Most readers are familiar with our habit of writing a “letter from…” when we have spent some time in a particular market.  We spent last week in Toronto among other things delivering the keynote and moderating breakout sessions at the annual meeting of Interlex, an international law firm network’, celebrating the third regional book launch event for Tomorrowland (graciously hosted by Gowlings WLG) after events in London and New York, and, of course, meeting with a wide array of firms at their offices.

A few observations:

I.

For historic reasons (isn’t it ever thus?), until shockingly recently many Canada-headquartered  firms were organized first and foremost by metropolitan area or province (the “city-state” era, as some jocularly call it) rather than by practice area or industry focus,   I can remember tearing my hair out trying to find the bio of a particular partner at such a firm not that long ago but he was nowhere to be found and I had just met him so I knew he existed.  Only when I stumbled over the website’s weird architectural design choice–you had to first pick the right office and then and only then could you find the fellow–did I realize how deep this has run.

At the very least, firms have migrated to a two-dimensional matrix organization of offices and practice areas, and all seem on their way to the externally-focused and fundamentally rational and correct orientation of practice groups being primary.  Several firms volunteered that they had moved in this direction and no one seemed stuck in the status quo ante.

II.

Regular readers also know that I’m a card-carrying optimist, and that crowd may not be surprised about another observation we made.

We met with ten firms during our trip and five had just finished or were on the brink of a gut office renovation.  The new spaces were obviously all quite distinctive but they shared a light openness, were anything but stuffy or formal, with designs that had not been over-thought or that self-consciously strained to impress.  Some were also moving in the direction of private offices migrating more to the interior and away from monopolizing the window walls, and smaller/more standardized arrangements.

These all constitute tangible and short-term irreversible investments in the future, which is why we choose to view them as signs of optimism.  Now, anyone who’s been to Toronto lately can tell you the skyline is a sea of construction cranes, presumably reflecting macroeconomic strength and growth, but the law firm sector, as we’ve learned to our rue during the past decade, doesn’t necessarily march in lockstep with GDP.

A data point.

III.

Now, for what’s less specific to Canada and what expresses national incarnations of global phenomena.

  • The local, regional, and national implications of globalization are perhaps the top-of-mind unanswered question for most for most of these firms.  To be sure, Canada has been “discovered” by the world (as has, for example, the United States’ Pacific Northwest region or certain Latin American and Central/Eastern European countries), but the conviction is firm that the end-game has not yet been played out.  More than once we were asked about the Australian legal market, with people clearly grasping for an analogy or an instructive precedent, but then again, at least as many people who brought it up dismissed Australia as distinguishable as those who thought it might portend Canada Law’s future.
    Our view is that large national markets tend to march to their own drummers and while both Australia and Canada have experienced resource-driven boom and bust recently, history, geography, and cultural assumptions make Australia a tangential lesson for Canada.

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