Editor’s Note: The challenge of reporting on alcohol in law

The bulk of this issue is dedicated to the outsized role that alcohol plays in the legal profession. We know, after all, that lawyers are more likely to become problem drinkers than the general population. There is clear evidence, too, that the norms of the legal workplace bear some responsibility for this statistical reality. For a magazine for the legal community, investigating this topic is essential work.

But it also comes with a risk. To report on this subject could, inadvertently, reinforce the most negative stereotypes about the legal profession — namely, that it’s populated with miserable, work-addled alcoholics who rely on substances to cope with their brutal careers. Such statements are oversimplifications of a complex situation. Ronit Dinovitzer, a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, is a well-respected researcher on the legal profession. Though her work is often critical of legal culture, she can’t help but balk at how the media typically covers lawyers.

“I’m always struck by how often the New York Times carries stories about how hard it is to work in the legal profession,” she says. “No one wants to believe me that most lawyers are satisfied with their careers, but there’s a nugget in my research that I always return to: 75 percent of lawyers say they are moderately to extremely satisfied with the decision to become lawyers.”

My hope is that, in this issue, we confront the truth without falling back on tired clichés, and that we bring nuance to a conversation that badly needs it. To that end, I’ve written a feature story that, in part, explores what makes lawyers uniquely vulnerable to alcohol abuse. I take direct aim at the unhealthiest facets of the profession, and this criticism is crucial. But in that same article, I also profile two working lawyers, now in recovery from alcohol abuse, who have successful careers that they truly enjoy. Their stories are a good reminder that the profession can be a rewarding one, even for those who face personal challenges. The practice of law, it turns out, is not as bleak as mainstream culture would want us to believe.

Daniel Fish signature

Daniel Fish
Senior Editor

We’re looking for great ideas

In our last issue, we launched the Precedent Innovation Awards. The first batch of winners — trendsetters who have found creative solutions to some of the profession’s thorniest problems — were inspiring.

So inspiring, in fact, that we’ve decided to make these awards an annual tradition. If you’ve implemented an original initiative that makes the profession better, we want to hear about it. To submit an application, head over to precedentmagazine.com/innovationawards. The deadline to apply is Thursday, April 16, 2020. We will feature the winners in our winter issue.

More from the Spring Issue

The Lawyers' Guide to Not DrinkingMaking time.David Yi breakdancing in a studio.





This story is from our Spring 2020 issue.

Photo courtesy of Francois Schnell under a Creative Commons license

Best Practices: How Marcus McCann uses the law to fight for LGBT rights

In 2013, Marcus McCann spent the Labour Day weekend at his boyfriend Paul Sutton’s family cottage. The couple had met a few months before and attended a string of protests together. One opposed the closure of an abortion clinic; another took aim at Canada’s decision to take part in the Sochi Olympics, even though Russia had just passed a law banning so-called “gay propaganda.” So it’s no surprise that, in between canoeing and hiking, the men spent the weekend making flyers for a rally — this time, one that was protesting the accreditation of the law school at Trinity Western University, a Christian institution that forces students to sign a covenant that forbids sex outside of heterosexual marriage.

Fast-forward four years. McCann and Sutton, a lobbyist, now live together in Toronto’s Little Portugal. And this past September, they were back at the cottage. But this time, McCann was a lawyer. Instead of making posters, he was writing a factum for the Supreme Court of Canada case that will finally decide the fate of Trinity Western’s law school. He’s representing one of the interveners, LGBTOUT, a queer student organization. “Now that I’m a lawyer,” says McCann, “I have a different set of tools in the toolbox.” This November, he was in Ottawa for oral arguments. Now he awaits the ruling.

Marcus McCann

“Now that I’m a lawyer, I have a different set of tools in the toolbox,” says Marcus McCann.

How fast life can change. McCann grew up in a working-class neighbourhood in Hamilton. In 2001, he went to the University of Ottawa and worked on the side. A brief roll call of the jobs he held: mushroom farmer, demolition worker, Subway sandwich artist. During his time at Subway, he had his first brush with the law. The franchisee refused to pay extra for statutory holidays or to compensate employees for their mandatory 10-hour training session. McCann led a complaint with the Ministry of Labour. He won. Both he and his colleagues received cheques of between $60 and $300. The victory made it clear, for the first time, that if you understand the legal system, you have power. McCann addressed a specific wrong and earned a tangible result.

