Legal eagle: Meet the woman leading one of Canada’s top law firms

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Kenya-Jade Pinto/The Globe and Mail

It took just 20 years for Jennifer Teskey to rise from junior lawyer to managing partner at one of the top corporate law firms in the country. That’d be an impressive rise for anybody. But for a woman to grab the top spot at the second-biggest firm of its kind, in a country where women are under-represented at the partner level, is remarkable. On Jan. 1, she’ll take over a firm of roughly 700 lawyers whose clients have recently included RBC, Pfizer, TransAlta Corp. and CN Rail. The Canadian branch of a huge global entity, Norton Rose Fulbright is not only the top firm in Canada representing the company side in activist shareholder campaigns; it’s near the top for the activist side, as well. That’s pretty unusual, and it shows what a complex organism Teskey will lead, at a time when demand for corporate legal services is growing. We met in NRF’s Bay Street offices.

Congratulations. How many other women in Canada can say they’re managing partner at a big firm like this?

Well, nationally speaking, truly national firms, there aren’t other female managing partners.

How does it feel, being the first?

It’s extremely exciting. And I have to say, the response I’ve received from women, people of diverse backgrounds, not just nationally but from North America, has been really moving.

When you were announced, your chairman, Walied Soliman—

[She glances at her Apple Watch.] He’s calling me as we speak! So just let me cancel that.

He said you have an inspiring vision for the future. What is your inspiring vision?

Three things. The first is continuing on the incredible momentum the firm is experiencing. The second is leveraging our client relationships and developing true partnerships. It’s table stakes that we deliver good legal advice, but a true partnership with a client is much deeper. It involves partnering on things like diversity, equity and inclusion, something this firm is really strong at. The third thing is our talent agenda, being laser focused on our people, and what it looks and feels like.

What’s the story behind your achievement—who did you crush to get to the top?

Well, Trevor, I’m very pleased to say there was no crushing going on. To give you a bit of a window into how law firms can operate, it’s not uncommon to have contested elections and to have even campaigning within a law firm for the managing partner role. Our current managing partner, Charles Hurdon, has brought this firm together in a way that is incredibly powerful. When he made the decision to step out of the role after three terms, there was discussion among the partners, and a very touching, unique thing happened: There was general alignment that it made sense for me to step into the role.

What changes for you now? I know you’re a litigator.

You can’t just flick a switch and stop everything all at once. I have very deep client relationships. My focus is the management of the firm, but my practice will continue, albeit in a different way. Obviously I’m relied on as a strategic adviser for many of our clients, and that will continue. I’m blessed to have an incredible team to assist me.

Let’s turn to the world of law. The first question is AI. How’s that impacting your field?

It’s still early days. We are focused on better understanding the use cases. There’s the back-office side of it—HR, finance and all manner of service delivery within the firm. Then there’s the practice side, and we’re reviewing tools such as e-discovery—layering in AI to pre-existing databases of documents, and being able to get early working drafts of, for example, examination for discovery scripts. That type of AI is still at its infancy.

The famous case of the lawyers who used AI to build a brief—

The issue in that circumstance was that there was no review as to whether these were legitimate cases. The diligence after the fact is a critical piece of the puzzle. As a firm, we are not using AI for the preparation of briefs at this stage.

Is the ultimate goal in using AI to save money?


What is the benefit?

The real advantage to AI, as we see it, is enriching the discussion much earlier. It’s about leveraging and being able to aggregate knowledge in a much quicker, more focused way, so that you can advance the dialogue, and thereby the advice that you’re delivering, in a more sophisticated way. For the business side, you can use AI to have more sophisticated conversations around pricing, around internal functions.

In your firm’s annual trends survey, the No. 1 litigation area for clients is employment and labour. Has that always been the case?

It’s been reasonably consistent, yes. And certainly within the pandemic, it certainly featured very, very prominently.

Do economic factors impact which areas of law surface to the top?

As economies soften, inevitably, you may see more employment and labour-type disputes. You see an uptick in insolvency-type disputes. Mainstay corporate commercial litigation, however, tends to be quite constant.

I looked back a few years in the survey, and one area that didn’t appear until recently is cyber security. How important is that now?

Hugely important. I’m going to hazard a guess that, if you ask boards of directors what keeps them up at night, cyber risk is absolutely top of the list. The risk of breach the vast majority of people would reasonably say it’s not a matter of if but when. So cyber preparedness is incredibly important. It is not the kind of thing you want to be dealing with in the throes of an actual event.

What’s the role of outside counsel when there’s a cyber breach?

Communication is hugely important with regulators. Other issues could be triggered from a public disclosure perspective, so there’s a securities component. Corporations could face class-action litigation by virtue of the breach of personal information. So, it’s a multiphased approach to properly advising corporations around cyber preparedness and risk.

