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Law Firm Satellite Offices: Technology Helps Open Roads Less Traveled

By Janet Ellen Raasch

Satellites

For most of history, a “satellite” was a passive thing, destined to spend its existence in the orbit of a more important, primary object – like the moon in the orbit of the earth. For years, many law firm satellite offices operated in much the same way.

Today, the best law firm satellite offices have evolved to become essential strategic tools for many modern law practices throughout Canada.

This was made possible by two extremely influential changes: (1) the cross-provincial practice of law and (2) advances in technology.

In a 1989 decision involving the proposed foray into Alberta by McCarthy and McCarthy (now McCarthy Tétrault), the Supreme Court of Canada determined that Canadian law firms could operate cross-provincially, introducing a new competitive element to the practice of law.

At one time, the physical separation of lawyers at a satellite office also meant a physical separation from firm resources and operations. Documents had to be manually transported between locations. Meetings required the time and expense of travel. Phone calls went to the wrong office.

Advances in technology have made it possible for satellite offices – and even individual solo lawyers – to integrate their practices seamlessly with a firm’s main office and the wealth of resources it uses to drive operations – using the Internet as well as electronic collaborative, conferencing and management tools.

With videoconferencing, there is less need to travel in order to attend meetings. Modern telephony automatically transfers phone calls to the location of the lawyer.

Brian Maude (www.brianmaude.com) in Moncton, New Brunswick, is a solo lawyer who operates this way. Until recently, he operated his corporate and finance practice for high-tech companies from his laptop. “I had a very sophisticated Web site,” said Maude, “but no physical office. A reception service transferred phone calls to my cell. I met with clients at their offices.

“Some people think that it doesn’t fit a lawyer’s image to operate this way,” said Maude, “without a big office, a receptionist, a secretary and a paralegal. But I have built a very successful practice using this model. It works especially well with clients who are themselves entrepreneurs.” Recently, Maude opened a small office in downtown Moncton “mainly to store stuff.”

There are resources outside the firm for these lawyers as well. For example, to help serve the needs of lawyers in remote locations, the CBA has instituted online Continuing Legal Education programs (http://www.cba.org/cle) on a variety of subjects.

Even with the advances made possible by modern technology, lawyers who work from a remote location can feel isolated from their colleagues and from the ‘action’ and opportunities for advancement at headquarters. Many firms address this issue by scheduling regular opportunities (like retreats) for lawyers to interact in person, and by regularly publicizing throughout the firm the activities and accomplishments of those at remote locations.

“Despite the best technology, physical distance can create a wall,” said Stephen Mabey, COO of Stewart McKelvey. “If we were starting all over, we would pay more attention to facilitating cross-office relationships – especially among practice departments – both electronically and interpersonally. All lawyers must feel that they are more directly part of a department.”

Why Do Firms Launch Satellite Offices?

Canadian law firms launch satellite offices for a strategic purpose – to better serve their own needs and those of their clients. Specifically, satellite office can meet the needs of:

  • The law firm, when the firm needs to acquire particular expertise but the lateral lawyer or small group with that expertise does not want to relocate to a main office. This can be an especially important need when a firm is expanding internationally.

  • The law firm, when the firm needs a physical presence in a particular region in order to recruit talented lawyers and staff – high-tech lawyers in a high-tech region, for example.

  • Some of a law firm’s existing lawyers, who may have valuable skills but don’t want to live near a main office – either through preference (lifestyle or transitioning to retirement) or need (temporary or permanent disability or the need to be close to a family member like a child, spouse or elderly parent).

  • Clients who want more convenient access to the firm and its lawyers in a particular location. Often, these clients appreciate it when the firm demonstrates a commitment to a client’s home community.

  • Clients who are located near a courthouse or government office building.

  • Potential clients, where the firm has identified a potential market and wants to “test the waters” by increasing its presence via a small satellite office. Such a satellite could further strengthen a relationship with a good referral entity or association.

Case Studies

MacLean Family Law Group

In Vancouver, four-attorney MacLean Family Law Group (www.bcfamilylaw.ca and www.bcfamilylawblog.com) specializes in complex divorce cases for high-net-worth individuals.