But McCann wasn’t considering law school. At least, not yet. He wanted to be a writer. He wrote poetry and, over the years, published three collections. He also contributed to the student newspaper. Upon graduation, in 2006, he became a full-time freelance news reporter, covering Parliament and the Supreme Court.

After a couple years, he moved to Toronto to join Xtra, a newspaper focused on LGBT issues, and soon became managing editor.

The job was formative. “I’m drawn to queer activism because I’m gay, sure,” he says. “But also because of the persistent inequalities I covered at Xtra.” His reporting on the systemic discrimination against the LGBT community — in the workplace, at the hands of the police — pushed him toward activism. But as a journalist, he felt like he was on the sidelines. When he covered lawyers, on the other hand, he envied how they could get into the trenches and fight for change. So, in 2011, he went to law school. “I had a really rosy view of the ability of lawyers to effect social change.”

Once McCann was called to the bar, he joined Symes Street & Millard LLP, a human-rights and employment-law firm, as an associate. At the firm’s office, the foosball table and reclaimed wood floors in the reception area give the place a distinct startup feel. McCann’s tousled hair and turquoise slacks fit right in.

At the firm, McCann divides his time between casework that keeps the lights on and his own passion projects. He’s already fought several legal battles for LGBT rights. There is, of course, his work on the Trinity Western case. And last year, when McCann heard about a sting operation in Etobicoke’s Marie Curtis Park that ended with 72 men being charged with trespassing and engaging in sexual activity in public, he took action. In his view, the police targeted members of the gay community who posed no risk to anyone. “This was yet another case of homophobic behaviour on behalf of the Toronto police,” says McCann. He persuaded a network of defence lawyers to offer the men facing charges pro bono representation. Everyone who contacted the legal team for representation had their charges withdrawn.

Ben Millard, a partner at Symes Street & Millard, is proud of McCann’s work. “All of us view law as both a profession and a tool that can effect positive change,” he says. “We want our lawyers to take on pro bono work.”

For McCann, it’s a bonus that his regular caseload has a human-rights bent. Many of his files involve people with disabilities in employment-law disputes. “It’s not just something I do to pay the bills,” he says. “It’s about helping people at a really difficult time in their lives.”

McCann still sees the power of a law degree, but, going forward, he may modify his expectations. “I’m committed to legal reform, but it’s not the gunslinger thing I thought it would be,” he says. “The law moves very slowly.”

Photography by Nick Wong

Marcus McCann
Associate, Symes Street & Millard LLP
Year of call: 2015

Timeline of a human-rights lawyer

2001: Marcus McCann graduates from high school and leaves Hamilton to study at the University of Ottawa.

2006: With his undergrad finished, McCann begins his career as a freelance journalist, with a focus on news reporting. Then he becomes the managing editor at Xtra, based in Toronto.

2009: McCann publishes his first poetry collection, Soft Where, with Chaudiere Books.

2011: McCann decides to quit journalism and go to law school at the University of Toronto. His goal is to build a career that pushes for the rights of LGBT people.

2015: He joins Symes Street & Millard LLP. The firm offers meaningful human-rights work and allows him to take on cases he cares about. “I’m very lucky,” he says.

Precedent Magazine winter issue 2017 coverThis story is from our Winter 2017 Issue.




Photography by Nick Wong

Legal fantasy book Farr & Beyond is the perfect holiday gift for lawyers

Looking for a holiday gift for that lawyer who has everything? Well, they probably don’t have this.

Farr & Beyond, Kenneth SmooklerWe were delighted to get our hands on a copy of Farr & Beyond: Lawyers for the Otherworldly, written by retired Toronto lawyer Kenneth Smookler, Q.C. The book reveals the goings-on at imaginary law firm Farr & Beyond LLP, which stays in business by representing our favourite fairytale characters, like Hansel and Gretel, the Big Bad Wolf and Rapunzel.

