Skip to main content

There was more than the usual sense of anticipation last summer as 250 lawyers at Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP gathered for their partners' meeting at Toronto's Royal York Hotel.

Their previous scheduled gathering, Sept. 14, 2001, was called off in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, which had grounded air travel. So this was the first owners' meeting since the firm doubled in size through a succession of cross-Canada mergers in 2000 and 2001.

It was also unusual because of the presence of a highly visible guest: Hubert Saint-Onge.

Mr. Saint-Onge is a management guru best known for strengthening the teamwork culture and invigorating the troops as a vice-president at both Clarica Life Insurance Co. and Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.

He had been invited by Gowlings' national managing partner, Scott Jolliffe, who gave him a daunting task: to coax the partners into consensus about their first five-year plan for building the business.

Notwithstanding the obvious challenge of herding 250 independent-minded lawyers into a single plan of action, there was something else standing in Mr. Saint-Onge's way: He is not a lawyer.

The use of outside facilitators is not new to law. For years, firms have been seeking the help of specialists, such as U.S.-based Hildebrandt International and Altman-Weil Inc., for industry intelligence and advice on so-called established best practices.

But lately, corporate lawyers have taken greater interest in management practices and strategies of successful companies outside the legal field. What better way to serve a corporate client, they figure, than to walk a mile in his shoes?

The hiring of outside facilitators has also taken on special importance of late at firms such as Gowlings, which are striving to work out a common plan of action and knit together disparate office cultures after a series of mergers.

Enter the management guru.

When Gowlings' lawyers met Mr. Saint-Onge, "there was a measure of skepticism," Mr. Jolliffe says. "To be fair, probably a lot of skepticism" about his lack of experience with law firms.

Yet Mr. Saint-Onge -- who left a 6½-year stint at Clarica in 2002 to start Saintonge Alliance Inc., his own consulting company based in Waterloo, Ont. -- forged ahead with his offbeat plan for the Gowlings partners' meeting.

He divided the assembly into random groups of seven or eight and equipped them with flip charts to work out collective answers to such questions as "What key challenges does the firm face?" "What are its strengths?" "What needs to be improved?"

Mr. Saint-Onge had even intentionally booked an undersized room to encourage close contact among the partners. Many of them had yet to even meet, since Gowlings had digested a smorgasbord of firms across the country to become a national entity, including Code Hunter and Ballem MacInnes of Calgary, Lafleur Brown of Montreal, Smith Lyons of Toronto and Montpellier McKeen Talbot & Giuffre of Vancouver.

According to Mr. Jolliffe, the gambit worked. "There were a few complaints to begin with, but by the end of it, everybody was in rolled-up shirtsleeves, arm in arm, working together."

Even Mr. Saint-Onge was impressed by the exuberance of some. "One of the lawyers stood up in the middle of the room and said, 'It feels like a goddamn revival meeting,' " he recalls.

"And then he said, 'What the hell, let me tell you what I'm going to do.' It was a powerful meeting, it was a real turning point."

The crowning achievement of that exercise, hammered out over subsequent weeks, was a five-year plan aimed at building teams around promising practice areas and key clients -- a now common strategy, but a marked departure from the traditional legal model of partners tending to their own personal client lists.

"The role of the outsider is very useful," says David Maister, a Boston-based author and consultant widely considered the top guru of professional-firm consulting. "But I'm biased because I'm one, too."

Mr. Maister, a non-lawyer and former Harvard business professor who works for numerous U.S. and Canadian law firms, says there has been a deep-rooted resistance by lawyers to seek the help of outsiders, but that's breaking down.

"It is very common for law firms to say to me and to other consultants, 'We lawyers are very smart people. Why do we need you?' "

But legal skills, he adds, don't usually extend to solving questions such as how to inspire people to collaborate, how to treat clients the way they want to be treated, and how to motivate junior staff.

"The answers to those questions involve a deeper understanding of how people work, and that's why an outsider can be helpful even if the lawyers are very smart," he says.

A year after Borden Ladner Gervais was formed in 2000 out of a convergence between five firms, it hired Tim Leishman to help devise a program to improve relations with clients and strengthen the talent pool, including measures such as a better system for evaluating the performance of associates and for recruiting new lawyers.

Although a lawyer by training and a former partner at Torys LLP of Toronto, Mr. Leishman, now with his own Toronto-based consultancy, Leishman Performance Strategy Inc., says much of his practice involves the search for ideas outside the profession and adapting them to fit law firms. "I spend a lot of time learning about what is happening outside of law."

While helping to plan a partners' retreat in Chicago last year for Canadian firm Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP, for example, he recommended a non-traditional structure for a guest panel of U.S. managing partners he'd invited to speak on the topic of practice group management. Rather than seating the three Americans at a head table before the audience, he placed them in a circle in the middle. What's more, in an effort to spark discussion, he dissuaded the guests from using prepared notes or that particularly modern crutch of the amateur public speaker, the PowerPoint computer slide-show presentation.

The event was a hit, Mr. Leishman reports, brimming with anecdotes, humour and spontaneous audience questions. "It takes the pressure off of presentation," he says. "They just bring examples of what's happening and stories of what's happened. They just talk about their own experiences."

By contrast, prepared speeches "can be a bit of lunch-bag letdown for an audience that is looking for more specifics. If you'd asked them to make a speech to this Canadian firm, they might have agonized over it."

The roundtable setup has become a favourite device of Mr. Leishman's, which he calls the fishbowl discussion. "They are the fish in the fishbowl and everybody is on the outside listening."

Mr. Leishman says his legal background has taught him one big lesson in consulting to lawyers: Keep it short. In the legal world of billable hours, he says, everything is time-based, and lawyers consequently are an impatient lot.

So he compresses meetings and training sessions into workably tidy spurts. Whereas it's common in the corporate world to send executives away on three- or four-day management training retreats, "lawyers would think that that would be crazy in their minds to spend that much time."

Meanwhile, back at Gowlings, Mr. Saint-Onge continues to spend an average of a day a week overseeing meetings and devising a system for collecting and sharing information about legal and management matters throughout the firm.

The five-year plan he helped hammer out a year ago underwent its first annual review last Tuesday, and managing partner Mr. Jolliffe says the senior partners are encouraged about its progress.

He says that progress was in evidence at a meeting the following day with a Toronto client interested in having Gowlings take over its legal work on a national basis.

The client inquired about the possibility of creating a national labour and employment policy to span all the provincial jurisdictions. In the past, he says, the lawyers present might have resisted drawing in colleagues from other provinces to work on a file.

But Eric Holden, head of the firm's employment and labour practice, instantly assured the client he would work the phones to find quick answers, and he promised to meet the challenge without saddling the client with the legal research costs.

"I could see that the client was very pleased with the approach," Mr. Jolliffe says.

Did Gowlings get the additional business? "I don't know, but I'm about to go out to dinner with them," he says with a laugh.

Interact with The Globe