Growth Strategy & Maintaining Stability Through an Economic Crisis
Sean Weir, National Managing Partner of Borden Ladner Gervais LLP – Canada’s largest full-service law firm – talked to The Lawyers Weekly recently on the Firm’s growth and it’s “multi-heads-are-better-than-one” model:
Formed from a merger of five regional firms on March 1, 2000, Borden Ladner Gervais (BLG) LLP arrived on the national scene a year after seven other large firms were dubbed the “Seven Sisters.”
While not a sibling in that family, BLG is — a little more than a decade later — the Big Mamma of Canadian law firms. With about 760 lawyers at offices in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Waterloo, Calgary and Vancouver, it is, by that head count, the country’s largest firm and the size of top firms in the U.S. However, BLG would not have come to be had it not been for one of the sisters, McCarthy Tétrault LLP, starting the merger trend when four regional firms got together and, after the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) gave the go-ahead in the Black v. Law Society of Alberta  S.C.J. No. 27, established Canada’s first national law firm.
The broader reach and multi-heads-are-better-than-one model inspired Howard, Mackie of Calgary, McMaster Gervais of Montreal, Scott & Aylen of Ottawa, Borden & Elliot of Toronto and Ladner Downs of Vancouver to come together, according to Sean Weir, who has served as national managing partner since BLG’s creation.
“We felt we could provide seamless service to clients across the country if we were a single firm as opposed to having agents in different provinces.”
However, he says that becoming Canada’s biggest law firm was never BLG’s goal.
“We wanted good practitioners with good clients, and had growth by winning new business.”
Still, the firm is not shy about promoting its top-of-the-heap status, and uses it as a “calling card” when searching for work internationally.
“It gives us a certain measure of respect,” explains Weir, who also practises corporate law focused on pension and financing matters. “Our size indicates stability, growth and continuity with clients.”
Lawyers from other firms seem to like those characteristics too.
“We’ve never had as many partners from other law firms looking to join BLG as we have over the last eight months,” says Weir, who started practising law in 1981 with Borden & Elliot. “Some firms may not have as broad a client base, may be more transactional in nature and may be having more issues with workflow than we are in today’s economy.”
Although the firm, like others, has experienced decreased volume in banking, acquisitions and securities transactions since the start of the economic crisis in October 2008, BLG’s broad-based practice (55 per cent of which is corporate work and 45 per cent from litigation or dispute resolution) has kept it financially strong. Having a stable institutional client base, composed of banks, insurance companies, hospitals, schools and governments has also served the firm well through the recession — particularly in Calgary, where the economy is thriving thanks in large part to the booming electricity sector and oil and gas industry.
Weir points out that BLG is experiencing growth in not only its energy practice, but also in its practice areas for public-private infrastructure projects, corporate commercial, securities and capital markets, mergers and acquisitions, class actions and commercial litigation.
“We’ve done better than most American firms, which have experienced a much more drastic reduction in deal flow over the last two years.”
He explains that large U.S. firms are built around significant deal flow and typically have three to five associates for every partner to keep business moving in and out the door. By comparison, major Canadian firms, such as BLG, usually only have one associate per partner.
“When the deal flow dries up in the States, there’s a huge amount of excess capacity very quickly,” says Weir, adding that the lesson for all law firms is to be “prudent in growth, understand where work comes from and not be overly aggressive hiring with the hope of becoming busy.”
He says that BLG is “unbelievably diligent” in only hiring senior lawyers as partners with “good practices” and expertise in “developing business,” and promotes associates who have been with the firm since their call to the Bar.
-From the July 1, 2011 issue of The Lawyers Weekly