Firm First

The story of the foundations of the Bennett Jones culture and the birth of energy law in Canada.

Maclean (Mac) Everett Jones, the University of Alberta law school’s youngest graduate.

The Father of the Bennett Jones Culture

If E. J. Chambers quietly reigned over Bennett Jones from the 1930s well into the 1950s, it was Mac Jones who was destined to leave his indelible mark on the firm through the succeeding decades. True, other outstanding lawyers played prominent roles during this period, including J. J. Saucier, Herb Laycraft, Jack Major, and Robert Black. But brilliance aside, none put their stamp on the firm quite so definitively.

Mac Jones’ law society membership — note the dates around World War II.

As partner Phil Backman notes, Mac Jones was really the father of the modern Bennett Jones culture. “He dictated our culture through the way he practised law: business-minded, straight-talking. For him, it was all about getting the deal done.” Bill Britton, Jones’ eventual successor, went further. “If it weren’t for Mac Jones,” he once said, “nobody would have a job at this firm. There would be no firm.”

The Birth of Oil and Gas

In February 1947, was the discovery by Imperial Oil of the country’s first major crude oil and natural gas field, near Leduc, just outside Edmonton. Scores of previous strikes had provided genuine impetus to the provincial economy, but there had been nothing remotely on this scale. The Leduc find, which ultimately yielded more than 300 million barrels of oil, marked the de facto birth of the nation’s oil and gas industry.

The Imperial Oil refinery under construction in Ogden, 1928. the relationship between Jones and Imperial Oil would reverberate through the years.
The Imperial Oil refinery under construction in Ogden, 1928. the relationship between Jones and Imperial Oil would reverberate through the years.

Without a legal department of its own, Imperial Oil soon sought the assistance of Bennett Jones. The ground rules for an entirely new domain of the law had to be established, involving exploration, land ownership, leases, drilling, and extraction. Inspired by the Leduc strike, scores of other exploration and development companies set up operations in Alberta, triggering a tidal wave of capital investment that fuelled the growth of Calgary and Edmonton — so much so that Bennett Jones made the bold move of opening an office in Edmonton in 1947 to service Imperial Oil and other petrochemical companies; among them was Canadian Utilities, which became a major client.

photo caption to go here. these will identify people, places, events, and dates.

Led largely by Jones, the firm effectively laid the foundations for energy law in Canada. In turn, oil and gas law catalyzed other legal disciplines, including financing, securities, mergers and acquisitions, regulation, and real estate. The firm quickly developed strength in all of these areas. By the early 1950s, says former partner and COO David McDermid, “a frothy market in corporate finance, technology, equipment for drilling, and servicing oil wells had developed.” Lawyers were in demand, and E. J. Chambers, adopting the R. B. Bennett playbook, set out to attract excellent talent.

Mac Jones, John Cordeau (standing), and Vance Milligan, on the occasion of Jones’ 90th birthday celebration at the Bennett Jones offices in Calgary.
Mac Jones, John Cordeau (standing), and Vance Milligan, on the occasion of Jones’ 90th birthday celebration at the Bennett Jones offices in Calgary.

Firm First

It is said that large partnerships move at the speed of trust. For Bob Booth, one of Canada’s leading energy lawyers, trust is the bottom line. “That’s the culture Bennett Jones fosters,” he insists. “Not just trust between lawyers and their clients, but trust between senior lawyers and associates. That’s what has allowed for succession and growth. If it’s not unique to Bennett Jones, it’s certainly rare. And though times have changed, that part of our DNA hasn’t really changed. It doesn’t mean conflicts don’t arise or that egos don’t get asserted, but in the end, Firm First applies.”

Firm First: such a simple phrase, yet one that completely captures the essence of the culture. Its meaning is unmistakable: the interests of the firm and its clients are paramount. It’s an ethical compass to guide lawyers through any particular thicket that might arise.

As it had been in the Jones era, that philosophy was injected into the firm’s culture osmotically, via the clients. “More and more American energy companies were setting up offices in Calgary,” says Hugh MacKinnon. “Dynamic, entrepreneurial guys from Texas, who came to make money. Their attitude was, ‘no fuss, no bureaucracy, get the deal done.’ That became a huge part of our culture.”

GET THE BOOK

The excerpts on this page are only bits and pieces from Bennett Jones’ centennial celebration book, Firm First: 100 Years of Service and Trust. Register now to receive a digital copy of the full Bennett Jones story when available.