Big, eh?

I gave the May 2012 Last Word, published as What Does ‘National’ Mean? (Lexpert), the charming working title, Big, eh? It’s got a bit more of a chill and darkness to it than most of my Last Words. But I think its message is important.

English: Flag of Canada over country contour F...

The paragraph that says it all (full text follows):

What time does your national practice group hold its telecon meetings? Is it by any chance at 8 a.m. Eastern? That’s 6 a.m. In Calgary, and 5 a.m. in Vancouver. There are less subtle ways of telling your Western offices they’re unimportant, but this one’s hard to beat as a message. 

LAST WORD: Too freakin’ big

by Marzena Czarnecka

One day, very very soon, I’m planning on packing my kids into a gas-guzzling Class C motorhome, and taking them on the road trip of a lifetime: all the way East and all through the Maritimes, and then back all the way West, and, before returning to the centre of our universe in Calgary, up at least part of the way North. There will be nothing fun about this trip. It will be purely and relentlessly educational, and the lesson I intend for it to drive home to these three future Canadian voters and business people is this: Canada is really, really, really, really BIG.

Obvious, you think? A lesson one might equally well learn from a wall map or the stats about Canada’s land mass, time zones, diverse economic zones etc.? No. There is only one way to get a sense of how insanely immense this country of ours is, how incredibly different it is from coast to coast (and north to south)—only one way to prepare a Canadian adult to really understand this geographic reality and all the challenges it entails, and that’s to traverse it yourself—and not by plane.

Understanding this—really understanding this, knowing it first-hand—will be critical to my children’s future success, should they find themselves ruling the land politically (my father, as befits a patriotic immigrant, wants to be the grandfather of a prime minister), or wield real power as new titans of Canadian business, or, poor things, perhaps suffer as managing partners, chairpeople or otherwise named dictators-for-life of a national or international law firm.

Considering how gob-smack obvious the immensity of Canada is, and how critical understanding the challenges presented by this size—and the thinness of the population smeared across it—must be, it never fails to amaze me how few Canadians really understand this. Politicians, business people, lawyers, Joe and Jane on the street—there is but a handful of them that really get it. The only ones that get it are, I think, the ones who’ve lived it: who’ve felt the distance, who’ve felt the distinct rhythms and cultures of Canada’s various population pockets. They’re the ones who manage to pull the nation together—to successfully run a national enterprise—to effectively manage a national law firm.

Have I mentioned how absurdly few of these people there are? Perhaps it’s not that surprising: if the pre-requisite for understanding Canada is travelling Canada, the nation’s size poses a challenge surmountable only by those who have the time and money, never mind inclination, to meet it. Most of us don’t know this country at all. We know our little pocket, our city and the area around it—we don’t even know our provinces. I presume to speak for Alberta all the time—and I’ve been north of Edmonton once; north of Fort McMurray (and there is a lot of Alberta past Fort McMurray) never.

For Canada’s large national law firms, many of which are currently busy expanding into international markets, or prettying themselves up as potential targets of international acq… er, partnerships, the size of their domestic market is a still unaddressed problem. The country’s too big—the market’s too small. The less-than-half-dozen urban centres that really matter to a national, transactional-type platform are too different from each other to respond to the same strategy, too big to ignore, too small to be enough, too interdependent to be silos. No wonder that in this, the third decade of the national law firm experiment, hardly anyone’s really gotten it right.

(Yes, I know you’ve got it right. But you know I can’t name you by name, or all the other firms would be jealous. That’s why I said hardly anyone. You know I’m talking about you. Right?)

Don’t believe me? Consider this. What time does your national practice group hold its telecon meetings? Is it by any chance at 8 a.m. Eastern? That’s 6 a.m. In Calgary, and 5 a.m. in Vancouver. There are less subtle ways of telling your Western offices they’re unimportant, but this one’s hard to beat as a message. Even a leader who regularly traverses the country and deals with time changes might make this mistake: we all tend to get wrapped up in our immediate realities. When your reality is defined by Calgary, you don’t think about the woes of Ontario’s manufacturing sector or the latest news from New York the same way your colleagues in Toronto do; when your reality is defined within Montreal, you don’t necessarily get Quebec City let alone the real estate market in Vancouver.

But guess what? To be an effective national law firm—to be a successful Canadian law firm—you’ve got to get this. All of it. And if you don’t—shut up and let the people who do get it manage.

Marzena Czarnecka is a Calgary-centric writer who should have been born a Montrealer, could pass for a Vancouverite in the right light, spends not enough time in Toronto and has never yet been to the Maritimes.