What damages is Captain Hook entitled to from Peter Pan for the loss of his hand? In marrying the prince, did Cinderella breach her contract with her evil stepsisters?

In an amusing combination of judge’s rulings, statements of claim, phone conversations and the like, Farr & Beyond explores these legal issues and more.




Farr & Beyond: Lawyers for the Otherworldly is published by Wall & Emerson, Inc. You can buy it online for $19.95.

Illustrations by Ryan Howe

Family Matters: How to be a great lawyer and still make it home for dinner

We lawyers like to play Tetris with our time. We break days down to the hour, if not the minute. We appreciate deadlines and the consequences of failing to meet them. As a criminal prosecutor, I’m never late for court and I always make deadlines. As a business owner of several stone quarries, I’m on top of my game. But as a father of four, I’m often late for family dinner — or worse yet, I miss it altogether.

For years, I blamed my absence on external forces. Court got out late and I needed to prepare for tomorrow’s trial. The commute took longer than expected. I had to make a call just as I was walking out the door. Then, I came up with internal excuses. I’m a hard worker. The better I perform at work, the better things will eventually be at home. People rely on me because I’m committed to my to-do list. If that means missing family dinner here and there, well that’s simply the cost of doing business.

Then, one day, a friend challenged me: “If you’re so keen to complete your to-do list, Paul, why not just add be home for family dinner to the list?” And he was right.

I instantly began to make changes. The result was transformative for me and for my family. Here’s how you crush it as a lawyer and still make it home in time for dinner.


Live backwards

Reverse engineer every day, beginning with family dinner. That’s the deadline. Meet it. Break down your day by time slots rather than tasks — and aim to eat the ugly frogs first. My day might look like this:

8:30 to 10:30: Prepare and file motion
10:30 to 12:30: Confirm discovery dates, begin memo to partner
12:30 to 1:30: Lunch meeting
1:30 to 3:30 Finish memo
3:30 to 5:30 Put out unexpected fires
5:30 to 6:00 Margin for error
6:00: Leave work
6:45: Get home, wrestle kids, eat dinner. Then, begin bedtime bribery routine.


Pack your bags

At the start of each day, pack an item you can easily work on from your couch at home, along with your favourite pen and highlighter. (Don’t pretend like you don’t love your highlighters. I know you do.) This way, come quitting time, you can easily walk out the door when you planned, and no time is wasted scrambling to find suitable work to take home.


Start small

Making it home for dinner five days a week may be too tall an order. Put it in your to-do list for three days and work your way up. Better to succeed at three, than fail at five. The most important principle? Don’t give up when you do fail. Treat dinner like any other goal — when you hit it, celebrate. And when you miss, try again right away.


Paul Attia, Lawyer, Family MattersPaul Attia is a husband, father of four, business-owner and assistant Crown attorney in Toronto.




Top photo from Beatrice Murch

The Circuit: Pro Bono Ontario holds an awards gala to mark its 15th anniversary

What: Pro Bono Ontario’s 15th Anniversary Gala
Where: Fermenting Cellar, 28 Distillery Lane
When: Wednesday, May 18, 2016

“The contributions that lawyers across this province are making through pro bono work is a direct contradiction to the often repeated public image of lawyers and the legal profession, which tends to operate from the old Shakespeare line, The first thing we do is kill all the lawyers,” said Patrick Monahan, the deputy attorney general, to a collective chuckle as he wrapped up his opening remarks at Pro Bono Ontario’s 15th-anniversary awards gala. “In fact, the members of the legal profession are committed to the administration of justice, and to helping the disadvantaged.”

And PBO’s history is a testament to that. Founded in 2001, PBO connects lawyers who want to do good, but perhaps don’t know how. Since its inception, PBO has helped over 100,000 people get access to justice.

Held in the Distillery District, the event saw over 300 members of the legal profession come to celebrate that access to justice.

More than 30 awards were presented to firms and lawyers in categories such as excellence in corporate pro bono and excellence in services to children and youth.

In his closing remarks, David Scott, PBO’s chair emeritus, personally addressed Lynn Burns, the organization’s executive director. “The citizens of Ontario, Lynn, are in your debt. You have created for those in real need, the largest law firm in the province.”

