Growing pains // News

Associates at firms being swept up in a new wave of mergers are nervous — but they could be the luckiest lawyers on Bay Street

By Crystal Luxmore

On Thursday March 10th, 2011


mergersAs of 12:01 a.m. on New Year’s day, Lang Michener LLP was no more. The 200-strong firm merged with McMillan LLP, doubling in size. Despite rumours, confirmation of the merger in November still shocked associates.

Employment lawyer Matthew Dewar, a “born and bred Lang Michener guy,” has seen enough corporate mergers to be suitably nervous. “Whenever there’s a takeover or sale of a business, employees are always apprehensive about the future,” he says. “Ideally there’s enough work for everyone but there’s a sense that there might be some duplication.”

With mergers on the rise, there have been a lot of jittery lawyers in Toronto recently. On December 7, Miller Thomson LLP announced it was merging with Balfour Moss LLP, a 24-lawyer Regina firm. On January 4, Dickinson Wright PLLC, a large Detroit-based firm, announced it was swallowing up a small but prestigious Bay Street firm, Aylesworth LLP. And on June 1, Ogilvy Renault LLP will join Norton Rose Group, becoming the first Canadian firm to merge with a global behemoth, joining 2,500 lawyers in 20 countries.

Initially, many Ogilvy associates were nervous too. But as the news sunk in — that Ogilvy’s salary, partnership structure and local management will continue, that there could be opportunities to work in Sydney or Paris — anxiety turned to anticipation. “We’re excited about the new markets this will open and we’re already getting referrals,” says Joseph Hillier, a second-year associate.

Ed Wesemann, a consultant at Edge International who counts top Canadian firms among his clients, says even when firms in the same city merge, “there’s an equal shot that it’ll be a benefit as a detriment.” The upsides? Bigger firms can offer bigger perks: day care, better training programs, mobility, meaty pro bono work and top pay and benefits packages. Plus, being part of a big firm looks better on a resumé.

On the other hand, associates will need to work harder to make partner. “Larger firms are becoming far more stringent in partnering practices,” Wesemann says. “They’re making greater use of non-equity partnerships and counsel arrangements. The new standard of partnership is demonstrated success in business development.”

For instance, McMillan has non-equity and equity partner streams, whereas Lang Michener offered only equity partnerships.

Still, Dewar doesn’t think the merger will change anyone’s chances of making partner. “We’re lawyers. We take the long view.”

Work to Rule

Ed Wesemann, consultant at Edge International, on how to kill it post-merger

  • Don’t want to be a salesperson? Too bad, winning new business is part of the job. Get friendly with partners who have big books of business. Many successful partners say their practice began when a partner handed a client off to them.
  • Understand your clients’ businesses. Take 10 minutes with every new client to look up the company: what they do, how they make money and their competitors. Read the front page of the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal every day. The best lawyers understand that their clients don’t have legal problems; they have business problems.
  • Get noticed. If nobody knows you, nobody’s going to promote you. Twice a month invite a partner or senior associate to lunch. And don’t talk business the whole time, they need to know you as a person as well as a professional.
  • A managing partner’s recipe for the ideal senior associate: Works unsupervised; good at managing associates; maintains quiet relationships; trustworthy; and develops new business. Cultivate these traits.

Photo: © Hélène Vallée /