Founding partner Lorne MacLean noticed that many of the phone calls to the firm’s toll-free number were originating in the North Peace region of British Columbia.

“These calls got my attention,” said MacLean. “I like to think that I am a businessman as well as a lawyer. As a businessman, I thrive on exploiting new markets that others might not consider attractive. When someone says ‘no,’ I am likely to say ‘go.’”

MacLean’s research revealed that the area’s economy was booming – due in large part to natural gas exploration, development and production. “For someone in the natural gas industry, the average annual salary was $250,000 – certainly within my target market,” said MacLean.

“Plus, in this kind of ‘work hard, party hard’ environment, there can be significant issues – gambling and substance abuse, for example – that contribute to divorce,” said MacLean. “None of the local law firms was focusing on this niche.”

In 2006, MacLean opened an office in Fort St. John – 700 km north of Vancouver. In less than a year, the firm has generated as much business from this satellite as it enjoys in its successful Vancouver office. Much of the work is processed in Vancouver.

“We couldn’t find suitable space to rent,” said MacLean, “so we built our own building on a very prominent corner. Seventy per cent of the population drives past that building each day – which has been all the advertising we need.

“Our lawyers take turns working at this office, which is open five days a week,” said MacLean. “Since it is so far away, we added a small suite where the ‘on-call’ lawyer can spend the night. We would like to hire someone who will spend half-time in this office.

“I personally visited each lawyer in Fort St. John to introduce myself and deliver a gift basket,” said MacLean. “The court sits there one or two days each month, and all of the lawyers in the vicinity show up. That helps us stay in touch. Many of them prefer to avoid the stress of family law, and are happy to refer their clients to us for divorces.

Stewart McKelvey

Stewart McKelvey (www.smss.com) markets itself as Atlantic Canada’s first and largest regional law firm. The firm’s approximately 210 lawyers are located in six offices in four provinces: New Brunswick (Fredericton, Moncton and Saint John), Newfoundland and Labrador (St. John’s), Nova Scotia (Halifax) and Prince Edward Island (Charlottetown).

“With the nationalization of law practice in 1989, we anticipated an influx of larger law firms into Atlantic Canada,” said Mabey.

“Each of the merging firms was big in its market, but not big enough to withstand the new competition,” said Mabey. “Additionally, each of the predecessor firms needed the critical mass to support technology and other innovations.” Stewart McKelvey began negotiations in 1989 with a merger partner in each province within its region – which resulted in the firm being launched in May of 1990.

Although the Halifax office is the largest with approximately 100 attorneys (and houses the firm’s considerable technology infrastructure), it is not the firm’s headquarters. Strictly speaking, each office is a satellite; the Stewart McKelvey “firm” is a virtual construct that unites them into a whole.

Stewart McKelvey is run by a partnership board that consists of ten partners – the four managing partners (one from each province) and six partners elected at large (including the chair). The board focuses on the firm’s strategic direction, “brand,” risk and conflict management, and operational issues like technology and professional development. It was one of the first firms to adopt a strong non-lawyer management team.

Day-to-day issues are the responsibility of each office. “Each office is entrepreneurial and retains a lot of local control,” said Mabey. “Hiring is handled at this level, based on the needs and personality of the local market. Salaries vary from office to office, also depending on the local market. Each office controls its own billing and is responsible for local business development efforts, including local marketing.

“We operate like a mini-Canada – with national and provincial governments,” said Mabey. “Like the federal government, the firm occasionally faces multi-jurisdiction challenges – but our structure has enabled us to work them out.”

The firm’s unique approach is made possible in part by constantly working on interpersonal relationships among lawyers and in part by Maxwell Smart – its sophisticated intranet portal. (Maxwell Smart was the lead character in Get Smart, the popular 1960s comedy series that satirized the secret agent genre.) Firm resources – administrative as well as legal – are paperless and accessible through this site, regardless of location. In addition, the firm makes extensive use of video conferencing.

