Fraser Milner Casgrain's Toronto Office: Looking To The U.S. And Beyond From Canada's Financial Center

Wednesday, December 1, 2004 - 01:00
Christopher E. Pinnington

Editor: Mr. Pinnington, would you tell us something about your background and experience?

Pinnington: I joined the firm of Fraser & Beatty, the predecessor firm of Fraser Milner Casgrain, in 1980 as an articling student (intern) after completing a law degree at Osgoode Hall Law School here in Toronto. I then returned to the firm on my call to the bar in Ontario in 1982, joining its Toronto office in the commercial real estate section. I became a partner in 1987. In November 1999, I left the firm to join what was then the firm's largest real estate client, now known as Ivanhoe Cambridge, a leading Canadian and international developer, owner and manager of regional shopping centers, as Senior Vice-President, General Counsel and Secretary. I was with Ivanhoe Cambridge until a year ago, when I returned to the Toronto office of Fraser Milner Casgrain and assumed the role of Managing Partner of the office.

Editor: Please tell us about your practice.

Pinnington: I would characterize my practice as a corporate commercial practice, with a particular emphasis on the real estate industry.Within that context, it runs the gamut of activities in the real estate sector, including the buying and selling of properties, joint ventures, commercial leasing, a variety of financing activities, real property development, management and operation, and all of the things that go along with such a practice. Not surprisingly, in light of my role as Managing Partner, I am less engaged in day-to-day practice and more involved in the strategic planning and management of the Toronto office.

Editor: You have been both a law firm lawyer and a general counsel. Would you tell us about your experiences in the corporate world? How much different was the role you played there from your present role?

Pinnington: I enjoyed the four years that I spent in the corporate world, and the experience is quite different from being a law firm lawyer. As general counsel, I was a fully participating member of the senior management team and was involved in making strategic business decisions. It was a great opportunity to participate in corporate decision-making at the very highest level from the beginning of the discussion to its conclusion. This training in strategic thinking has been enormously beneficial to me in my relatively new role as Managing Partner.

Of course, a law firm lawyer also has a very important contribution to make to this process, but it is often a much more focused and specialized contribution. At FMC, our lawyers regularly play a role in the strategic decision-making process. Having these skills is essential in business. Our clients look to us for a broad range of advice beyond the technical aspects of the law. We have a large reservoir of lawyers who can provide that scope. Experience as a general counsel is one way of acquiring that ability.

On the other hand, I must admit that I came to miss much of the day-to-day active engagement that drafting and negotiating and hammering out the details of corporate transactions entails. The experience of working in both environments has given me a very good perspective, on a whole variety of management issues. I developed this broader perspective having spent four years seeing the legal profession and the business of law through the eyes of a client.

Editor: I should have thought that your corporate background would make you a valuable resource for the firm in terms of its relations with corporate clients.

Pinnington: A lawyer who has the ability to understand the perspective of corporate clients, and particularly of general counsel and other senior executives, is always of value to them and therefore, to the firm. It is essential for the firm to understand the client's expectations, to understand what the client is looking for, and to be able to deliver value as defined by the client. Operating in a highly competitive and rapidly changing industry like real estate reminds you of how important it is to understand the client's business and the industry in which they operate. I believe my experience has given me added insight into the relationships we have with our clients and added credibility in the eyes of our clients, and I think the firm overall benefits from this.

Editor: You have spent most of your career at Fraser Milner Casgrain, in two separate stints. Would you tell us about the evolution of the firm over this time?

Pinnington: There has been a dramatic growth in the legal profession in Canada over the past 20 years, and our firm mirrors that growth in its own development.When I joined Fraser & Beatty in Toronto in 1980, there were around 50 to 60 lawyers, all of whom were located in one office. In 1985, our Ottawa office was opened and in 1990, Fraser & Beatty established an office in Vancouver through a merger with a local firm. In the years that followed growth was rapid and both organic - from within - and through strategic mergers.

The name of the firm today, Fraser Milner Casgrain, reflects its origins in Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver - Fraser & Beatty - in Alberta - Milner Fenerty - and in Montreal - Byers Casgrain, all firms with a long and distinguished presence in their markets. As we continue to integrate, we realize and are capitalizing on the opportunities that our national platform provides.

Editor: What were the factors that went into the decision to become a Canadian national law firm?

Pinnington: In order to fully serve large institutional clients with operations across Canada, we must have a presence in Canada's major financial centers. Our clients tell us that it is very important for their counsel to be familiar, not only with their business, but also with the markets in which they operate. That requires local knowledge that can best come from having a presence in these cities and regions of the country.

