“What you have to remember,” retired partner John Cordeau observes, “is that these recruits looked attractive because of their client lists. Bennett Jones had no guarantees that these clients would actually follow. In effect, solicitors with very distinguished pedigrees were willing to take a chance professionally.” Yet, most of the time, clients did follow their lawyers, and the new arrivals did become part of the culture. “What MacKinnon did is just extraordinary,” insists Cordeau. “In terms of the firm’s modern leadership, he’s the iconic guy.”
The Right People
The story of the values and entrepreneurial spirit that enticed the right people to join the firm and help build a national platform.
If there was a watershed moment in the modern history of Bennett Jones, it came, appropriately enough, precisely at the dawn of the new millennium. In the wake of a failed merger, the firm had faced existential questions: What exactly should its future look like? Was there a viable road map to get there? And could Hugh MacKinnon help it realize its long-deferred ambition of becoming a national force to be reckoned with?
MacKinnon was under no illusions about the challenge he confronted. From essentially a standing start, he was about to go head to head with the country’s most established law firms with the deepest pockets and, for some, roots that went back almost a century. “It’s never easy for a successful lawyer to leave the safety and security of what he or she had,” he says. “That was even more true in Toronto, where we were asking some of the country’s best lawyers to roll the dice on a bullish vision. There were no guarantees of success. That took real courage and confidence on their part. But it was those hires in the first years of the new millennium who made it work. For the longest time, our only goodwill in Toronto was the collective credibility these individuals brought.”
Inevitably, prospective candidates grilled MacKinnon on what he saw as the firm’s competitive advantage. His response: a culture grounded in egalitarian prairie populism and a dynamic enterprise ethic. “That was the idealized description of our culture and somewhat aspirational,” he allows. “But it was successful in enticing numerous top-notch Toronto laterals to a Calgary firm.”
Recognition Where It’s Due
It’s a story without parallel in Canadian legal history: a small Western law firm mounts a successful assault on the legal fortress of Old Toronto and gains recognition as a full peer. Management guru Jim Collins insists the first rule for CEOs is to get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus. At Bennett Jones that’s not sufficient. “You then need to get the right people in the right seats on the bus.”
By the time of the great financial crisis of 2008, the firm’s structure and leadership were set for the next decade. Its managing partners were in constant contact, frequently tag-teaming issues in real time. Gone were the days when a law firm of any consequence could be managed part-time, or even by one person. Bennett Jones was now larger than many of its clients. Its excellent professional staff, including chief administrative officer Siobhan Walsh, who joined in Calgary in 1991, and chief financial officer and Saskatchewan native Kim Henry, oversaw first-class business units capable of serving an ever more sophisticated firm.
A culture of excellence permeated the institution from the newest hire to the most senior partners. And as its organization evolved, lawyers and staff continued to drive the firm’s animating purpose: the success and welfare of their clients.
Back at the Ranch
While the Toronto office was busy growing and building market share, the Alberta offices were not standing still. Nor could they afford to. Large Toronto firms were still seeking to grab a share of the Western pie, much of it part of the Bennett Jones domain. The firm aggressively defended its turf. Paraphrasing Gordon Lightfoot, it didn’t like the newcomers creeping ’round its backstairs.
The Alberta offices also caught the lateral hiring bug, reeling in corporate heavyweight David Spencer and real estate expert Darryl Barber midway through the decade and, some years later, leading tax litigator Jehad Haymour and commercial litigator Munaf Mohamed from Dentons. The addition of such strong practitioners to the Calgary office reinforced the firm’s home base and helped it expand some of its offerings in the Alberta market.
In 2005, corporate department head James Smeltzer became the Calgary managing partner. Smeltzer, who joined Bennett Jones in the 1980s from a Toronto firm, played a key transitional role for several years, overseeing and resolving some delicate internal issues. In 2007, he was succeeded by Perry Spitznagel, a corporate department leader who would define the role for the next generation.
In time, Spitznagel would become one of the leading M&A lawyers in Canada, vice chair and Calgary managing partner, and lead contact for the firm’s relationship with ATCO, which remains its largest client. For years he has served on numerous corporate boards, including Sentgraf, the inner sanctum for the Southern family’s stable of corporations.
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. Download your digital copy now.