Leadership opportunities within unprecedented challenges

Leadership panel at Canadian Law Awards spoke of shifting practices and priorities during COVID

Leadership opportunities within unprecedented challenges

As the oft-quoted maxim goes: “When nothing is certain, anything is possible.”

When the panel gathered at the 2021 Canadian Law Awards to discuss Leadership in a Time of Uncertainty – Lessons Learned from Success, the law firm leaders struck an optimistic chord. Though the last 16 months presented tragedy and challenges, there were also opportunities.

“Most business leaders will tell you, you never waste a crisis,” said Mia Hempey, CEO of Nelligan O'Brien Payne LLP. “And I think that this year is proof of that. We've been able to figure out how to be creative, move forward and actually grow, as a firm and professionally.”

While “I can’t wait to get back to normal,” is a common refrain, Hempey sees it differently.

“I’m just the reverse of that. I see this as an opportunity to create something different and to build something new. It’s actually a very exciting time.”

Jennie Chan moderated the panel, which took place May 20. Chan is partner and national leader in Forensic Services at PwC. Along with Hempey, Chan was joined by Anik Trudel, CEO of Lavery Lawyers; Dave Leonard, CEO of McCarthy Tétrault LLP and Tom Curry, managing partner of Lenczner Slaght.

That day, Leonard was also awarded the prize for Managing Partner of the Year.

“The pandemic really has put a spotlight on leadership,” he said.

In COVID’s early days, decisions had to be made transparently, so communication needed to be frequent. Leonard’s general approach to leadership did not change. He tried to be authentic and show vulnerability, to show the “human side,” amid global turmoil. But the stakes were raised and scrutiny heightened because the key decisions were related to job security, safety and health.

“We make a decision in the morning and then government policy would shift over lunch,” said Leonard. “Everything we decided in the morning was now irrelevant, and we had to shift and redo it in the afternoon. That went on for quite some time.”

While he expected normalcy to return, the regularity of communication was well-received and is expected to continue.

“I think that that will be a change coming out of this,” he says. “I think we will continue, as leaders, to be in the spotlight.”

“We've never communicated as much as we did in the last year,” said Anik Trudel. “And I think that's something that will remain. And that's quite healthy, as well.”

Law firms and other businesses have always been hierarchical organizations, but COVID has highlighted the interrelations between everyone – partners, associates and staff. The pandemic sparked a realization of how the various parts of the whole need each other, she said.

And as teams undergo a generational shift, Trudel said she has noticed that organizational purpose – having a collective “why” – is increasingly being demanded.

“I don't think that's really been a driver for law firms in the past and I think now this is becoming a true necessity,” she said. “The higher purpose, I think that will be at the heart of what will make people stay or leave a firm.”

Those currently at the helm of law firms are also leading them through changing priorities, said Tom Curry. Equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) is rapidly becoming a central concern for all businesses, he said.

“That is an area that I think each of us is learning about and trying to do better at. And that is a significant change in priorities.”

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