The Power of Perspectives

The Canadian Bar Association

Yves Faguy

MLT Aikins: Western Canada’s law firm

October 6 2016 6 October 2016


In 2017, Saskatchewan’s largest law firm, MacPherson Leslie & Tyerman, will merge with Manitoba’s leading firm, Aikins MacAulay & Thorvaldson, to form MLT Aikins LLP in what is being billed as Western Canada’s law firm.  CBA National caught up with Don Wilson (pictured above), managing partner of MLT and incoming managing partner of the new entity to ask him what was behind the tie-up.

CBA National: What were the main drivers for the mergers?

Don Wilson: There were two imperatives in our growth. One, we wanted to stay in Western Canada because we felt that was our sweet spot. Those were the people and businesses we understood. Secondly, we decided we would never grow in any fashion that jeopardized our culture. Lots of firms talk about it; we actually live it. We have this team approach to things. Nobody says “my client.” We all operate out of the same profit pool. We don’t have a head office mentality. So we wanted to be careful and measured in doing it because of culture.

N: So why Aikins?

DW: Well we have known and respected Aikins forever. I’ve certainly talked to their managing partners and senior people over the years. It sounds counterintuitive, but we also felt the best way to solidify our credibility of the claim of Western Canada’s law firm, was to add the fourth western province to our team. We felt the best way for us to grow in Alberta and BC was to do this with the preeminent Manitoba firms. Obviously they dominate in Manitoba, we have continued strength in Saskatchewan. Aikins also has significant contacts in Alberta and BC and now we can go to those marketplaces with 250 lawyers with wide variety of bench strength and expertise. From Aikins’ perspective, about a year and a half ago when they heard about our BC move, they were looking at redesigning their playing field. They loved the Western Canada firm concept.

N: Why is that western identity so important?

DW: The Canadian economy is, generally speaking, a commodity based economy right across the West. Everyone in Canada understands the oil patch largely in Alberta. But I don’t think they fully understand that commodities go way beyond that. There’s obviously forestry, uranium, potash, hard rock mining of all sorts. There is a common thread to the businesses in these provinces.

N: Are you exploring other tie-up opportunities?

DW: Down the road one never knows. But we feel we have a lot of work to do. Our vision is to maintain this culture that we’ve had and to exploit the fact that we are the only law firm that covers Western Canada -- certainly the only in four provinces that doesn’t have a national head office, which we think changes how we are able to deal with clients and know their business and know the community.

N: What is unique about the legal marketplace in those provinces?

DW: One thing a lot of national or central Canada based firms don’t quite get is that there’s a lot of foreign investment in Western Canada that has no link to the central Canada or the east, which come from the U.S., which come from Asia, in the mining sectors There are a lot of businesses that are more interested in what the west has to offer than perhaps the rest of Canada.

N: How does firm like yours react to the downturn in the economy in parts of Western Canada?

DW: Well yeah, there was a rough patch. Do we who live on commodity based provinces find that unusual or scary? No because we’ve all been through it and we all know it’ll recover and when it recovers we all know that we will be the beneficiaries. We like to think of ourselves as taking the long view. So if other firms are laying people off, we feel this is an opportune time for us to expand our bench strengths. We can pick up talented people when they are available. We’re taking some more space in Calgary right now as we speak. That’s another part of it that often is overlooked -- our ability to recruit associates doing what we’re doing compared to other people who are not looking big picture and growing is remarkable.

N: One of your main challenges is getting the two cultures to fit together. What do firms need to do to ensure that happens well?

DW: Not to just pay lip service. Don’t put out slogans and glossy things that say, “Here’s our culture.” You have to live it. When you think you’ve done the job by putting it out in a glossy manual, I think you’re kidding yourselves.

This interview was edited and condensed for publication

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