To learn more about Pro Bono Ontario, visit its website.

Have an event coming up? Invite us to your party!

Sponsors of this event included Duff &Phelps and Nera Economic Consulting.

Precedent Setter Awards 2016: Sunil Gurmukh

Sunil Gurmukh

Counsel, Ontario Human Rights Commission
Called to the bar in 2009

In 2010, the year after Sunil Gurmukh was called to the bar, a devastating case landed on his desk. Black teenager. Male. Arrested three years earlier. Tasered twice by police. The teen had filed a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. And the African Canadian Legal Clinic, where Gurmukh was working, had agreed to represent him. “Nothing is more passionate,” says Gurmukh, “than holding the hands of a young black man and his mother while they tell you about how, while in handcuffs, he was tasered twice.”

As a law student, he never felt a calling to any practice area. But after working on a few cases like this one, he knew: it was human-rights work. By 2011, Gurmukh had moved to the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC). The next year, he married his wife, Monica, and now, at 33 years old, he’s the key lawyer in the OHRC’s campaign against the police’s use of racial profiling and carding. “He’s very calm, thoughtful and persuasive under pressure,” says Renu Mandhane, the OHRC’s chief commissioner. “I’m so glad he’s on our team.”

Lawyer, Sunil Gurmukh, Ontario Human Rights CommissionOutside the courtroom, Gurmukh often meets with advocacy groups in Toronto’s black communities to find out what’s happening on the ground with respect to racial profiling and the police. He also provides free legal education to racialized youth. These are fitting tasks for an easy-mannered lawyer who can warmly introduce himself to every person in a room.

Though he’s never been on the receiving end of police misconduct, the work can hit close to home for Gurmukh, the son of Indian immigrants. “I’m racialized, so I can sympathize,” he says. “The colour of your skin isn’t something you can change.” The work can be wearing. “I’ve seen some changes, but I want to be clear: there’s a long way to go.”



Precedent Setter Awards 2016Don’t forget to read about our other amazing winners.



Photography by Ian Patterson, hair and makeup by Jessica Haisinger, shot on location at Cluny Bistro & Boulangerie.

Precedent Setter Awards 2016: Solomon Friedman

Solomon Friedman

Partner, Edelson Clifford D’Angelo Friedman Barristers LLP
Called to the bar in 2010

To Solomon Friedman, firing a gun is a way to relax. He took up long-range rifle shooting at 19 years of age, shortly after marrying, having twins and moving to Israel to study Talmudic Law. “It’s like meditation,” he explains. “When shooting, you have to be aware of every movement in your body, down to each breath. That’s very freeing.”

He kept it up through law school, the birth of his third child and his Supreme Court clerkship under Justice Morris Fish. The shooting range is still a weekend haunt for Friedman, now a 30-year-old partner at Edelson Clifford D’Angelo Friedman Barristers LLP, Ottawa’s top criminal firm. But it’s more than his version of a spa weekend: his knowledge of firearms has helped him land clients.

Solomon Friedman, LawyerHow? When gun owners get in legal trouble — for, say, not locking up their firearms properly — they call Friedman. His reputation snowballed and he’s now the go-to expert on firearms law in Canada.

Case in point: in 2013, when the National Firearms Association wanted to challenge the three-year mandatory minimum sentence for possessing a restricted firearm, it hired Friedman. He successfully argued the case before the Supreme Court, which found the mandatory sentence unconstitutional.

Friedman is also a regular talking head on CBC and CTV. Such notoriety has helped him secure major murder and terrorism files. His firm’s founder, Michael Edelson, sees in Friedman a future legal titan. “He will ultimately be the leader here. He will become me.”

Now divorced, Friedman shares custody of his three children with his ex-wife. “I don’t sleep a lot,” he says. But he loves his cases — well, some more than others. “When the police find 20 kilos of coke in your client’s house and you’re trying to get it excluded, there’s no question who owns the cocaine. But sometimes I have clients I truly believe are innocent. That’s the most gratifying.”

Precedent Setter Awards 2016Don’t forget to read about our other amazing winners.



