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Former foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon is joining law firm Gowling Lafleur Henderson. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Former foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon is joining law firm Gowling Lafleur Henderson. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Lawrence Cannon lands at Gowlings Add to ...

In a departing speech he gave to diplomats in Ottawa, Lawrence Cannon joked that before spending 2½ years as Canada’s minister of foreign affairs he never imagined how often he would be “deeply troubled” or “deeply concerned” – the two stock phrases used in countless statements his office issued about various calamities around the world.

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Mr. Cannon certainly doesn’t seem “deeply troubled” these days, five months after voters in his Western Quebec riding of Pontiac booted the Conservative out in favour of a rookie New Democrat. But like many recovering Canadian politicians before him, he now has a new job – at a law firm.

After a courtship that saw Mr. Cannon, 63, pursued by other unnamed firms, Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP will announce Wednesday that it has hired him as a strategic adviser based in Ottawa, although he is not a lawyer.

Almost every major law firm provides offices for former politicians, who are often expected to impress clients and bring in new business. But despite the success of retired public figures who become rainmakers at major firms, some question whether many former politicians end up earning their keep.

Mr. Cannon said he was attracted to Gowlings because of its global outlook – the firm recently opened a representative office in Beijing, and has long had a presence in Moscow and London.

“What really enticed me here, and lit the flame, is that you’ve got a Canadian [firm]that looks at the world, and says, ‘How do I attack the world?’ I felt that these are the guys that I want to be associated with,” Mr. Cannon said in an interview.

He follows a long line of politicians who have ended up at Bay Street law firms. His former cabinet colleague, Stockwell Day, just joined McMillan LLP. Former Toronto mayor David Miller is now at Aird & Berlis LLP. Former Ontario premiers, and political foes, David Peterson and Mike Harris now chum around together at Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP. Former prime ministers Jean Chrétien (Heenan Blaikie) and Brian Mulroney (Norton Rose OR LLP) have long been deal-makers and door-openers, whose contacts among world leaders are said to be prized by their firms and clients more than their skills as conventional lawyers.

But Warren Bongard, vice-president of legal headhunting firm ZSA Legal Recruitment, says many managing partners will say privately that some of their other highly paid political hires have not worked out. These former politicians are paid well, but do not docket hours like other lawyers. And often, they fail initially to deliver on the promise of new work that is supposed to flow from their contacts or from their seats on corporate boards, he said.

“If you ask any managing partner on Bay Street, I think they would say more often than not they haven’t been successful with these acquisitions,” Mr. Bongard said.

There is also the question of lobbying. Mr. Cannon, by law, cannot lobby the federal government for five years after leaving cabinet. Clearly, clients expect former politicians to have influence in the halls of power. But law firms often play down the role of former politicians as backroom influencers. Instead, they say these hires are aimed at providing advice, helping clients open doors overseas, and helping law firms land new foreign clients.

Gowlings has been on a big-name hiring spree that has also included Mr. Cannon’s former deputy minister, Len Edwards, a former ambassador to Japan who served as the Prime Minister’s personal representative at the recent Group of Eight and Group of 20 summits. Scott Jolliffe, chairman and chief executive officer of Gowlings, says the new additions are not lobbyists, but there to further the firm’s global strategy.

Particularly in China and in much of Asia, a delegation led by a former senior government official tends to get a better hearing than one fronted by a team of anonymous lawyers, and Mr. Cannon has a good résumé for this kind of duty. He oversaw the Harper government’s recent thawing of Canada-China relations, and says he met with his Chinese counterpart in one eight-month period much more often than he did with even the U.S. Secretary of State.

Mr. Cannon acknowledges that leaving politics will require an “adjustment” but says he is looking forward to what will likely be his last career change.

When asked what he will remember about his time as foreign minister, Mr. Cannon is quick to mention Canada’s efforts to help Haitians after the 2010 earthquake: “I’ve been to Haiti. I saw the devastation there. … When we look at Canada’s contribution to helping our neighbour … we can all look back at that and be proud of what we’ve done.”

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