Party Lines

Rainmakers are a dime a dozen — at Fraser Milner, political engagement extends well beyond the top of the food chain. Lawyers at FMC trade legal briefs for campaign buttons and prove politics can be good for business.

By Derek Finkle

On Tuesday June 3rd, 2008

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Interviewing at a big Bay Street firm is a nerve-racking experience for any law student, but when Michelle Oliel found out who she’d be meeting for her audition for a summer position at Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP in the fall of 2005, the tension was ratcheted up even further. Her interview was to be conducted by Blair McCreadie, a young employment-and-labour lawyer who also happened to be the president of Ontario’s Progressive Conservative party. Oliel was equally passionate about politics. The problem was that her loyalties were with Canada’s other major political party — the Liberals.

Oliel worked on former Prime Minister Paul Martin’s leadership campaign while an undergraduate student at York University and served as deputy national whip for Bob Rae’s Liberal leadership campaign. “I was worried that Blair might have problems with my politics,” says Oliel, “and that our interview could end up being a bit of a disaster.”

It was anything but. Oliel went on to land a coveted summer job and later an articling position at FMC, a 169-year-old business-focused firm with more than 500 lawyers at offices in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Montreal, and New York. Not only that, her mentors at the Toronto office, located 39 floors above Bay Street in the First Canadian Place tower, gave the 26-year-old their blessing to take a four-week leave in January of this year to work on Hillary Clinton’s presidential nomination bid. What’s even more remarkable is that Oliel wasn’t the only articling student at FMC to volunteer for the Democrats last winter: Jean-Michel Picher put his articles on hold from mid-December to mid-February to organize campaign events for Clinton’s rival, Barack Obama.

The fact that FMC agreed to allow two of its articling students to take extensive leaves to participate in a foreign election campaign is emblematic of its growing reputation, particularly amongst those with political interests and ambitions, as perhaps the only large firm in Canada to openly embrace the idea of its lawyers being active in politics, regardless of their party affiliations. “If I’d been at another firm,” says Oliel, “I’m not even sure I would have dared to ask about volunteering for Clinton.”

It’s not uncommon to find political leaders as rainmakers in Canada’s leading firms; former Ontario Premier David Peterson is a senior partner and chairman of Cassels, Brock & Blackwell LLP, former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney is a partner at Ogilvy Renault LLP, and until his recent election as a federal Liberal MP, former Ontario NDP premier Bob Rae was a partner at Goodmans LLP.

But FMC’s reputation for political engagement is unique, extending well beyond the top of the food chain, down to articling students and all levels in between. Its legal directory reads like a who’s who of Canadian political powerbrokers. FMC currently boasts a pair of former federal cabinet ministers, and counts among its alumni two current ones: Minister of Industry Jim Prentice and Peter Van Loan, the current House Leader of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. Lloyd Axworthy once worked at FMC, and David Tsubouchi,  a prominent Ontario MPP for the Progressive Conservative party from 1995 to 2003, is now at the firm. At least six FMC lawyers have been senior campaign advisors, either provincially or federally, and another eight (four of whom are articling students) have worked as staff for federal ministers or provincial premiers. McCreadie is past president of the Conservative party in Ontario, while his colleague David Wachowich is past president of the Liberal party in Alberta. The firm has had direct ties to every governing party in Ottawa since Jean Chrétien was elected in 1993.

In truth, FMC’s political connections stretch back all the way to Lester B. Pearson with Senator David Smith, who is credited with creating this unique political culture. Senator Smith has cultivated his fascination with politics and the law into a wildly successful career that’s woven itself nicely between the two. When Smith became the chairman of the firm at the beginning of 1994, he was still confounded by the reactions he’d encountered as a law student when he disclosed that he’d been national president of the Young Liberals of Canada and had spent a year helping Pearson’s Liberals prepare for the 1965 federal election. “Eventually, I articled at another big firm,” says Smith. “But they were very hesitant about me going back there to practice unless I made a commitment that I wouldn’t run for political office for a certain number of years. And I wasn’t comfortable doing that. So I didn’t go there.”

