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Torys LLP Managing partner Les Viner, right, is passing the reins to Matthew Cockburn.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Torys LLP, one of Canada’s top law firms for mergers and acquisitions, has named its first new leader in 21 years, with private-equity specialist Matt Cockburn poised to take over as managing partner.

Long-time firm leader Les Viner, 63, will hand the reins to his 52-year-old colleague in April. Mr. Cockburn joined Torys as a summer student in 1992 and built the firm’s private-equity practice. He has been on Torys’ seven-lawyer executive committee for much of the past eight years. Torys ranked among the top 20 law firms in the world last year on volume of M&A deals.

At a time when many law firms are choosing to expand globally with their corporate clients, Torys’ new boss plans to stick with running a relatively small firm. Mr. Cockburn said the firm will deepen its focus on growth sectors such as intellectual property, private capital, renewable energy and Indigenous law, and launch teams that specialize in emerging fields such as cybersecurity, commercialization of the North and water rights.

On Mr. Viner’s watch, Toronto-based Torys merged with a firm in New York and later built a national presence by opening offices in Calgary, Montreal and Halifax. The firm is now home to approximately 360 lawyers and articling students, which makes it a relatively small corporate law practice. There are about 100 firms globally that employ more than 1,000 lawyers, and several of Torys’ Canadian rivals have more than 600 lawyers.

During a joint interview at the Torys office in Toronto, Mr. Viner and Mr. Cockburn said the firm considered planting its flag in regions such as Europe, but decided it was not the best solution for Canadian clients who could be better served by the top lawyers in foreign jurisdictions. A decade ago, Torys also decided against bulking up in Canada by merging with a global firm after getting negative reviews on the concept from clients.

Torys found that its customers, which include many of Canada’s largest companies and pension plans, are concerned that a bigger law firm would be more prone to conflicts of interest.

“The secret sauce is that we all know each other,” Mr. Cockburn said, noting that while the firm may be small even for the Toronto market, “that is what allows us to be very nimble and very flexible. And I think most importantly, it allows us to maintain this culture we have.”

The new managing partner’s appointment came after an eight-month process that saw Torys’ succession committee, working with an outside consultant, vet a number of internal candidates before recommending Mr. Cockburn. The firm’s partners unanimously approved his appointment on Wednesday.

Mr. Cockburn said he is focused on ensuring the firm is an enjoyable place to work with initiatives such as flexibility on maternity and paternity leaves as well as a dress code put in place this August that allows lawyers to go casual every day, provided they have business clothes stored at work for unexpected client meetings.

The firm was founded in 1941 by John Stewart Donald Tory, who was later joined in the practice by his twin sons, John A. Tory and James M. Tory. John A.’s son is John Tory, the mayor of Toronto and former Rogers Communications Inc. executive. In 1999, the firm (which was then known as Tory Tory DesLauriers & Binnington) merged with New York firm Haythe & Curley.

In one of his early moves as managing partner, Mr. Viner announced the ejection of named partner Thomas Haythe after a sexual-harassment scandal; the firm was subsequently rebranded as simply Torys.

“We fired him immediately. And it was a very traumatic event, but we’re very proud of how we behaved. We held our culture through a crisis that tested it,” Mr. Viner said. “It affirmed that doing the right thing is the right thing and also works for your business.”

Currently, one third of Torys’ executive committee, one quarter of its partners and half of its associate lawyers are women.

In 2015, the firm launched an “onshoring” legal-services centre in Halifax, where lawyers do recurring legal work such as due diligence and contract review for fixed-rate fees. Torys uses Halifax in part as a test bed for new technology before the firm rolls it out on a broader basis.

Mr. Cockburn said integrating technology into the firm’s existing processes will be a critical focus of the next five years.

“In a world of greater pressure on the billable hour and greater drive for efficiencies from all of our clients, we really need to crack that nut. But I don’t think you crack it by just driving your prices down; you crack it by being much more efficient in how you deliver the service,” he said. “So people are getting really, really high quality service, but it’s priced differently going forward.”

The managing-partner appointment is for a five-year term, but Mr. Cockburn – who will leave his practice to take on the role – said he ideally hopes to remain in the job until he is 65, the mandatory retirement age according to firm policy.

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