a package and process that allows us to do this really efficiently and deliver great service.”
Likewise, BLG developed “Beyond Leasing,” which grew out of a strategy for providing leasing services that partner Nicole St-Louis developed while in-house at Loblaws Inc.’s real estate group.
“A goal of mine is to ensure that the people at our firm who are responsible for client relationships, and those who aspire to be, have the training that they want, and all of the information they need to succeed. We've got so many ways in which we can help our clients in so many specialized areas with specialized skills,” says Clarke.
“We’re a diverse place. We have so many great practices. We’re across the country. So, helping our client leaders to figure all that out in a way that doesn’t overwhelm but is supportive and enhancing, it is a good challenge for 2022.”
Cindy Clarke is a member of the Canadian Lawyer editorial board.