In 1972, less than a year after being called to the bar, Smith made a last-minute decision to run for Toronto City Council, and won. After six years at City Hall, Smith made a bid for Mayor and lost, but was soon after elected a Member of Parliament, where he served as a federal cabinet minister under Pierre Trudeau. Smith orchestrated a near sweep for Jean Chrétien’s Liberals in Ontario during the 1993 federal election, and Chrétien appointed him to the Senate in 2002. Outside of public office, Smith operated a full-time legal practice that harnessed his knowledge of municipal and federal politics, particularly when it came to acting for major real-estate developers in Toronto who needed permissions to build “great big office towers or condominium complexes.”

For many years, Smith’s junior in this practice was Peter Van Loan, who moved to FMC with him in 1990, along with six other lawyers and the firm’s support staff. “Many people gasp at the fact that Peter and I worked together for so long,” says Smith, whose office walls are famously decorated with photos of Trudeau, Chrétien, and countless other Liberal powerbrokers from the past four decades.

“Yes, we had different political allegiances but we worked closely on many a complicated municipal board meeting, and Liberal or Conservative politics had nothing to do with it. It was just a world that we understood and had expertise in, and we were able to build a very, very successful practice.”

Smith was determined to replicate that success when he arrived at FMC, but on a much larger scale. If his career had proven anything, it was that political experience and connections offer an undeniable advantage when it comes to attracting clients and their money. For the past 15 years at FMC, he has encouraged not just fellow Liberals, but a platoon of Conservatives, to work equally hard for both the firm and their respective political parties.

And there is no question that Smith uses this as a selling point for the firm. “When you’re engaged in an active practice and you understand the political world, and the way in which decisions are made,” he says, “it can be very helpful for your clients.”

Articling students Michelle Oliel and Jean-Michel Picher are the latest beneficiaries of Senator Smith’s vision for FMC. While Picher cleared his time on the campaign trail with Barack Obama two months in advance, Oliel’s request for a month’s leave to volunteer for Hillary Clinton came about rather suddenly. “Within twenty-four hours, I received a reply saying, ‘Absolutely. How long would you like?’” says Oliel.

The prompt reply came from Kara Sutherland, director of professional resources, who acknowledges that Oliel may not have felt comfortable making this request at another firm. “The worry,” Sutherland explains, “is that [the student] might be perceived as being somehow not committed.” FMC believes that people who tend to be attracted to politics enjoy meeting new people and building new relationships, which are both helpful when it comes to building a practice. The networking doesn’t hurt, either. “Having those [political] connections can be helpful for your clients,” says Sutherland.

With a relatively new FMC office in New York, and given that the energetic and personable Oliel spent a month glad-handing for Clinton in Nevada and California, those contacts may prove to be useful some day. Likewise, it’s hard to see the downside of setting Picher free to join the Obama campaign in New Hampshire, especially for a firm that’s pushing its services to those companies in need of help with cross-border trade. Twelve years earlier, as a student at Colby College in Maine (Picher’s father played hockey at Colby), he’d taken an off-campus internship to work in Massachusetts on behalf of John Kerry, who was then campaigning to retain his seat in the U.S. Senate. Kerry won, and a few months later, Picher was invited to work as an assistant (he’d later become a research director) at Shrum Devine Donilon, one of the top advertising firms in US politics at the time.

In 1999, he returned home to Canada and soon began a four-year joint M.B.A.-LL.B. at the University of Western Ontario. His studies had barely begun when the attacks of September 11 occurred. “That was jarring,” he says. “What bothered me even more was the way President Bush and the US media reacted to it. So when, on December 1, 2002, Senator Kerry went on Meet the Press and announced he was running for president, it didn’t take me long to realize that this type of opportunity doesn’t come around much. I started juggling my studies with trips to Washington to help get the nomination campaign up and running.”

Picher took two years off from law school, first to devote himself to Kerry’s eventual presidential campaign — Picher played an important role in pulling off the famous 100,000-plus-person rally with Bruce Springsteen in Wisconsin — and then, after Kerry’s defeat, worked with Paul Martin’s Liberals. Days after accepting an articling position at FMC in 2006, Picher was asked to help out with Ken Dryden’s Liberal leadership campaign. FMC, as you might have guessed, allowed him to postpone his articles for a year, and later granted him even more time off to organize last-minute, 35,000-person rallies for Barack Obama.

Blair McCreadie, recently named a partner at FMC, faced much of the same skepticism that confronts most young lawyers with an interest in politics early in their careers. When McCreadie interviewed for a summer position in 1998, he’d already been a member of Ontario’s PC party executive (he retired as party president this spring after five years at the helm). “There were a number of firms that looked at me and said, ‘Why would you do that? How much time is that going to take up? Is it going to take away from your practice?’”