Photography by Ian Patterson, hair and makeup by Jessica Haisinger, shot on location at Cluny Bistro & Boulangerie.

The Lawyer Show heads into seventh year with Guys and Dolls

“There’s a ton of lawyers out there who are frustrated hams,” says Danny Kastner, an employment lawyer in Toronto, partly referring to himself. And thankfully, for the past seven years, they’ve had an outlet: the annual Lawyer Show fundraiser, that sees a mostly lawyer cast put on a show by Nightwood Theatre, Canada’s oldest women’s theatre company.

In this year’s performance, held at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts in the second week of June, 36 legal professionals will hit all the familiar notes in their rendition of Guys and Dolls. Kastner will be one of the night’s stars, taking part in the Lawyer Show for the sixth time. We recently sat down with him to find out how he caught the acting bug.

Why did you decide to get involved?

Acting is kind of the family business. I’m the black sheep as the only lawyer. I was involved in theatre in my undergrad, and missed it. The Nightwood Theatre put all the resources behind the show and set up rehearsals in a way that accommodated my work schedule. Rehearsals were during evenings and on Sundays, one to three times a week, for about three months. Suddenly, it seemed feasible to get back into theatre.

What are the auditions like?

It’s an open call. Any legal professional can audition. Nobody’s guaranteed any particular part. The auditions have been getting more competitive, because more and more people know about the event.

There are mostly lawyers in the cast, but there’s at least one judge, one human rights tribunal adjudicator and at least one law clerk.

What’s Guys and Dolls all about?

Lawyer Show, Guys and Dolls It’s a great old American musical that focuses on prohibition-era gangsters in New York City, who are trying to find a place to host an illegal Craps game. And it causes a lot of stress for the poor gangsters. It features a lot of star-crossed lovers, too.

One new feature this year is a brilliantly talented all-lawyer band. They’re the orchestra throughout the whole play.

Who do you play?

Nathan Detroit. He’s always been responsible for finding the spot for this underground Craps game. But for the first time, he’s not able to find anywhere. The heat is on and the cops are applying a lot more pressure to illegal gambling. It’s getting him very frustrated to have to figure out an alternative way to go about things.

Do you think lawyers are naturally good actors?

We know how to act on a stage, generally, especially if our practices are in litigation. And we know how to read and interpret a text. That helps us work with the play and figure out our characters. On the other hand, we’re used to being in a professional environment where we have to be more buttoned down.

Is it hard to let go?

Being in a show as silly as Guys and Dolls, you have to deprogram yourself to some degree. Sometimes it’s a challenge to switch over from a day in court to go to rehearsal where you’re going to be singing and dancing. But it’s a lovely change of pace.

What’s your favourite part of the experience?

All the proceeds go to Nightwood Theatre, so it’s fundraising for a good cause. And, for me, I get to be in a professional-level theatre production without being a professional actor. But my two kids figure it’s an outlet for me to get out all of my terrible dad humour, inflict that on the public, and hopefully spare them.

Cover Story: How to make partner in a weak market

1. Sell yourself

“It’s not enough to do good work,” says Sarah Armstrong, who became an equity partner at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP in 2013, 10 years into her career — a breakneck ascent, considering she took two maternity leaves in that time. “You need people to know you do good work.”

Such advice has particular relevance for associates looking to advance at a big firm. After all, when partners have a big file, they bring top associates into the fold — or, more accurately, associates they think are the best. And getting on those files leads to billable hours and contact with clients, two prerequisites for partnership.

Luckily, self-promotion doesn’t have to be shameless. “I would speak at firm-wide events to market myself to the partners,” says Armstrong. “I once presented on arbitration clauses to corporate partners.” Sure enough, a partner asked her to draft one, which led to more work down the line. “It only happens when you put yourself out there.”

2. Quit the cocktail parties

Jill Daley didn’t just make partner quickly — she made partner early. In 2014, as a sixth-year lawyer, Daley became a partner at Norton Rose Fulbright LLP, one year before associates are supposed to become eligible for partnership. And yet, Daley, a leading pharmaceutical lawyer, never goes to networking events.

