Redefining legal services: MT Align president Linda Beairsto on flexible work and diversity

The McCarthy Tétrault LLP partner will appear at Canadian Lawyer’s upcoming Women in Law Summit

Redefining legal services: MT Align president Linda Beairsto on flexible work and diversity

Linda Beairsto is the president of MT Align and a partner at McCarthy Tétrault LLP. For our CL Talk podcast, we spoke to her about MT Align’s innovative approach to legal services delivery and how offering flexible working arrangements can help improve diversity in the profession.

Beairsto will also be appearing at Canadian Lawyer’s upcoming Women in Law Summit in Toronto in April, where she will speak about senior leadership's role in advancing diversity in law.

Listen to our full podcast episode here:

You can also find this episode on our CL Talk podcast homepage with links to follow CL Talk in all the major podcast providers.

Below is a summary of the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about your journey within the legal profession and what led you to your current position at McCarthy Tétrault.

I have been blessed to have held senior executive and GC roles in various sectors, including financial services, pharmaceuticals, automotive, and power and utilities.

I started my legal career as a commercial real estate lawyer at Faskens. I then joined the DuPont legal team for many years. I have been hired several times to create a legal department from scratch.

In my last position, we spent about $20 million annually in legal fees. I was used to clients saying that the legal department is a cost center. I'm sure many of your readers know the term “legal resistance department.”

That made me think we needed to change and ensure the legal department became a profit center. We needed to transform the way we engage with our external law firms.

So, we came up with various legal models, such as value billing, because we felt that the traditional legal business model where law firms charge by the billable hours was not working. Value-based billing also didn't work.

So, that led me to think that maybe it was time to disrupt the legal services delivery industry. I aimed to design innovative legal models to provide more efficient, cost-effective and client-centric services.

So, in 2018, I was approached by a former colleague, Judith McKay, our Chief Clients and Innovation Officer at McCarthy. She asked if I wanted to co-lead a new division of McCarthys with her to provide alternative legal services but within the law firm.

I thought there was a very novel and interesting concept. I eagerly jumped at the opportunity to implement my dream initiative, and MT Align was officially launched in 2019. I became the president in 2020.

How has MT Align been received within McCarthys?

It was born out of our commitment to our customer's needs. They were telling us they wanted more cost-effective and efficient services. We have a very innovative culture, so our team developed MT Align as an alternative legal service provider within a law firm.

Matt Peters, Judith, and I developed the name. Our name is meant to convey an efficient platform aligned with the interests of our clients, employees, and the law firm.

Initially, the partners had many questions about how the model would work. But we are celebrating our fifth anniversary, proving this model can succeed. We no longer have anyone questioning the model's efficacy because we are thriving, and internal lawyers look to us for resources when they need cost-effective and specialized services.

How do you see your role in shaping your firm's culture and policies, especially regarding diversity, equity and inclusion?

As a partner of the firm and president of MT Align, I'm mindful of being a role model and leading by example. In a sense, I am creating a culture of DEI and related policies from scratch. However, I am drawing extensively from the firm's Inclusion Now program.

We are mindful and purposeful about implementing our Inclusion Now program through hiring practices or placing individuals with clients. It permeates everything we do.

What innovative strategies has your firm employed to recruit and retain diverse legal talent?

One of the things we did last year, which we continue to expand and grow, is to onboard retiring partners to our platform. For example, MT Align is an ideal platform for retired partners to continue their practices if they want to continue practising law flexibly. It is a win-win for our clients and the lawyer.

The second method to attract and retain diverse top talent is to pair clients with lawyers trained in foreign jurisdictions. Recently, we paired two excellent Nigerian-trained lawyers with several large multinational companies. Our clients have been impressed and pleased with our placements. Foreign-trained lawyers are given opportunities that they would not otherwise have.

I don't know whether this is innovative, but with MT Align’s success, McCarthy lawyers, our clients and employees are our best recruiters. Through word of mouth, they promote and encourage their friends and colleagues to consider MT Align because of their positive experiences with us.

Tell me about how you have implemented flexible working practices.

Let me give you an example. During the COVID lockdown, a lawyer moved with his family to the Caribbean. She practised law from what was essentially a houseboat for several months. That lawyer was able to continue her practice abroad for a short period. Our clients didn't mind if she delivered what she was asked.

We also have lawyers who are called to the bar in Quebec practising law in another province because we have reciprocal rules and an ability to do that based on the arrangements of various law societies. We have a lawyer in Quebec helping a client in Alberta for under 50 hours a year.

We also have clients who require our lawyers for short mandates. We have a young father who is only able to work from two o'clock onwards because he's the primary caregiver. We can give him work that suits his schedule.

We are very flexible. Our lawyers pick and choose what they want to work on, how they want to deliver the services and where they want to provide them.

What are the most significant barriers to achieving diversity in the legal profession, and how have you worked to overcome them?

The first and obvious one is unconscious bias and stereotyping. We tend to hire people who have similar backgrounds. For example, I might be inclined to hire someone who went to a prestigious law school or worked at a prestigious law firm.

To prevent that, we have created standardized behavioural interview questions to avoid that bias. We also have bias training.

We often have clients who would say, “We're looking for a lawyer with five to eight years of experience,” we might say, “Well, we have a wonderful pool of senior lawyers, former GCs who would be fantastic for this role.” And they would push back. But after convincing them that the more senior lawyer would be able to hit the ground running and the rates would be comparable to a mid-level lawyer, they often give the senior lawyer a chance. That has worked well to the point where our lawyers or clients are asking for not only mid-level lawyers but also senior, seasoned lawyers.

Could it be a model for the entire legal profession?

Absolutely. I think the key is collaboration. You need to have a culture of cooperation between the lawyers at the firm, the MT Align contract lawyers and the clients. With collaboration, I think that our model can be duplicated.

In fact, within McCarthys, we now have a hybrid model. We work from the office three days a week, and we can work from home two days a week. Additionally, we allow our employees to work anywhere worldwide for two weeks a year.

So, seeing these flexible work practices in the firm and within MT Align is lovely.

Other concepts referenced for improving diversity in the workplace are psychological safety and resilience – tell me how that manifests itself in your workplace.

This is a topic very near and dear to my heart. I think the key is to create a culture of belonging.

My style is servant leadership, meaning I work for the team, not vice versa. I believe if the team knows that the leader cares and has their backs, the team members will feel psychologically safe, and through coaching, they will become resilient. My coach is fond of saying that it's not about creating a superstar; it is about creating a super team.

During the Covid lockdowns, I began to have weekly team meetings where each person was free to either share a safety moment or tell a positive story. We check in with each other to ensure that everyone is doing well. With that structure, we have developed a sense of community, collaboration, and trust, where people want to excel and thrive within a super team.

MT>Align is relatively new; what are the plans for its growth at McCarthys?

It's our fifth anniversary this month, and we have 160 lawyers. We receive about 200 applications a month to join our community. However, we now have a very rigorous selection and recruitment process because we aim to attract and retain high-calibre lawyers.

We will continue to scale up. McCarthys now says MT Align is an extension of itself. So, it's similar to how we provide services to all our clients.

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