McCreadie, an articulate 33-year-old whose polish and salt-and-pepper hair give him an air of seniority, feels perfectly at home at FMC. While he says that most of his clients aren’t aware of his political activity, he sees two primary skills he’s developed in politics that are helpful with his profession. The first is better advocacy skills.

“If I have a client facing union organizing drives,” he explains, perhaps unintentionally displaying his Tory stripes, “and there’s a vote that’s going to be held at the workplace a week later, my task is to design a communications campaign to convince that pool of voters to support a union-free environment.”

Politics has also provided McCreadie with valuable lessons in media relations and crisis management, a staple with just about any political campaign that is counted amongst those “value-added” services that many lawyers now provide. “If one of my clients has an unfortunate incident where there’s a fatality in the workplace,” he says, “we can assist them not just with the substantive legal issue, but also help them manage the media.”

Perhaps most interesting of all is the fact that McCreadie is one of several Conservatives who partner up with some of the firm’s Liberal faithful to form FMC’s public policy group. “Especially with a minority government in Ottawa right now,” says McCreadie, “it’s important that we understand how different parties are going to feel about different issues. So it’s helpful to have people who’ve been in the trenches on either side to provide the best solutions to our clients.”

FMC’s bi-partisan approach to addressing these issues can sometimes make it a pretty strange place to work. “During the 2003 Ontario provincial campaign, I happened to be in the office one weekend and suddenly, I stumbled into all of these cameras and lights,” recalls McCreadie. “As I was trying to figure out what was going on, someone turned around and said, ‘What’s the president of the Ontario PC party doing here?’ I’d walked into the middle of a shoot for a television ad for the Liberal Party.”

One of the Liberals with Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s campaign committee that year was fellow FMC lawyer Dunniela Kaufman. Kaufman grew up in Winnipeg engaged in politics, and had worked for Lloyd Axworthy, but says it was Senator David Smith who acted as a mentor when she arrived at the firm in 2000, taking her to Liberal party events in Toronto. Kaufman describes it as a crucial experience in her development as a lawyer.

“It’s not only a real confidence builder,” says the 37-year-old international trade specialist, “a political campaign is also a great way to meet clients. You’re putting in time with the presidents of banks and business owners — which can help with the confidence part — but there are all kinds of people in that environment who five years down the road could be excellent clients. You’d be surprised who gets involved in campaigns.”

Kaufman, who works remotely three weeks of the month in Washington, DC, and the other week out of FMC’s Toronto office (she is currently on maternity leave), is also a prime example of a lawyer who is constantly using her political know-how to get a leg up for her clients. Solicitor-client privilege prevents Kaufman (and other FMC lawyers) from providing detailed examples of how this works — “a lot of clients wouldn’t want it in black and white that they’re paying for this advantage,” she explains — but a search of Canada’s federal Lobbyists Registry reveals nine different FMC lawyers, including Kaufman and David Tsubouchi, on 25 separate files.

One of those registered lobbyists is Kaufman’s colleague (and fellow Liberal) Lorna Counsell. She’s a former special assistant to New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna, and is on the record for her client Porter Airlines, a young company fighting through the red tape to get its commuter planes flying from the Toronto Island to destinations such as Ottawa, Montreal, and New York.

Porter hired Counsell and her firm in 2002 to deal with the legal and regulatory issues faced by the company. Robert Deluce, Porter’s president and CEO, describes Counsell as “invaluable in terms of navigating the political minefield, particularly the extensive roadblocks we encountered during the four or five years that led up to our start of service in October 2006.”

Counsell proved herself especially invaluable in 2003, when David Miller, Toronto’s newly-elected mayor, cancelled the proposed bridge to the island airport. When the federal government backed the city, Counsell represented her client in settlement negotiations with the feds. The terms remain secret, but according to Counsell, the parties reached “a very fair settlement which compensated Porter for damages incurred.” The Globe and Mail pegged Porter’s take as high as $20 million.

Regardless of the dollar figure, Porter was clearly satisfied with its politically savvy young lawyer as she snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. So impressed, in fact, that Deluce offered Counsell a job — she will be joining Porter as the company’s General Counsel this June. A politically experienced lawyer would undoubtedly spin that as a victory.


Photography by Raina+Wilson