“I meet with clients all the time. But I take them to lunch and sit in their boardrooms.”— Jill Daley, Norton Rose Fulbright LLP

This shouldn’t be a surprise. A recent study on rainmaking, published by the U.S. consultancy firm Lawyer Metrics, found that most bona fide rainmakers don’t fish for clients at cocktail parties. In fact, many rainmakers are introverts who dislike attending them. “It surprises me how often people tell lawyers to go to parties,” says Monique Drake, who co-authored the study. “That’s not how most lawyers get clients.”

Meanwhile, rainmaking is more important than ever. “Ten years ago, there was so much work,” says Armstrong. “If associates survived long enough, they would make partner. That’s not really the case anymore.” In today’s weak economy and increasingly competitive market, they can only make partner if they have a knack for getting clients.

So, if not at cocktail parties, where do clients come from? “I don’t want to sound patronizing,” says Daley, “but most new business comes from doing good work for existing clients.” This helps in two ways. One, clients often move companies, where they hire the lawyer they liked the best. Two, clients send referrals to their favourite associates. Indeed, this is how Daley built a client roster.

But what, then, do rainmakers do to impress clients?

To start, they often learn the minutiae of each client’s world, says Drake. “They know what’s important to each client’s business and the internal politics each client faces.” And they learn this, simply, by listening. “Let’s say a rainmaker has to file a motion.

So she calls the client, but the client is upset about something else. Most lawyers try to steer the conversation back to the matter at hand. The rainmaker, though, will find out what’s going on.”

Deep client knowledge, in turn, tends to make lawyers more comfortable with risk — another hallmark of rainmakers. “Lawyers sometimes say to clients, ‘On one hand, we could file this motion, but we only have a 60 percent chance of winning. So what do you want to do?’” explains Drake. But rainmakers don’t waffle: they know how much risk a client can tolerate.

"Clients won’t come back to you if, whenever they have a problem, they feel like they’ve inconvenienced you."— Anthony Spadaro, Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP

“Clients won’t come back to you if, whenever they have a problem, they feel like they’ve inconvenienced you.”— Anthony Spadaro, Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP

“By couching advice in all sorts of back and forth, you’re effectively leaving it to the client to decide,” says Jason Mangano, who made equity partner at Blaney McMurtry LLP last year, as a ninth-year lawyer, about as fast as was possible. “But remember: clients come to you for recommendations and those recommendations need to be clear.” That’s not to say junior lawyers should launch headlong into categorical advice. “This is for senior associates,” says Drake, “who’ve been plugged into a client’s world for years.”

Does this mean cocktail parties are a waste of time? Not necessarily. Having personal relationships with clients is important. So if a client will be at an event, it might make sense to attend. Mangano surely thinks so. “Going to parties over the years has really paid off,” he says. But Daley’s clients never go to networking events. Associates eyeing partnership, then, should look for ways to spend time with clients — at parties, or somewhere else entirely. “I meet with clients all the time,” says Daley. “But I take them to lunch and sit in their boardrooms. I visit them where they are.”

3. Stay calm

Bay Street lawyers face an unending stream of shitstorms: the deadlines are intense and clients often call with Friday-afternoon emergencies. But top associates always keep their cool.

“Clients won’t come back to you if, whenever they have a problem, they feel like they’ve inconvenienced you,” says Anthony Spadaro, a 2009-call at Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP, who made non-equity partner in 2014, lockstep with the firm’s partnership track. “You have to roll with the punches.”

This story is part our series on making partner, from our Spring 2016 issue.

Cover Story: How to make partner at a small firm

1. Pass the lunchtime test

Making partner at McLeish Orlando LLP takes stellar legal work, rainmaking savvy and something less tangible. “I’ve got to want to have lunch with that person, only because I enjoy their company,” says John McLeish, co-founder of the 14-lawyer personal injury firm, which has seven partners. “We call it the lunchtime test.”

