Say goodbye to ‘us’ and ‘them’

Say goodbye to ‘us’ and ‘them’
Czarnecka, Marzena. The Globe and Mail [Toronto, Ont] 30 July 2008: B.5.


Full text: As local relationships are developed, firms with Bay Street roots are no longer seen as outsiders in Calgary

Tristram Mallett can pinpoint the moment when he realized there was no longer a difference between “us” and “them.”

The managing partner of Osler Hoskin & Harcourt’s Calgary office came from Toronto more than a decade ago, as part of Osler’s first storming of the Calgary legal citadel, which was dominated by local independent firms that were not interested in mergers with Eastern Canadian law firms.

In those days, Mr. Mallett was perceived as an outsider, notwithstanding seasons tickets to the Calgary Flames, Stampeders and various local theatres.

That’s over. The change came gradually, of course, but there was an epiphany. A few months ago, a client called, demanding a meeting immediately. Mr. Mallett was at the client’s offices in 15 minutes. Osler – the Bayest of the Bay Street law firms – was sharing a mandate with a local Calgary law firm, which was staffing the account with people in its Toronto office.

“So there I was, in the boardroom, and the incumbent firm had three lawyers on the phone from Toronto,” Mr. Mallett recalls. “The Eastern carpetbagger was the guy who was able to walk across the street and be there in 15 minutes, and the incumbent firm was dialling in guys from the 416 area code.”

It’s getting harder to find a difference now between the “us” and the “them” from back East. What’s more, if you can tell them apart, it’s hard to find anyone who cares.

When Mr. Mallett came to Calgary, he was one of “them.” Even three years ago, the Calgary legal market was firmly divided into the indigenous Calgary law firms (“us”) and the outposts of eastern law firms (“them”).

Bennett Jones, Macleod Dixon, and Burnet Duckworth & Palmer were the vanguard of the full-blooded “us.” The Calgary offices of Osler and Stikeman Elliott were undoubtedly “them” – never mind that both were chock full of Calgary lawyers.

The division got a little murky when it came to Blake Cassels & Graydon and McCarthy Tetrault, which had been in the Calgary market since the late 1980s; they were kind of “us,” forced to wear some foreign T-shirts designed by “them.” And the indigenous law firms that merged into national firms – such as the predecessor Calgary firms of Borden Ladner Gervais, Fraser Milner Casgrain and Gowling LaFleur Henderson – were still “us,” but there was a suspicion, sometimes just, sometimes not, that they were really ruled by “them,” with the shots being called in Toronto.

“The time of that distinction has passed,” says Lou Cusano, managing partner of Stikeman in Calgary.

Theoretically, in Calgary, it doesn’t matter where you come from, so long as you can do the job. There’s a catch, though. As Robert Engbloom notes, you’ve also got to have the right local relationships.

Mr. Engbloom is one of Calgary’s most respected senior corporate lawyers, and an “us” lawyer all the way – he started his career with Calgary’s MacKimmie Matthews and joined Macleod Dixon in 1999 when MacKimmie dissolved.

“Whether you are a Calgary law firm or a Toronto law firm with a Calgary office, you have to have local relationships,” he says. “Most clients will be looking at you for your own capability, your services, and your relationships.”

The Toronto-based outfits have that now. “The line [between “us” and “them”] has blurred as Toronto firms have acquired Calgary firms, Calgary lawyers and Calgary relationships,” Mr. Engbloom sums up.

Here’s the strange thing about all this: There is not an iota of defensiveness in Mr. Engbloom’s analysis. Ditto when Perry Spitznagel, Bennett Jones’ Calgary managing partner and vice-chairman of the firm, speaks about Toronto firms – even the Bennett Jones-partner-poaching Osler.

And he won’t play the “we’re local, we’re better” card. After all, since 2000 Bennett Jones has been storming the Toronto fortress, and its 150 Toronto lawyers are – size-wise, revenue-wise and reputation-wise – chasing the benchmark established by their 170 Calgary colleagues.

A decade ago, the Calgary legal community had a pronounced defensiveness in relation to Bay Street and its more established, “almost like New York” institutions. Calgary law firms were quick to point out that their people were “just as good, or maybe even better” than the lawyers in Toronto. The deals in Calgary were “just as complicated” as the stuff done on Bay Street. And, by the way, the billing rates were lower.

Today, Calgary is bursting with self-confidence, and its lawyers aren’t measuring themselves against some mythical Bay Street benchmark. (The billing rates are still a little lower, but that’s likely to change as soon as local law firms have to renegotiate their real estate leases.)

“We don’t think about Toronto any more … we don’t talk about Toronto any more,” says Richard Clark, a corporate partner with the Calgary office of Gowlings. For the firms that bought into the national law firm model, the national platform has never been about getting “national” work. It’s been about getting more credibility when dealing with “New York, Dallas, Houston, Hong Kong,” Mr. Clark says.

That credibility exists. Calgary knows it’s one of the hubs of the world’s energy industry, says John Brussa, a tax partner with Burnet Duckworth & Palmer.

“It’s a feeling of we’re all grown-up now,” agrees Peter Feldberg, a partner with the Calgary and Vancouver offices of Fasken Martineau DuMoulin.


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