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CEO Dominique Hussey at the Bennett Jones office in Toronto, on Nov. 2.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

The only national law firm with Calgary roots has announced a changing of the guard, naming Toronto-based partner Dominique Hussey as its new chief executive officer and John Mercury as an Alberta-based executive chair.

The leadership change at Bennett Jones LLP was revealed Monday, with the two lawyers set to take the reins on Jan. 1 from Hugh MacKinnon, the firm’s chair and CEO for the past 18 years. Mr. MacKinnon was the architect of an expansion strategy that tripled the size of the 101-year-old firm to more than 500 lawyers in eight cities.

Bennett Jones’s peers in Alberta either stayed regional or joined forces with larger firms in the wake of a 1989 court decision that opened the door to partnerships across the provinces. Over three decades, a wave of merger reshaped legal services, with Toronto-based firms emerging as dominant players.

Mr. MacKinnon and his predecessors opted to take on established firms in Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec by recruiting talent from across the country and Wall Street. They built a firm that now consistently ranks among the country’s top 10 for corporate legal work, such as advising on mergers and acquisitions (M&A).

“We’re proud of our Calgary culture,” said Mr. MacKinnon, who will continue to work at the firm as chair emeritus but will step down from the board of directors, he said in an interview. He said the firm’s historic relationships with oil patch entrepreneurs and U.S. energy companies created a work ethic “focused on getting the job done for clients, with minimal bureaucracy.”

As Bennett Jones expanded, Mr. MacKinnon put a priority on hiring established lawyers from rivals, rather than targeting younger, cheaper associates and students with unproven potential.

”We were able to bring in best practices from other firms, while de-risking our business by decreasing our reliance on the energy sector,” he said. Bennett Jones also established one compensation scheme for the entire country. Many rivals pay partners on a regional basis.

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Chair John Mercury, CEO Dominique Hussey and former CEO and Chair Hugh MacKinnon, at the Bennett Jones office in Toronto, on Nov. 2.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Bennett Jones’s new leaders were both lured away from jobs in New York. Ms. Hussey, who grew up in Stratford, Ont., spent three years as an intellectual property litigator at Goodwin Procter LLP prior to joining Bennett Jones in 2005. In 2020, she became the firm’s managing partner in Toronto.

Mr. Mercury, a Winnipegger, initially practiced M&A and tax law for Wall Street firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP. He then worked at investment bank Merrill Lynch and at a private equity fund before moving to Bennett Jones in Calgary in 2006.

“There’s an energy that we bring to our work,” said Ms. Hussey in an interview. “It’s the result of a culture of collegiality and excellence, and that’s the culture we’re going to preserve.” As the first female Black CEO at one of country’s largest law firms, she said she recognizes her role is symbolically important in corporate Canada.

“I look forward to a day when someone like me in a job like this is not seen as remarkable.”

While law firms continue to grow through mergers – Bennett Jones and Toronto-based Torys LLP discussed joining forces in 1999 but couldn’t find common ground – the firm’s incoming leaders plan to remain independent. Mr. Mercury said consolidation in legal services is largely driven by perceived cost-cutting opportunities.

“From our clients’ point of view, I don’t see a compelling reason for law firm consolidation,” Mr. Mercury said. “Our value to clients is to focus on solving their issues, by all rowing together.”

Several U.S. law firms have opened offices in Canada as part of a strategy to win corporate clients away from domestic firms. Over the past year, Boston-based Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo PC has aggressively hired lawyers in Toronto.

Bennett Jones’s tactics for dealing with increased cross-border competition include strengthening ties to U.S. firms that routinely refer business to Canadian lawyers, Mr. Mercury said. He said the firm currently sees no reason to strike formal international alliances, or significantly bulk up offices in New York and Washington that are currently home to four lawyers.

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