Unsettled times in Montreal

Unsettled times in Montreal: [National Edition]
Czarnecka, Marzena. National Post [Don Mills, Ont] 09 May 2007: FP17.

Abstract: BCF occupies a particular position in the Montreal and Quebec City market. A national law firm, it emphatically isn’t. It’s too big and too diffuse to be a boutique. “We’re bigger than Davies Ward Philips & Vinberg are in Montreal right now,” points out Mr. [Hubert Sibre]. A regional law firm, it does not care to be (that’s a phrase that’s acquiring a very negative conno: tation these days). So what is it?

“The big deals we do tend to be bittersweet deals, because there is often this question mark about what this means for corporate Canada,” says Mr. [Norman Steinberg]. And, more specifically, what it means for Canadian — Montreal — lawyers. Who will get the work from a Domtar that’s essentially owned and controlled by Weyerhaeuser shareholders? The merged Abitibi-Bowater plans to have its corporate headquarters in Montreal — but will most of the legal work be done out of Montreal, or will it drift to South Carolina? And if New York’s Alcoa succeeds in its bid for Montreal’s (and Ogilvy’s) jewel Alcan well, you get the picture.

“Get rid of the deadwood,” he says. “We’ve crunched numbers, and believe it takes three wellperforming partners to carry one deadweight.” (Incidentally, it’s pronouncements like this that earn BCF lawyers their — deserved, concedes Mr. Sibre — reputation as wolves and sharks. But, he quotes a quip of a fellow partner, “We may be wolves, but wolves hunt in packs.” Right. They also kill the weak and injured. For the good of the pack.)

Full text: 

Montreal lawyers are just better dressed, aren’t they? You’d never mistake the most anglophone of Montreal lawyers for even their most fluently bilingual Toronto counterparts. The suits, the ties, the shoes (oh, the shoes) — no comparison. Toronto lawyers may wear the more expensive suits, but Montreal lawyers exude style.

That sense of cool was Montreal’s saving grace during times of political turmoil and economic despair. So the city’s economy slumbered while Bay Street boomed. So what? Montreal was Montreal, and Toronto was that lame place that wanted to be New York, but never would be. Sure, Toronto lawyers were making more money, but what did that matter? They had to live in Toronto.

Now, if you could somehow make Toronto-style money and live in Montreal — that would be peachy. (That’s probably how Osler Hoskin & Harcourt lured Brian Levitt back to the fold.) But right now, things in Montreal are not exactly peachy.

That doesn’t mean they’re bad. They’re actually pretty good — for most part.

“Like the rest of the country, we in Montreal are benefiting from the global boom in M&A,” says Norman Steinberg, co-chairman of Ogilvy Renault. “We’re busy, and my sense is most of the key law firms in the city are busy, too. We’re also all looking for more people, unfortunately, the same type of people. Everyone — external counsel and in-house counsel — is hunting for two-tothree- year securities associates.” Not to mention just-turned-40- and-on-the- upswing partners, the hottest commodity in the market .

So things are humming. But it’s a nervous type of hum, because the coolest lawyers in Canada are very conscious they are in the grips of a massive market transition. And it’s not Mr. Levitt’s fault.

Now, the arrival of Osler in the Montreal market shook things up to be sure (Blake Cassels & Graydon somewhat less so). But it also validated what Montrealers always suspected, that Toronto wanted, needed, envied them. And not just for their restaurants. There was money to be made in Montreal.

But it required — dare we say it? –more of a Toronto approach.

“Lawyers here still think of themselves as a profession,” says Hubert Sibre, a partner with BCF. Even more than the Montreal outpost of Osler, the 10-year-old and ludicrously profitable business law firm is redefining the Montreal market. How? As Mr. Sibre likes to say, “We’re businesspeople who happen to be lawyers.”

BCF occupies a particular position in the Montreal and Quebec City market. A national law firm, it emphatically isn’t. It’s too big and too diffuse to be a boutique. “We’re bigger than Davies Ward Philips & Vinberg are in Montreal right now,” points out Mr. Sibre. A regional law firm, it does not care to be (that’s a phrase that’s acquiring a very negative conno: tation these days). So what is it?

