A Public Policy Practice Group Takes Center Stage

Friday, July 1, 2005 - 01:00
Roxanna Benoit
Cyrus Reporter

Editor: Would each of you tell our readers something about your background and professional experience?

Reporter: Prior to joining Fraser Milner Casgrain, I spent nine years working in various capacities in the Government of Canada, principally as a senior political advisor. I played several roles, including that of Chief of Staff, for, successively, the Minister of Justice and Attorney General, the Minister of Health and the Minister of Industry for Canada.

I am very involved with the Liberal Party of Canada. Currently I serve on the National Executive and Management Committee of the Party, as Secretary-Treasurer. I have also served on three successive National Campaign Committees.

Benoit: I joined Fraser Milner Casgrain in early June from the Canadian Investor Relations Institute, where I was President and CEO. Prior to that I served as Vice President and Deputy General Counsel of the Association of Corporate Counsel, formerly known as the American Corporate Counsel Association, and had been Executive Director of the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association before that. I have also been involved in the political arena, having served as Director of Policy for the Leader of the Progressive-Conservative Party of Canada. In that capacity I directed all of the Party's public policy initiatives. I continue my political activity with the Conservative Party of Canada by getting involved in campaign readiness and serving on the planning committee for our recent policy conference.

Editor: How did you come to FMC?

Reporter: In my case, it was a combination of FMC's professional reputation in the areas that interested me, in addition to some personal relationships. My experience in government might have led me to a consulting or lobbying firm, but I was a lawyer by training. FMC had a distinguished reputation in the government relations practice area, and this represented an opportunity to put my public policy experience to work in a legal setting. At the same time, through my political work I had developed good relationships with Senator David Smith, a former FMC National Firm Chairman, and with Richard Mahoney, who is currently the leader of the firm's Public Policy Practice Group.

Benoit: The reputation that Fraser Milner enjoys in both Canada and the U.S. was one of the primary reasons for my joining. In addition, I was impressed by the progressive attitude of the firm concerning areas that would not be considered a traditional practice of law. That attitude helps to explain how the Public Policy Group's services can enhance the outcome of a matter and add real value to the client. It was in discussing this with the firm's partners - Doug Black was particularly influential - that I came to see what a wonderful professional opportunity Fraser Milner offers to someone with my background.

Editor: Please tell us about the Public Policy Practice Group. What is the origin of this initiative?

Reporter: Most large law firms have lawyers who have been in government or active in political affairs. FMC, however - starting with the leadership of David Smith as Chair - has placed a particular focus on government relations as a practice area and as a way in which to add value to the services the firm provides its clients.

The group was formally established about five years ago. We now have four full time attorneys based in Ottawa, the National Capital, dedicated to government relations work. Our work includes providing strategic advice, communications advice, direct lobbying and advocacy, gathering intelligence on government initiatives, and all like activities associated with government relations. In addition, we have a number of members across the firm's various offices for whom government relations work is a component of their practice.

Editor: How do you go about staffing your projects? Are you able to draw upon the personnel and resources of the firm?

Reporter: Our practice group is of tremendous benefit to our clients precisely because of our access to a wide array of experts. The firm has, for example, a large presence in Calgary, where we are a leader in the energy market. Much of the work that our group does is in collaboration with the lawyers in the Calgary office who practice energy law. So, for example, for a company in the energy sector, we can provide not only the expertise of practitioners in areas of traditional legal practice but also assistance in all their interactions with government.

Editor: Who are the clients that the group seeks to serve?

Reporter: We are registered publicly on behalf of a wide range of clients in sectors including energy, telecommunications, aerospace, and transportation. For example, we act for BP Energy Company, Allstream (which was formerly AT&T Canada), Sprint Canada and Embraer, the major Brazilian aircraft manufacturer, among others. We represent Canadian, American and international corporations.

Editor: Are these clients of the group or are you providing a service to the firm's clients?

Reporter: Both. We have an established reputation as government relations practitioners, and people requiring this type of service seek us out. One group of clients, accordingly, consists of organizations for whom the firm is providing no other services. The other group of clients is made up of organizations with whom FMC has existing relationships as legal advisors. These are firm clients, and they come to us when a government relations issue arises.

Editor: And the services?

Reporter: We have the capacity to approach governments at both the federal and the provincial level across the country. At the provincial level we have particular experience in relation to the Governments of Ontario, Quebec and Alberta. The tasks we carry out for clients include representation before boards and tribunals, strategic advice with respect to a client's interaction with government, direct advocacy, media management and advice on helping clients get their message across.

Benoit: Our experience and our ability to anticipate the actions that might be taken by a government department enable us to provide our clients with options. It is as important for our clients to deal with issues before they become a serious challenge as it is to deal with challenges as they arise. Much of what we do has a federal focus and takes place here in Ottawa. There are jurisdictional issues here that differ significantly from those prevailing in the U.S., and an American company able to anticipate the direction a Canadian federal department is going to take is in a very good position to shape the debate and move the agenda forward.

In my experience, members of ACC in the legal departments of American corporations doing business in Canada were often surprised at the significant differences between the two legal and political environments. Labor and employment law in Canada is very different from what is in place in the U.S., for example. As a firm with extensive experience of what is applicable on both sides of the border, FMC is in a unique position to help clients work their way through issues which, at the outset, might seem baffling. The volume of trade between Canada and the U.S. is simply astonishing. What is equally astonishing is how some minor roadblock - one that, if anticipated and dealt with, might be overcome with a minimum of effort - can have serious, even devastating, consequences for major corporations attempting to do business in the other country and going about it without knowing much about the landscape. That is the knowledge and expertise that the Public Policy Practice Group brings to the table.

Editor: What about industry sectors? Are there areas where the group's expertise is particularly strong?

Reporter: All of the resource sectors are a focus for us. We act on behalf of BP Energy in connection with the Alaska Pipeline Initiative here in Canada, for example, and we have a particularly deep bench in the hydroelectric area - with extensive resources in Quebec - and in oil and gas - with similar resources in Alberta. Communications is also a key sector for us. We represent Canadian Satellite Radio, which is a partner of XM Satellite Radio, in the United States. We provide services to the banking sector, to the international trade sector - our work on behalf of Embraer has a strong trade component - and to the public private partnership sector. We act as government relations advisors to Borealis Infrastructure, which is a major pension fund investor in Canada.

Benoit: The expertise of the Public Policy Practice Group serves to add to the effectiveness of the firm as a whole. And, of course, the expertise that resides in so many different practice areas adds to the effectiveness that we as a group bring to our practice.

Editor: Are you continuing your policy drafting and research work through the practice group?

Reporter: Yes. We assist our clients with legislative drafting. Much of our work looks to influence the final form and content of legislation as it passes through Parliament. That involves direct interaction with officials on the substance of legislation and preparing our clients for appearances before Parliamentary committees.

Editor: What about the future? Where would you like the Public Policy Practice Group to be in, say, five years?

Reporter: We would like the group to continue to be a leader in the government relations field. To that end, we expect the Public Policy Group will continue to be a distinguishing factor for our firm among Canadian law firms. We are unique in the services we provide our clients, and I have every expectation that the quality and scope of those services will only continue to improve.

Benoit: In addition, over the next few years we hope to increase the volume of work we do with American companies. We have a great deal to offer in terms of a quite unique knowledge of the Canadian landscape for foreign companies already doing business in Canada or for those thinking about it. Having seen at first hand how a lack of information can be a real barrier to success, I think our group is in an extraordinary position to help clients avoid the pitfalls.

Please email the interviewees at roxanna.benoit@fmc-law.com or cyrus.reporter@fmc-law.com with questions about this interview.