"We all make an effort to know each other on a personal level."— Rikin Morzaria, McLeish Orlando LLP

“We all make an effort to know each other on a personal level.”— Rikin Morzaria, McLeish Orlando LLP

And associates take the test nearly every day. “Unless I’m at a discovery or a mediation, I almost always have lunch with the rest of the firm,” says Rikin Morzaria, who made partner at McLeish Orlando in 2011, as a seventh-year lawyer. He says he chats about his personal life as often as he does about work. For Morzaria, that means providing updates on his two young children, while the hockey players on staff recount their latest on-ice triumphs. “We often have different interests outside of work,” says Morzaria. “But we all make an effort to know each other on a personal level.”

At any small firm, notes McLeish, everyone has to gel. “At a large firm, some lawyers might not even know each other’s names. But there’s no hiding at a small firm.” And McLeish says that’s a good thing: no one should want to hide. “I love all my partners and I love coming to the office. If I don’t like the lawyers, it’s not going to work for them and it’s not going to work for me.”

2. Master the small-firm formula

One afternoon in October of 2014, Jacquelyn Stevens marched nervously into a boardroom at Willms & Shier Environmental Lawyers. At the table sat the five partners of the 14-lawyer environmental boutique. Stevens, a tenth-year associate, was about to argue that she, too, should be a partner at the firm. It was the biggest moment of her career.

Being a partner is a big responsibility. We take it seriously.— Donna Shier, Willms & Shier Environmental Lawyers

Being a partner is a big responsibility. We take it seriously.— Donna Shier, Willms & Shier Environmental Lawyers

Like many small firms, Willms & Shier doesn’t have a partnership track. When associates want to take the leap, they are encouraged to make the first move and pitch themselves to the partners. If the partners like what they hear, associates become “partners-in- training” — kickstarting a trial period of at least one year, throughout which they attend all partnership meetings and see all the financial information for the first time. Only if the trial period goes well can they join the partnership, and have an equity stake in the firm. The vetting process is long. And that first meeting is no joke.

“It’s one of those times when they come in and straighten their ties,” says Donna Shier, who co-founded the firm 37 years ago. “This firm is how we support our families and our staff. Being a partner is a big responsibility. We take it seriously.”

Indeed, it’s a rare occasion when the firm’s relaxed tenor dissipates. Stevens felt the pressure. “It was pretty stressful,” she recalls. “Because I knew they might say no.”

But Stevens had prepared a detailed presentation that touted what she could bring to the business — and her pitch sheds light on what it takes to make partner at a small firm. For one thing, Stevens raised her reputation as a hyper-specialist. Most small shops, after all, brand themselves as the leading lawyers in a narrow field of law. On this point, Stevens introduced ample evidence in her favour: she was a certified specialist in environmental law and a superstar in a range of environmental areas, from mining to renewable energy.

He shook my hand, gave me a hug and said, ‘You’re in.’— Jacquelyn Stevens, Willms & Shier Environmental Lawyers

He shook my hand, gave me a hug and said, ‘You’re in.’— Jacquelyn Stevens, Willms & Shier Environmental Lawyers

She also had a strong reputation in the dry-cleaning law world, where she’s a go-to lawyer for both industrial cleaners and property owners who have sued such cleaners for damaging their land. At the office, colleagues called her “the dry-cleaning queen.”

Next, Stevens had to prove she could bring in new clients, a touchstone for partnership at all firms. But rainmaking at small firms is a unique challenge. “Most small firms don’t have institutional clients that feed it all of its work,” says Stevens. “Most of my work comes from one-off clients.” Business development, in other words, is a constant grind. Which is why Stevens keeps in touch with potential clients year-round. For instance, she reaches out to them and says, “I hope you don’t have any problems, but if you do, remember to give me a call.” And, as she told the partners, that tactic has borne fruit. “It’s taken six years, but I finally feel like I’ve gained the trust of certain clients, and I’m getting files.”

At the end of her presentation, Stevens ambled back to her office, leaving the partners to confer. Five minutes passed. She heard a knock at the door. “It was the managing partner, Marc McAree,” she recalls. “He shook my hand, gave me a hug and said, ‘You’re in.’”

Stevens went on to spend all of 2015 as a partner-in-training. Then, this January, she broke out of that cocoon, and emerged as a full-fledged equity partner. “It’s a big responsibility,” she says. “But you know what? I’m ready for this.”

This story is part of our series on making partner, from our Spring 2016 issue.