Beth Wilson, an accountant by training, spent 26 years at KPMG, leaving the firm only after she was passed over for the job of Canadian chief executive. Within months, however, she landed an equally big role in a different field. In July, 2017, she took over as CEO of Dentons Canada LLP, leading about 550 lawyers across offices in six cities. Dentons was forged from a three-way merger involving Canada’s Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP in 2013 and now has more than 10,000 lawyers in 73 countries.
Ms. Wilson, 51, sits on Dentons’ global board as well as its 21-member global management committee. The Globe and Mail spoke with the executive at the firm’s Toronto office in late September, just after she had returned from meeting with both groups in Jakarta. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What made you want to run a law firm?
I was looking for a significant leadership role in an organization or a sector that was undergoing a lot of change because I’d done a lot of that at KPMG and really enjoy it. I wasn’t really looking for a law firm, but Dentons was going through CEO succession and I realized that there is so much disruption going on in the legal sector that is similar to what we see with the Big Four [accounting firms, KPMG, EY, PwC and Deloitte]. There’s a lot of change happening with the business processes, talent processes and approaches to going to market. I wouldn’t call it a burning platform yet, but you can see all of the signs there.
What challenges do you see facing business law firms in Canada?
From a talent perspective, there are demographic issues with aging partners and succession issues, and you also have a whole new generation of professionals who want to work differently than they have in the past. It’s not that professionals don’t want to work hard, but they want more control and flexibility over how they work.
And then there are shifting client needs. They don’t want just technical expertise in litigation – they want advisers who really know and understand their industry and business. Increasingly, we’re hearing clients don’t want the 30-page legal memo. They want crisp, succinct advice so they can walk down the hall and have a conversation with their CEO or go into a board presentation.
The other disruption is around technology and artificial intelligence. Clients want to see that firms are being innovative and leveraging technology so they only have highly paid professionals doing the work highly paid professionals need to be doing.
Where do you see this heading?
That rise of technology, the need to invest in talent processes – it all costs more. Associate salaries are increasing, technology investments are significant and come with material cybersecurity requirements. And one of the things I observed from when I joined Dentons is the legal sector is very fragmented. I think some of the mid-size or smaller firms are going to find it really, really difficult to invest and support the technology they need, to invest in the talent processes to attract great associates, to deal with succession. I think it’s inevitable in the Canadian landscape that we will start to see some combinations of law firms happening.
What are Dentons’ strengths in the Canadian market? Where do you see opportunities to win new clients or gain market share?
We are proudly focused on the mid-market. If you think about the lifeblood of the Canadian economy, yes, we have our handful of large corporates. Beyond that, you move pretty quick into the mid-market and that is where all the growth is happening – where companies are buying and selling and consolidating and expanding overseas and looking to refinance. We focus strongly across that area. In competing with other law firms, we have the benefit of our global reach to bring to those large private companies that are really looking at expanding and transacting globally.
We’re watching the large sectoral shifts that are happening and continuing to build our depth and breadth across things like intellectual property and technology. For Canada, agriculture is an area to watch. Alternative energy would be another one, particularly when you think about Calgary and how to diversify our economy. Vancouver and Edmonton are quickly becoming tech hubs, and as more of that develops, we want to make sure we are pivoting and moving with that sector.
With clients all over the world, international law firms can face added challenges managing conflicts of interest. [In 2015, Dentons was removed from a U.S. patent case against Gap Inc. because it represented the retailer in Canada.] How do you handle this?
Conflicts are a fact of life for law firms, be they big or small. Being a large, global firm means we open more files, but it does not create unique conflicts challenges. As far as legal conflicts are concerned, we meet the requirements imposed by the regulators where we have offices.
For business conflicts, we focus on our clients. Where there is no clear legal or ethical requirement, our approach focuses on the expectations of the clients involved. This has resulted in deeper, broader relationships with our clients.
How is Dentons confronting competition from your former employer and the other multinational accounting firms?
There’s no doubt that the Big Four have entered the legal sector in a big way globally. I would say in North America it’s been slower and it started when I was at KPMG – largely in the areas of tax law and immigration. But now we’re starting to see the firms expand into corporate law, largely with a focus on M&A and some employment and labour.
I don’t think the Big Four should be underestimated, because they have resources. On the other hand, I think we have lots of advantages as law firms. First of all, we are lawyers, with a great sense of risk identification and mitigation and a real grounding in a trusting relationship with our clients.
Part of our competitive response to the Big Four will be to broaden our suite of services. Starting to expand into adjacent areas of service around regulatory compliance and risk management. So as they start to expand, we need to look at what our core strengths are and where we can differentiate.
Your time is valuable. Have the Top Business Headlines newsletter conveniently delivered to your inbox in the morning or evening. Sign up today.