George Cooper, Сox & Palmer's CEO, on how Atlantic Canada pulled together during the pandemic

He worked with the judiciary, regulators, and other legal leaders to keep justice on track

George Cooper, Сox & Palmer's CEO, on how Atlantic Canada pulled together during the pandemic
George Cooper is the CEO of Cox and Palmer.

When George Cooper speaks about how his law firm managed through the pandemic, he quickly veers beyond his firm. Cooper is the chief executive officer of Сox & Palmer, a full-service firm with 10 offices across all four Atlantic provinces.

“I had a regular series of calls with my counterparts in the other big firms in Atlantic Canada. We have known each other since law school, but we've really had a very supportive relationship. And I think that's true not just for people that have at a leadership level, but practitioners really did try to help one another out.”

Cooper also speaks about how Atlantic Canada’s justice system acted very nimbly, considering the circumstances. “You've got a chief justice who's essentially a federal employee, and you've got a unionized workforce of support workers who are all working for the provincial Crown. And so there can often be challenges, but I must say they worked very efficiently to get the courts open to keep the wheels of justice going.”

The law firms, regulators and judiciary also collaborated on access to justice. For example, they worked to ensure that articling students could complete their term when everyone left their offices in March 2020.

“There's much that people from the regulatory, the judicial, and the private sectors can be proud of, including reaching across the street. I don't think we've ever looked at our other law firms as competitor law firms. And if it is a competition, [it is] friendly competition.”

Although Cooper attended law school in Atlantic Canada at the University of New Brunswick, he began his career in the early 1990s at the Toronto office of Stikeman Elliott, practising commercial and insolvency litigation. He worked closely with Sean Dunphy, who is now a judge at the Superior Court of Justice. He says he also learned about good leadership from lawyers like Katherine Kay, who taught him how to “build a team of people that will flourish without having to be managed in any kind of bossing around sense.

“I had the good fortune to work with some of the best lawyers in the country.”

Cooper then returned to Atlantic Canada, where he initially joined a small firm called Clark Drummie, and then he joined Cox & Palmer. He became the New Brunswick managing partner in 2011 and then became the firm’s CEO in 2018.

“I've worked in a big law firm in Toronto [and] I've worked in a small law firm [with] two or three guys above a stationery store, and there's a bunch of things in between,” he quips.

When the pandemic hit, Cox & Palmer created a COVID response committee composed of a small group that would be able to make decisions very rapidly.

“10 days after the pandemic became real, as we wound up operations in our office [and] our phones literally stopped ringing,” he says. “Any lawyer that doesn't hear the phone ringing gets quite nervous. And, of course, I know now but didn't know then that our clients were doing the same things we were. They were just looking for their phones.”

Cooper says torts, medical malpractice, and commercial litigation have “remained constant over a meaningful period” during the pandemic.

Transactional work has also been “very brisk,” he says. “Part of that is driven by trends in the larger economy. Atlantic Canada has seen population and economic growth, the likes of which is not typical” in previous periods.

One of the areas that has not grown recently is insolvencies, but Cooper expects that to pick up soon. As pandemic emergency supports decrease, he expects the normal business cycle to return.

So far, 2022 has been “very encouraging,” but Cooper does stress that “there's obviously a huge question mark as to what the horrific events in Ukraine will bring for any of us. I want to be really plain about any expression of optimism in the sombre circumstance.”

In addition to his leadership role at the firm, Cooper maintains a full commercial litigation and transaction practice. He primarily represents creditors and institutional clients in disputes, transactions and arbitrations regarding commercial financing, securities and secured transactions, bankruptcy and insolvency, product liability, natural resources and energy, and insurance.

He says the pandemic caused a major change in tech usage in his practice.

“One of the big trends that extends to all forms of litigation was where, just before the pandemic, people were reluctant to adopt really basic technology like video conferencing. Now everybody does it.” Pretrial procedures like cross-examinations on affidavits, discoveries, which used to involve a lot of travel, are now more often resolved online.

The main challenge for Cooper as managing partner, he says, is recruitment. “To be useful to our clients, we have to have the best people [and] we think we do. And we have to be able to retain and recruit people to replace those who do other things or those who move to the next phase of their career or into retirement.”

Lawyers have many more opportunities “for careers in industry, in government, in the not-for-profit sector. We have made a significant investment in our efforts towards providing an equitable, diverse and inclusive work environment, a respectful workplace, seeing our people trying to flatten out some of the hierarchy that is systemic in our profession.

“We don't want our main competitor to be the great resignation.”

Cox and Palmer now has equity, diversity and inclusion committees at the local level across the firm “because what inclusion feels like in one place may feel different than in another.”

Clients “don't need to have the lawyer that looks like every other lawyer, the lawyer that comes out the cookie cutter, right out of central casting,” says Cooper. “The profession itself is going through a welcome transformation, and we want to participate in that fully.”

George Cooper is a judge at this year's Canadian Law Awards, which recognizes the nation’s leading law firms, in-house legal teams, individuals, deals and cases over the past year.

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