Building communities and building business: McCarthy Tétrault’s John Osler

Osler has always focused on his community as a lawyer in Calgary and a partner at a national firm

Building communities and building business: McCarthy Tétrault’s John Osler
John Osler

Although John Osler didn’t have any lawyers in his immediate family, he felt that a legal degree would be the best way to engage with his community.

“I noticed that it seemed to be lawyers who were so actively involved in their communities, as volunteers, in the political space and . . . the way I was raised, that . . . had an awful lot of appeal to me.”

And despite having a busy corporate practice in Calgary, community engagement has been a key part of Osler’s career ever since. In fact, it has been a key part of his business approach.

For Osler, this started on a national level. He was born in Calgary, but he chose to do his undergraduate in Ontario and study law at Dalhousie. Atlantic Canada, he says, was a natural fit to give him experience living in three broad areas of the country.

Osler then returned to Calgary as an articling student with what eventually became McCarthy Tétrault. While articling at a national firm fit with Osler’s pan-Canadian vision, there was just one hitch: The Law Society of Alberta wouldn’t allow a national firm in the province.

At the time, provincial rules required that members of the bar be residents of Alberta and only be a partner in a single firm. This meant that the firm McCarthy and McCarthy, which it was named in other provinces, had to have a different name in Alberta. The Alberta firm was called “Black & Company” for that reason.

This became the subject of a key Supreme Court of Canada decision in Black v. Law Society of Alberta, where Black & Company took the LSA to court, saying the restrictions violated the Charter.

The Supreme Court of Canada struck down the requirements in its landmark 1989 decision and paved the way for national law firms like McCarthy Tétrault.

Osler remembers very well when the SCC decision was rendered, since it was released on the same day he and his fellow articling students were expecting to be told if they were going to be hired back.

The firm’s decision was communicated a day late, since the release of the SCC decision preoccupied the leadership that day. But when he did get the offer, the national scope of the firm was solidified.

“My overall decision to accept a job with McCarthy and McCarthy was that I found the national law firm concept so appealing.”

Osler began as an associate in the litigation department, but he eventually realized that the adversarial nature of that practice did not suit him.

“Civil litigation is an art. It's an exceptionally challenging art. And I was finding that I was not achieving the fulfilment that I thought I should from such an important craft.”

Just as Osler entered the partnership, he transitioned to corporate law. In that practice, Osler found, “everybody has a common objective, and everybody is working towards the same objective.”

While Osler speaks positively about his corporate work and clients, it is when he talks about his community engagement that he really becomes animated.

Internally, Osler has been the chairman of the McCarthy Tétrault Foundation, which Osler says is uniquely structured for a Canadian law firm.

“McCarthy Tétrault was the first firm and may still be the only firm to have a large charitable foundation.”

The foundation, Osler says, has given many lawyers an opportunity for community involvement.

“That's just a wonderful thing to be able to do in the legal profession, where we are essentially selling a relationship and when we can enhance and strengthen those relationships by mutual contributions to our communities.”

Osler also cites his involvement in the cancer advocacy groups that resulted in a soon-to-be-constructed cancer centre in Calgary. This advocacy took place over various years and different provincial governments, where funding was promised and then lost.

His work took on even more significance when he was diagnosed with cancer in 2007, which has been in remission since 2012.

“I'm proud to say that, through our efforts — and it was a group effort — the comprehensive cancer centre that we sought is about 70 per cent of the way to completion.”

For Osler, the charitable and community focused work is not in addition to the business of the firm, it is integrated with how the firm runs its business. He cites the firm’s “Inclusion Now” program as a key example.

“There's probably nothing that our clients talk to me about more than our Inclusion Now program. It is a hot topic with clients; it's a hot topic with people in our community.

“I'm 57. And we have a lot of folks in their 20s and 30s. And to see just how important diversity and inclusion is to that demographic and to see how excited they are about it and how they are going to develop careers based on those values is probably where it resonates the most with me.”

Working in Alberta, now, however, Osler fears that much of the positive work that is being done in the community is at risk in a poor economy.

“It's probably the most challenging business climate that I've seen in my career and certainly in Calgary and Alberta.”

For Osler, the key to addressing this issue is to build the community on the national level, which means keeping Canada’s energy industry strong.

“What I find curious is there doesn't seem to be a lot of national leadership that accepts the proposition that to get to a greener economy . . . the energy industry has to play an essential role. . . . Without that, I fear for all of the things that are important to me. Diversity and inclusion, making our communities better, that doesn't just happen. That takes a strong economy, to bring those pieces of our communities along.”

Key dates:

1985: Queen's University, BA

1988: Dalhousie University, LLB

1988 – 1989: Articling student, McCarthy Tétrault LLP (then Black & Company)

1989 – 1995: Associate, McCarthy Tétrault LLP

1996 – present: Partner, McCarthy Tétrault LLP        

Engaging with the community

The following are some of the leadership roles and recognition Osler has had for his community-facing work:

2021: Member, Calgary Influential Women in Business Awards Advisory Selection Committee

2020: Recipient of Male Champion Award, Calgary Influential Women in Business

2019-present: Director, Calgary Economic Development Authority

2012 – present: Chairman, McCarthy Tétrault Foundation

2015 – 2018: Co-chair, Calgary Cancer Centre/Concerned Citizens for the Calgary Cancer Centre

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