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Public affairs group sees flood of clients to navigate government-led mobilization against COVID-19

The pandemic is putting Canada on World-War footing, says lawyer, requiring more than traditional legal advice

Public affairs group sees flood of clients to navigate government-led mobilization against COVID-19
Tim Murphy

By eliciting enormous government spending measures, causing the closure of all non-essential businesses and having manufacturers pivot to supply the front-lines against the pandemic, the likes of Canada’s response to COVID-19 hasn’t been seen since the 1939 build-up to the Second World War, says managing director of McMillan Vantage Policy Group Tim Murphy.

As the world adjusts to a singular focus, businesses and other organizations are seeking help connecting with government to address the immediate needs created by the social-distancing freeze of the global economy and to take advantage of the supports being provided by government. This is leading to a flood of client requests, says Murphy.

“In the last couple of weeks, we've had a whole lot of new clients who are trying to figure out how to navigate this new world,” says Murphy. “We're in an economic environment and a government-facing environment which is rapidly changing.”

There are three main issues concerning clients, says Murphy. One, is the short-term operational issue. Murphy is helping clients navigate essential service orders by liaising with government on their behalf to figure out who’s essential and how to become designated as essential. The second is the short-term business support issues: helping clients tap into government financial support programs and retool to manufacture urgently needed products, such as personal protective equipment for healthcare workers. The third issue is advising on how the situation will play out in the long run and how to position oneself effectively when normalcy returns.

“The centrality of government, I think, has gone up massively,” Murphy says. “Where's the balance going to be struck when government starts moving back from the economy? These are some longer-term issues and some of our clients are starting to think about that.”

The globally unifying COVID-19 crisis has similarities to Murphy’s first day on the job as chief of staff to then finance minister Paul Martin, which happened to be September 11, 2001. In both situations the economy stopped, and the world’s attention was fixed on a single issue. The difference is, a few days after 9/11 people started socializing again and the economy began to recover as the public became aware, in a general sense, of what had happened. With COVID-19, it could be months until old patterns return, Murphy says.

McMillan Vantage Policy Group is a full-service, national public affairs firm – helping organizations with crisis communications, government relations, policy and regulatory analysis, strategic communications, social impact and social responsibility. Vantage has offices in Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary and Hong Kong.

The COVID-19 crisis has benefited Vantage, as clients are looking to lawyers to answer questions which transcend the legal and concern the broader focus of how to effectively run a business in changing conditions, says Murphy.

Three factors catalysed the creation of Vantage, he says. First, the 2008 financial crisis pressured the legal industry to be more innovative and cost-effective and to move away from the billable hour. Second, clients tend to see their problems as business problems, not legal problems, and there was value in helping them understand what governments are thinking and doing. Third, through Murphy’s infrastructure practice, he was to help deal with government and the work didn’t lend itself to the traditional, lawyer-client, billable hour model of billing.

“In some cases, you're able to be very helpful to them, but at the end of the day, what you're really doing is saying, ‘Look, I'm going to be a watchful eye for your interests,’” Murphy says. “Clients pay us monthly for a certain number of months and then we manage and we interact with government, but also monitor what government is doing and help them devise strategies, policies, programs that make sense in that context.”

“At the end of the day, we are professionals providing advice to people about how to deal with government and the media, including social media,” Murphy says.

In between various jobs at big law firms, Murphy has worked on campaigns in provincial and federal politics and was elected as a Liberal to the Ontario Provincial Parliament. He began his legal career at Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP, working in labour and employment, during which time he took a break to be campaign manager for former cabinet minister Bill Graham. After another political sabbatical, working on Paul Martin’s 1990 leadership campaign, Murphy went back to Blakes and became an insolvency and restructuring litigator. Then Murphy was elected to the Ontario legislature in the Liberal opposition to Bob Rae’s NDP government, until, he says, “the voters decided I should practise law again.”

Murphy then took on medical malpractice, patent and construction litigation at McCarthy Tétrault, after which he was chief of staff for finance minister and then prime minister Paul Martin. In 2006, back practising law, Murphy decided he was done with litigation and took a job at McMillan, focussing on transactions in infrastructure. His experience in government and with construction led him to believe there was an emerging opportunity in public private partnerships and he has since authored a book on the subject.

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