Wickwire Holm

Wickwire Holm (www.wickwireholm.com) is a 22-attorney law firm located in Halifax. The firm has a significant number of commercial and residential real property clients in the Village of Chester – clients who found it inconvenient to travel the 60 km to Halifax. In addition, the senior partner in this practice group – John Chandler – lives in Chester.

To better serve the needs of its clients and this partner, Wickwire Holm opened a satellite office in Chester about six years ago – an office that is open only on Thursdays. There is no secretary or desktop computer – it is primarily space where face-to-face meetings and document signings can take place. The firm rents space above a real estate office, which provides a good stream of referrals.

“In a small village like Chester,” said Chandler, “people are pretty accustomed to dealing with professional services firms – medical, financial, legal – that operate using restricted hours. My clients work it into their schedules that the lawyer is there on Thursdays.

“I don’t sit at my desk and wait for work to come in the door,” said Chandler. “I only come in for appointments. Most of this work I take with me to my office in Halifax, where I then communicate with my clients via e-mail or telephone. When I am not in the Chester office, phone calls to this number are forwarded to me in Halifax.”

In the past, and also in response to client preference for a local presence, Wickwire Holm maintained two long-term full-service satellite offices in the Halifax bedroom communities of Bedford (large developer clients) and Dartmouth (trust-company client). These offices were closed in the 1990s in response to changes in client status.

“It was much more difficult to operate satellite offices in those days,” said Chandler. “It was hard to recruit lawyers willing to go to these locations. Before the Internet and networks, they felt isolated from the rest of the firm. They felt this isolation hindered their chances of moving up within the firm.”

Sims & Company

Norm Sims has found a way to both practice law and enjoy the small-town lifestyle he prefers. His goal is to provide legal services to the communities located along the Highway 16 corridor south of the Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba.

Sims & Company (www.simsco.bm.ca) is a two-attorney general practice law firm that operates from four offices. Sims’ approach has been to buy out the well-established practices and client lists of retiring local lawyers – and keep them going. The two lawyers maintain high profiles within their respective local communities.

Each office is open five days a week and is staffed with a secretary and support staff. “We can operate this way only because of technology and the high quality of our on-site staff,” said Sims. Twice a year, the entire group of ten people assembles informally on the patio of Sims’ home to discuss business and socialize.

Sims is based in Minnedosa (acquired in 1983), but has office hours in Shoal Lake (acquired in 1994) on Fridays. Woody Langford, who joined the firm in 2003, is based in Birtle (acquired in 1996) and maintains office hours in his home town of Russell (acquired in 2002) on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The lawyers will also meet by appointment with clients in other small towns along Highway 16, and are constantly exploring additional acquisitions that fit the firm’s model.

Cox & Palmer

Cox & Palmer (www.coxandpalmer.com) has pursued a strategic path to become a multi-office regional powerhouse in Atlantic Canada. In 1995, four law firms operating in each Atlantic province affiliated as Patterson Palmer. In 1999 four different Atlantic firms affiliated to form Cox Hansen O’Reilly Matheson. In January 2007, they merged in to form Cox & Palmer – which in March acquired the Moncton office of Clark Drummie.

“We could see that the Atlantic Canadian economy was on the cusp of growth and change,” said David Hooley, senior partner, “and we wanted to grow and change with it by establishing a presence in each of the region’s business and government centers.”

On Prince Edward Island, the firm acquired two solo practices. In the Summerside acquisition, the founding lawyer stayed with the firm for a few years, facilitating the transition. The firm added a key lateral with a strong local reputation and a number of associates, and constructed a new building. Today, this office has five lawyers.

In the Charlottetown expansion, the lawyer had been named a deputy minister and was selling his practice – and left immediately. “This made for a somewhat more difficult transition,” said Hooley. “It is much easier to keep essential clients and connections when the solo stays on for a while.” The firm has grown this office to ten lawyers.

“Whether a satellite office is 400 km or 4 blocks away, you face the same issues,” said Hooley. “It is essential – and very time-consuming and challenging – to integrate differing personnel, systems and practices. You want lawyers and clients to have a similar experience with the firm – no matter where they are located.”

