Meritas provides alternative to law firm consolidation

André Ryan

André Ryan

Later this month, around 300 lawyers from 50 countries will come to Vancouver for the Meritas Annual Meeting. Meritas is a global alliance of independent law firms, with 11 member firms currently in Canada.

Meritas aims to have one member firm in every major centre in Canada, the US, and has a growing membership in many other countries in the world. Canadian member law firms include McLennan Ross LLP, Boughton Law Corporation, Pitblado Law, Ottenheimer Baker, Wickwire Holm, Harrison Pensa LLP, BrazeauSeller.LLP, Minden Gross LLP, Matheson & Murray, BCF LLP and Robertson Stromberg LLP.

André Ryan, a partner at BCF LLP in Montreal, will take over as Chairman of the Board at the end of the conference, so Lexpert spoke with Ryan about Meritas. Below is an edited version of the conversation.

Q. Tell me about about Meritas and how your firm got involved

BCF is a Quebec-based firm and we were invited to join Meritas in 1999. At that time, we were regularly discussing if we wanted to remain a Quebec firm or perhaps expand into a national firm. The partners here chose to keep our current model that had been successful for us, so joining an affiliation made tonnes of sense at that time. In our case it was mostly to help us handle the growing flow of outbound work. In other words, our clients were doing business in places where we did not have preexisting connections.

Q. Why Meritas?

What we liked about Meritas was a few things, it was by invitation, quality was at the centre of all of its goals, and our firm and partners had long standing relationships with partners from other firms so the non-binding, non-mandatory character of the affiliation [where non-Meritas firms can still get referrals from BCF] versus the integrated model of a national firm fit better.

Q. What has been your individual involvement with Meritas so far?

My personal involvement began around 2002, when our founding partner left the firm and I took responsibility of acting as an “ambassador” between BCF and Meritas. I then became a board member, did a term as a board member and then I finally convinced the board in 2008 to hold the annual conference in Montreal (which took place two years ago). I strongly believe we raised the bar to an unprecedented level in Montreal, and it was a great success. And then when the time came to choose a new chairperson for the organization, I was selected after last year’s annual meeting. My two year mandate will start in April of this year and so conveniently the annual conference is going to be held in Vancouver, so a Canadian will take office in his own country. I will be the third Canadian to helm the organization, and this will be the third time Meritas has held its conference outside the US, all three times of which were in Canada.

Q. What does Meritas offer to law firms?

The first goal is to provide a safe haven for our referrals. Our claim to fame at Meritas is our quality assurance program which is unique in the industry. All outbound referrals are monitored for quality purposes. And there is a satisfaction index which is available to clients and in-house counsel. We believe we have set a global standard of quality which is the essence of what we provide our members and our clients.

Q. Why would a law firm decide to join?

Currently I see three models [available for Canadian firms wanting to grow]. Global firms (like Norton Rose and Dentons), national firms like McCarthys, who are national and part of their business plan is to qualify for international RFPs, and then there is our solution, which is at the other end of the spectrum, but it does provide an answer. I have spoken with some of my American colleagues and there is an enormous regional consolidation taking place and that does provide them with a response to the pressures of the market to regionalize. They are very happy with what this model offers them. Their clients are expanding their businesses into regions that they were not so active in the past and they need to be able to respond and having our presence in the US is pretty impressive, in the sense that our reach is unmatched.

Q. Are there risks in joining Meritas that firms will compromise their relationships with non-Meritas firms?

We believe that our model allows us to securely refer outbound and yet it doesn’t sever the multiple relationships that some of our members entertain in certain markets. We can also receive and send work to non-Meritas members. We get that question a lot and we have expanded considerably, even in the last 5-7 years, in places like Northern Europe for instance, and we have been successful at inviting what I would qualify as really top tier firms, and they were preoccupied that they would lose their volume of inbound referrals from other markets globally and our recipe is such that it is still possible to maintain those multiple relationships.

Q. What does the typical firm that joins Meritas look like?

Typically, it is the mid-sized business law firm which is really rooted in its market, and ideally you will look at firms who work with clients who do have needs on an international basis. We would accept firms if they are mid-sized and local more than national, usually their rates would be a bit of an advantage, so that is something we can offer also to our clients.

Q. What else can member firms offer clients?

I had an instance very recently where a an American manufacturer of consumer goods was going online with something and had to answer very specific question on consumer law. When I told them that this was provincial jurisdiction they were quite discouraged. But with our 30 minute courtesy advice policy that we maintain, I was able to get a preliminary answer from all ten provinces within 36 hours. I am not sure many firms can make that claim. They were very impressed with that in fact.

Q. Why do you aim to have only one firm in each region or city?

We believe that having non-competing members really helps and favours the creation of long term trust relationships. Sometimes I am amazed, especially when we get our managing partners together, at the level of information that they can actually share without reserve, which is something you would not necessarily do with your competition.

Q. What happens if one member firm opens a satellite office in a city where another member firm operates?

We have between 30 and 40 instances in North America where one firm has opened an office in a jurisdiction where another Meritas member is operating. You would expect it. The policy is such that in a given market, only the firm that carries the flag of Meritas can advertise and present itself and introduce itself as a Meritas member. So branches of other Meritas firms in that market would not be able to identify themselves as Meritas member firms and member lawyers.

Q. What happens if there is a dispute about this?

I chair the quality assurance and compliance committee, I have been on that committee for awhile, and I can think of only one instance where a dispute was brought to our attention, where there was serious issue about market exclusivity. We looked into it and by creating a zone for dialogue we resolved all the issues without too much of a fight.

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