Is Canada behind or ahead of the curve in any aspect of corporate law?

It’s fair to say that the CSA’s approach on board diversity—we’ve been a leader. You’re beginning to see greater diversity on boards, as well as within management teams. But there is still a lot of work to do.

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The number of female and male lawyers at the lower levels is roughly the same, but in upper management, there are three times more men. So how—

How does that reconcile? For many years now, the entry percentages into law schools have been slightly higher for women than men. At the time people are brought in as first-year associates, it’s at least 50-50. Inevitably, over the five- to eight-year associate range, there has been attrition in the female ranks. And it’s not a coincidence that that tends to be when women are having families. That is why having a real focus on support for women when they are going on maternity leave and coming back from maternity leave, for example, is crucial. Being encouraged to map a plan as to how to advance and to join the partnership is, very frankly, something law firms have not been particularly good at.

What about other forms of diversity? There was a piece in The Globe about five years ago by a woman of colour who found it very difficult to fit in at a Bay Street firm. Has anything changed?

I think for many, many decades, Bay Street law has not been inclusive—whether it’s women or people of colour—and has not embraced the notion of diversity. If you don’t have diversity, you don’t have diversity of thought. And what our clients want is diversity of thought. That enriches the way you deliver client service, it enriches client interactions, and it simply is a true reflection of society.

Back to your trends survey. When asked whether they expected lawsuits to increase in the coming year, Canadians were much more likely to say yes. Are we becoming more litigious?

I think it’s fair to say we are. There is an influence from the United States, which is obviously more litigious than Canada. And with the proliferation of class actions, for example, you’re seeing an uptick in disputes.

How has the firm been affected by the work-from-home trend?

Back in 2018, we already had a contingent of our team working remotely a certain number of days a week. When the pandemic hit, we were uniquely situated to, more or less, flick a switch to move our whole business to work-from-home. It’s still an agile workplace. As a business, we stay very close to our people to understand what they’d like to see, as well as what we believe, as a business, we need in terms of building things like culture.

Law is unique in its mentoring of young lawyers. How does work-from-home affect that?

Mentorship and sponsorship is still alive and well in the hybrid environment. Just the other day, an associate expressed to me how useful she felt an online interaction was with one of our partners. They were editing a document online, and she was getting real-time feedback. To her mind, that was the single most influential moment in terms of learning how to craft a pleading. So we need to be very open-minded as to how mentoring actually looks. It can be delivered in a variety of ways.

Law is also known for demanding long hours from junior lawyers. What friction does that create with younger employees who increasingly seek work-life balance?

There is no doubt that the practice of law involves some very significant demands, in terms of time and focus. However, having a life and other interests is entirely feasible. Our hybrid culture helps to facilitate that, as well. Expectations are high in terms of the practice side. But it’s possible to have balance.

Let’s talk about money. We’re dealing with an inflationary environment. Are your costs rising?

I think everyone’s costs, to a degree, are increasing. Um…

This is a difficult question?

No, I just—the costs of the business tend to be pretty steady. There’s no doubt we have inflationary pressures.

Are your fees rising with inflation?

Fees do rise to keep pace with inflation. But again, in terms of order of magnitude, it’s all pretty steady.

I gather there’s a push to move away from billable hours.

Clients come to us regularly, and we go to clients regularly, to talk about alternative fee arrangements, or AFAs. That has been a part of our conversation with clients for many years.

What’s driving that change?

People like cost certainty. That’s true on both sides. But it’s situationally dependent. In the early days, if a client is just kicking the tires at something, that may be a situation where the billable hour makes a lot of sense. When a client has more certainty around the nature of the ask, that is when AFAs can make sense.

What’s an example of an AFA?

The most common is a fixed-fee arrangement. So, X transaction, Y dollars. Results-oriented AFAs are different. They involve premiums or reductions if something is unsuccessful.

Is there anything about working with outside legal counsel that clients tend to get wrong?

If you have a true partner, you should be looking to them as a business adviser. It’s not enough to have someone simply telling you what the law says, or what it permits you to do or not. It really comes down to, “If you were in my shoes, external counsel, what would you do?” It’s that piece that I think some external counsel can also forget about sometimes.

Looking back over your career, which case taught you the most?

The first case I took to the superior court, I was faced with opposing counsel who was 20 or 25 years my senior. I was a first-year lawyer, and I thought, This person already has all this knowledge. How am I going to be able to challenge this case? One of my partners, Orestes Pasparakis, took me aside, and we had a discussion around being expert in your case—that ultimately that is what will carry the day. I’m pleased to report that I was successful in that particular motion. Quite literally my first day in the courtroom, I learned that it comes down to substance. It comes down to knowledge. And sure—confidence doesn’t hurt.

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