Editor: Does the Toronto office have a particular focus?

Pinnington: Fraser Milner Casgrain's Toronto office, with about 200 lawyers, is a full-service business law office. In terms of industry focus, our practice does mirror the Canadian economy. Toronto is the economic heart of Canada, and many companies and large financial institutions have their head offices in Toronto. Currently our practice reflects this, and FMC has a very strong practice in virtually all areas of business and corporate law, including corporate securities, mergers and acquisitions, antitrust and other regulatory, banking and financial services, real estate, tax, litigation, pensions and employment and labor. We also have identified emerging strategic practice opportunities, for example infrastructure (public-private partnerships) and energy (particularly Ontario electricity) where we have established a leadership position through a combination of effective lateral recruiting and grooming our own expertise.

As we move forward and observe what is happening in Toronto and the Canadian marketplace, we are increasingly aware of the cross-border flow of goods and services. As cross-border business increases, the firm's ability to provide services to clients carrying on their activities in the larger continental arena has increased proportionately, and this is taking on ever more importance for our Toronto office. The transactional business flows in both directions, since the clients are Canadian, American and other international entities. However, as a consequence of the increased interest in Canada on the part of American business and other international enterprises, two years ago the firm opened an office in New York. This is part of our continental strategy, which is designed to introduce the firm to American and other overseas clients as a leading full-service, Canadian business law firm capable of meeting all of their Canadian needs, whatever the practice area and wherever the location. The New York office is not intended to compete with New York firms for U.S. business, but rather to showcase the expertise and skills of Fraser Milner Casgrain in the various sectors of the Canadian economy. Cross-border work is being done in all of the firm's offices, but it certainly is increasingly important for our Toronto office.

Editor: Has NAFTA had an impact on the firm's business?

Pinnington: Absolutely. Canada and the U.S. are each other's largest trade partners, and on the Canadian side of the equation that translates to almost 80% of Canada's exports going to the U.S., while Canada is the largest importer of American goods in the entire world. As I say, this affects our work in every office. With the passage of time, I think this is only going to increase. It will undoubtedly lead us to consider other initiatives and opportunities in the US. We already have teams representing all of our offices and a cross-section of practice areas dedicated to developing and expanding our networks and relationships and building brand awareness in cities such as Houston, Chicago and Washington, as well as in California. For example, the ties between Calgary and Houston are particularly strong, as one would expect, and the lawyers in the energy and natural resources group in Calgary spend a considerable amount of time working on transactions which involve Texas interests. That work is continuing to grow at an extraordinary pace. Our two countries have a great deal in common - culture and language, very similar legal and political systems, a high degree of development and strong economies and, of course, one of the longest common borders in the world - so the magnitude of our trade relationship, past and present, should be no surprise. NAFTA, however, has served to accelerate that relationship by substantially reducing or eliminating protective barriers, tariffs and many of the things that inhibited trade in the past.

Editor: Please tell us about the challenges that you face as Managing Partner of the Toronto office of one of Canada's leading law firms.

Pinnington: We have a wonderfully talented group of lawyers in our Toronto office and I feel privileged to work with them every day. As Managing Partner of a large office, as our Toronto office is, there are many rewards, and there are also many challenges. The legal landscape in Canada, like the U.S., has changed dramatically over the past decade and continues to evolve rapidly. Competition for legal work is fierce and we must continually reassess our value proposition and ensure that we are completely aligned with the needs of our clients and our market.

Perhaps the single biggest challenge is to continue to anticipate where the market for legal services is going and identify where we can establish, and then go out and secure, a niche in the vanguard. This, of course, requires that we continue to support our team of professionals and provide them with the resources to succeed. That entails recruiting well at all levels, from students to senior laterals.

Editor: What about the future? Where would you like the firm to be in, say, five years?

Pinnington: Over the next few years we are focused on establishing ourselves as one of a handful of leading Canadian business law firms - the firm of choice - for both Canadian and American clients and for American and for other international clients seeking to invest in Canada or conduct operations in Canada.

I have every confidence we are headed in the right direction to meet this goal. By focusing on our clients' needs and aligning our firm strategically to provide excellent service to our clients and meet their unique business requirements, we are positioning Fraser Milner Casgrain for the future. We have built a strong national platform across Canada, and we are actively engaged in a similar exercise in the U.S. The future of FMC is very bright, and I look forward to being a part of it.