“We’re something new,” says Mr. Sibre. “What would I call us? I think we’re alaw firm.”

Let’s stretch that definition a little bit. A law firm that, by Montreal standards (Toronto’s, too), makes crazy amounts of money. And knows it. As part of its aggressive lateral recruitment strategy — the firm has gone from a handful of founding partners to just under 90 legal professionals in a decade — it’s seen the numbers of most of Montreal’s law firms.

“It’s a little sad,” says Mr. Sibre. “We had a situation recently, some partners came to us. They were top performers at their firm. They showed us their numbers. We were taken aback. You’re the ones at the firm who are doing well? We said, well, we’ll play fair with you. You showed us your numbers, we’ll show you ours. And their jaws dropped.”

Now, discussing money with Ogilvy Renault is like discussing colours with a blind man. The law firm takes its closed compensation system very seriously. But one can extrapolate a few things from things like its lawyers’ suits. Oh, and, of course, clients. It isn’t doing too badly. But it knows the metrics of the market place are changing.

“The big deals we do tend to be bittersweet deals, because there is often this question mark about what this means for corporate Canada,” says Mr. Steinberg. And, more specifically, what it means for Canadian — Montreal — lawyers. Who will get the work from a Domtar that’s essentially owned and controlled by Weyerhaeuser shareholders? The merged Abitibi-Bowater plans to have its corporate headquarters in Montreal — but will most of the legal work be done out of Montreal, or will it drift to South Carolina? And if New York’s Alcoa succeeds in its bid for Montreal’s (and Ogilvy’s) jewel Alcan well, you get the picture.

Never mind competing with Toronto.

But Toronto does loom large in strategic thinking in Montreal. Mr. Steinberg spends much of his time in the air between Toronto and Montreal, just like the besieged chairman of BCE Inc. (Yes, Ogilvy Renault has a mandate on the file. )Ogilvy Renault’s game plan is vested as much in continuing to breach the Toronto citadel as it is in defending its dominant position in Montreal.

It’s a toss up as to which will be harder, because the times, they are a-changing in both markets.

“The gap between the top tier and everyone else is getting wider,” says Mr. Sibre. “The biggest change, I think, is that the stars, the top performers, are no longer content to be at second- tier firms. And when you start to lose your top people, that’s the end.”

Mr. Sibre has a formula for keeping top people.

“Get rid of the deadwood,” he says. “We’ve crunched numbers, and believe it takes three wellperforming partners to carry one deadweight.” (Incidentally, it’s pronouncements like this that earn BCF lawyers their — deserved, concedes Mr. Sibre — reputation as wolves and sharks. But, he quotes a quip of a fellow partner, “We may be wolves, but wolves hunt in packs.” Right. They also kill the weak and injured. For the good of the pack.)

Simple, huh? But not something that resonates well in Montreal. Heck, it doesn’t really resonate well in the more cutthroat Toronto.

But it’s one of the things that Mr. Sibre believes will differentiate between the law firms that make it and those that join the ranks of Toronto’s recently disbanded Goodman & Carr.

He’s not talking about Ogilvy Renault, of course. But Mr. Steinberg and the College of Cardinals at Ogilvy Renault have long recognized they had to steer the firm through massive turmoil. Hence Toronto. Hence a diversified client-base.

“We take on smaller files and smaller clients than we did 30 years ago,” says Mr. Steinberg of the traditionally blue-blood and blue-chip firm. And they’re not alone. The top-tier firms in Montreal and increasingly in Toronto as well are very happy to do mid-market work. The big deals may be getting bigger and bigger, but, the merger records of the last couple of years notwithstanding, they are also getting fewer and fewer.

Add that squeeze on the midmarket to the unwillingness of top talent to carry mediocre colleagues and, in Toronto, you have the demise of Goodman & Carr.

There are several Goodman & Carr equivalents in Montreal, and at least one of them has lost major talent recently.

“You don’t wish that on anyone,” says Mr. Sibre. “But I think it’s coming.”

The future, he thinks, belongs to the wolves.

Illustration

Black & White Photo: National Post File Photo / NORMAN STEINBERG: “We’re also looking for more people.” ;

Word count: 1254

(Copyright National Post 2007)