Morelli Chertkow

Morelli Chertkow (www.morellichertkow.com) is an 11-attorney firm that offers a full range of legal services to clients in the interior of British Columbia. Its offices were all originally located near judicial centers, although only the main office in Kamloops still fills this function. The firm’s current satellites are in Merritt and Ashcroft.

When locating a part-time satellite office, the firm aims at markets with fewer than 10,000 residents. “If they are any larger than that, they can support a full-time lawyer,” said partner Robert McDiarmid.

The firm closed an office in Salmon Arm when that town grew too large to meet the target demographics and one in Logan Lake when the Coquihalla highway cut in half the distance between that community and Kamloops.

“We try to stay within an hour-and-a-half driving distance,” said McDiarmid. “We don’t want to pay for lodging, and driving more than three hours any given day is just a waste of our lawyers’ time. We provide lawyers with a snow-hardy company car to make the drive.” Most of the files are taken back to Kamloops for execution.

Morelli Chertkow has had a satellite office in the City of Merritt (pop. 8,000) for 40 years. In the past, this office has had a full-time lawyer, but it is currently staffed two days a week with lawyers who commute from Kamloops. In Merritt, the firm rents space from a real estate agency that also provides the firm with good referrals. Once a week, a lawyer travels to the second satellite in Ashcroft (pop. 2,000).

“With a part-time office, it is absolutely critical that you ‘train the town’ to know when to expect you,” said McDiarmid. “You must be there when you say you will be there. Usually, we choose a day when the local service association (which we join) meets – so we can attend these meetings along with our clients and potential clients. In order to fit in with the local farmers, ranchers and loggers, we rarely wear suits.

“This is a good practice for a generalist,” said McDiarmid. “When you are the only lawyer in town, you have to know a lot – and know how to use the Internet.”

Dorsey & Whitney

To focus on cross-border business and financial transactions, the U.S. law firm Dorsey & Whitney (www.dorsey.com) operates a two-attorney satellite office in Vancouver. In Canada, Dorsey practices only U.S. law.

Also resident in this office is an expert in biotech patents and a secretary. Because of the success of the Vancouver office, the firm also opened a three-attorney office in Toronto. The remainder of Dorsey’s 600 lawyers work from 14 offices in the United States.

Vancouver resident, American citizen and Dorsey partner Jeffrey Peterson is a U.S. lawyer, an English solicitor and a registered practitioner of foreign law in British Columbia. Prior to his return to North America, he had been practicing with a large law firm in London.

“When I was ready to leave London 11 years ago, Canada seemed like a neutral third place for my wife (a South African) and I to settle down and raise a family. It took a lot of talking, but I persuaded my new firm (then Seattle-based Bogle & Gates), to let me give Vancouver a try – as a solo,” said Peterson. The practice was acquired by Dorsey in 1999.

“It took a while to establish the practice,” said Peterson. “I didn’t know a soul. I methodically called Canadian lawyers and invited them to lunch – to let them know that the firm was here and what we could do to help them with their cross-border business. A couple of credible, highly visible, high-tech clients were key to helping us turn the corner in this market.”

The firm also promotes its unique U.S. services via activity in two high-tech associations – the Vancouver Enterprise Forum and Life Sciences British Columbia.

“Technology plays an enormous role in being able to successfully and seamlessly pull off what we are doing,” said Peterson. “Even though we are small, we are a production office – not just a marketing outpost. Thanks to technology, we have full access to Dorsey’s broad range of legal talent and resources. 

Janet Ellen Raasch is a writer and ghostwriter who works closely with lawyers, law firms and other professional services providers – helping establish these clients as thought leaders within a targeted market through publication of articles and books for print and rich content for the Internet.  She can be reached at (303) 399-5041 or jeraasch@msn.com.

Neither the author nor the CBA should be construed as endorsing any product or website listed in this article. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CBA.
In this document, any reference to "jurist" or "lawyer" includes, where appropriate, "Québec notary".
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