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Hugh MacKinnon: the managing partner behind Bennett Jones’ rapid expansion
By Bev Cline
August 24 2007 issue

Hugh MacKinnon
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Summertime can be sluggish, but not at Bennett Jones LLP’s Toronto office, where the pace of growth continues to sizzle. In August, their headcount of partners and associates stood at 120, up from only 97 one year ago and up from 76 just two years ago, with three new partners and one new counsel joining their ranks over the past four months alone. Naturally, the question arises: what’s the story behind their rapid expansion?

In a classic reversal of “go west young man”, Calgary-based Bennett Jones faced solidly eastward when it choose to expand in 2000, says Hugh MacKinnon, chairman and chief executive officer, and a member of the firm’s Partnership Board.

The target: Toronto and the surrounding Greater Toronto Area (GTA), a rich source of headquarters for many of Canada’s most prestigious corporations, alongside those of the international business world.

 Seven years ago, Bennett Jones was already a mighty force in Western Canada, with offices in both Calgary and Edmonton. What is remarkable is the speed with which the firm has grown in Toronto and its ability to attract many of the movers and shakers of Bay Street.

From a standing start of 11 lawyers, its Toronto office has quickly catapulted itself into what some observers say is a commanding position of influence in the GTA.  

Led by MacKinnon, known to be a straight-talking, straight-shooter, the firm’s roster of 125 lawyers in Toronto includes a number of lateral hires known to be at the top of their game in their respective fields.

What makes this situation unique, says MacKinnon, is that these senior lawyers chose to decamp from long-time partnerships at prestigious, well-regarded Toronto firms, opting to join the Bennett Jones fold.

Vision for the future

Looking back, MacKinnon reflects: “In 2000, we already dominated the legal market in both Calgary and Edmonton,” he says, noting that in Canada, “there are really only two cities with a lot of head offices, Calgary and Toronto.”

As for Calgary, “We were literally running into ourselves as we tried to grow,” he says candidly. “We were as big as we could be in that market. If we were to grow in a more serious way, Toronto would be the answer.”

Yet MacKinnon, 48, who was born in Toronto, knew that entering the Toronto market wouldn’t be a cakewalk.

“We asked ourselves, what is our competitive advantage going into a market that’s already well serviced?” 

For MacKinnon, who has spent his entire career at Bennett Jones, the answer was evident and clear. “It’s all about the ‘culture’ of our firm,” he says. Then, he adds quickly: “In 2000, ‘culture’ wasn’t a buzzword, and it still isn’t a buzzword for our firm today.”

He continues, with conviction: “The difference between Bennett Jones and other firms is in the execution, internally and externally the way our law firm interacts with our lawyers and with our clients.”

Not a hierarchical structure

MacKinnon  points out that Bennett Jones has a very egalitarian culture, which functions as a meritocracy, where “we value both work and results.” What this translates into, he says, is a “very entrepreneurial, very professional, and still collegial law firm in which to work.” 

MacKinnon pauses: “We’re not a very hierarchical firm,” he says. “An example: when it comes to electing our board, it’s done by the partners at large.  It is not a slate that’s presented to the partners; it’s not a managed process.”  

Lest his assertions sound self-serving, MacKinnon references the fact that the firm has appeared in the Hewitt Report on Business “Top 50 Employers in Canada” every year since 2003; currently, the firm is listed as number four on the 2006 list. 

Still, what makes MacKinnon proud is that Bennett Jones, he says, “is the only law firm to have ever made this list.”

Dual synergies and best practices

Bennett Jones’ East/West strategy lets the firm “breathe with two lungs,” servicing two very different markets and bringing together the best practices from each market to benefit the firm.  It also means that the firm is less exposed to the cyclical nature of business in any market centre.

MacKinnon grew up in Toronto’s Agincourt area. He attended St. Michael’s Choir School, before studying political philosophy and economics at the University of Toronto, and enrolling in Osgoode Hall Law School (graduating class of 1984), and was called to the Alberta Bar in 1985 and the Ontario Bar in 2000.

In following his own philosophy in “growing the Toronto office from the top by aggressive cherry picking of top lawyers from other firms, Bennett Jones came to the attention of major corporations quite quickly,” reports MacKinnon.

And, by choosing to open shop in Toronto, the firm “hit the radar screens of Canadian and international corporations more frequently,” he says. “We always did a lot of international work because of the emphasis on the energy sector in Calgary.” In Toronto, he says, the firm includes “really diverse” practice areas — he cites the carbon trading, P3 (Public/ Private/Partnerships) sectors, and  a practice group that represents bondholders.

Bennett Jones also came to the attention of other lawyers: while, for the firm as a whole, there was a 31 per cent growth in number of lawyers in the period from 2005  to present; Toronto’s  growth over the same period is clocking in at a remarkable 98 per cent.

Coming Home

MacKinnon’s years in Calgary have been productive and enjoyable. Returning to Toronto has been equally so. He and his wife Laura, along with their four children, have settled into the western part of the city, where MacKinnon, who “missed the trees” in Toronto, rides his bike along the lakeshore.

These days, MacKinnon’s role at Bennett Jones is management only, he has no active files. He is active in public organizations, a member of august bodies such as the Royal Canadian Military Institute and is chairman of the G.K. Chesterton Institute for Faith & Culture, U.S.A.

Looking forward, MacKinnon acknowledges that the challenge for Bennett Jones will be to add depth of expertise within the firm. “Because of the way we built from the top of the triangle, we have a disproportionately high number of well-known senior players,” he says.

Still, “for the next generation of lawyers, Bennett Jones is a really great spot in which to land,” he says with enthusiasm.  “There is a serious dynamism.  People took risks to come here. And I believe we’ve created a bit of magic.”

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