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31 December 1999
“How much time do you spend in your role as Managing Partner?” was the question. “As little as possible,” replied Keith Mitchell, Q.C., the Managing Partner of Farris, Vaughan, Wills & Murphy. Those who are students of leadership and organizational performance seldom hear this kind of reply. When we do, it invariably means one of two things: things are going very, very badly or very, very well. In the case of Farris, Vaughan, the latter is the case. The 60-lawyer firm has a reputation as one of the most profitable law firms in Vancouver. Almost half of their 35 partners have been listed in Lexpert as leading practitioners and the firm’s client list, which includes Westcoast Energy Inc., 360networks inc., Telus, Hollinger Canadian Newspapers, L.P., BC Gas, QLT Inc., City of Vancouver and the BC Lumber Industry, among others, is enviable.
“I would describe them as a high performance law firm,” David Unruh, Senior Vice-President, Law, and Corporate Secretary of Westcoast Energy Inc., notes. To underscore the extent to which the firm punches well above its weight, it is worth pointing out that the firm is currently acting as counsel to BC-based TELUS Corporation in its $6.6 billion acquisition of Scarborough, Ontario-based Clearnet Communications Inc.
What is interesting, of course, is the fact that Farris, Vaughan achieves its success without committees, with infrequent partner meetings, and with a Managing Partner who spends better than 85 per cent of his time practising law. In the thirty years that Keith Mitchell has been with the firm, he recalls that he may have voted on something once. How does Farris, Vaughan do it? The answer must lie in some non-textbook example of leadership and/or teamwork. And so it does.
A Unique Approach
A popular business/leadership game simulation holds the answer to our question. The MARS Surface Rover is a simulation exercise designed to illustrate the influence of different styles of leadership on teams. Developed by a group of leadership psychologists, participants are broken into groups, given boxes of what resembles Lego sets without instructions and told to assemble low cost, high speed vehicles to explore the surface of Mars. Each of three groups are given a different style of leader to facilitate this project - the Autocrat, the Hands-Off, and the Participative-Empowering Leader. The game is designed to illustrate that in most circumstances the winning team will be the team that has the highly involved participative leader who spends a lot of time coaching and supporting her or his team.
Every once in a while, however, the game is won by the wrong team, those who have the Hands-Off Leader, who on the surface appears to abdicate responsibility. Invariably, this happens when the team with the Hands-Off Leader happens to be a group of independent, confident, self-starters. Even when they know almost nothing about the mechanics of assembling their vehicle, this high performance team will figure things out faster and better. This phenomenon of the almost-leaderless team winning does not occur often, however, because as other researchers have found, true high performance teams are about as common as unicorns - and the magic touch of their leader may be light, but it has to be strategically accurate. Among other variables, it demands a critical mass of mastery.
Farris, Vaughan bears a striking resemblance to a high performance team led with the light but strategic touch of a skilled leader. In this firm, leadership is everywhere but not noticeably anywhere at the same time because it resides both within the team and its leader. It is seamless. “Our most successful lawyers run the firm,” says Mitchell, “and there is a tremendous sense of buy-in.” Dean O’Leary, a partner on the high performing team of players at Farris, Vaughan explains: “Keith’s approach reflects most of us in the firm. He loves practice and so he tries to minimize the types of management activities he needs to be involved in. He plays at a higher level and has assembled a strong management team that leaves him free to practise law.”
“Farris, Vaughan bears a striking resemblance to a high performance team lead with the light but strategic touch of a skilled leader.”A Real Pistol
Jack Giles, Q.C., a senior litigation partner who works with Keith Mitchell, still remembers the day, 30 years ago, when they met. “Charlie Wills came into my office and said, I think we should hire this kid. He is a real pistol�and then as he turned to leave he said �He’ll be running this place some day’.” For the past six years, succeeding Peter Butler, Q.C., Keith Mitchell has been running the place. It is our guess, however, that he has very much been a leader within the firm for the past 30 years in the same fashion as many of his partners are today. Mitchell astutely observes that people “self-select” their way into Farris, Vaughan and quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes in describing his philosophy of leadership as “Those wise restraints that keep men (and lawyers) free.”
An Eclectic Generalist
“He is a natural,” says Jack Giles, “and a very significant revenue generator for the firm.” “He is a superb negotiator,” observes Jay Cathcart, the firm’s C.O.O. “You can put him in any forum and he will offer insightful advice.” “CEOs seek him out on a broad range of issues,” adds Giles. All of these comments seem to underscore Keith Mitchell’s unique approach to practice, which is best characterized by its diversity.
He started out as a litigator working with Peter Butler, who had a profound effect on the young lawyer. As Mitchell recalls, “He really turned me on to the law. He was a wonderful mentor who understood the fundamental truth that human dynamics are at the core of everything.” Throughout the years, Mitchell has carved out a reputation in a number of practice areas which he categorizes as Administrative and Labour. He has re-zoned shopping centres including the Eaton Centre, Metrotown, advised on the development of Granville Island, led the sale to Hong Kong’s Li Ka-shing of Vancouver’s Expo Lands, and acts in significant labour cases such as for Pacific Press, which publishes The Vancouver Sun and The Province. “We brought on what I believe is the first application in North America to consolidate seven different historic craft-based bargaining units into one bargaining unit, thus eliminating six unions at the work site,” says Mitchell.
Today, a key client is the BC Lumber Trade Council, which represents 95 per cent of BC’s lumber production and whose main concern is resisting multi-billion dollar US trade litigation. Mitchell plays an important role, as well as contributing his “strategic touch”. According to David Emerson, President and CEO of Canadian Forest Products Ltd. and Co-Chair of the Council: “Keith is articulate, literate, connected and highly professional in his approach to clients. No gobbledygook, just straight unvarnished legal advice that is advantageously coloured by his in-depth knowledge of Canada’s federal system of government.”
Those who work with Keith Mitchell describe him as having a diverse set of skills. “He has taught me to think strategically,” says associate Judith Macfarlane. “He thinks two steps down the road.” “Keith has a unique ability to think laterally,” says Dean O’Leary. “He imaginatively crafts solutions by weaving together several strands of strategy and utilizing a wide variety of resources both from the firm and client side.” “He is a global thinker,” says Jack Giles, “and he loves to hear gossip about what’s happening.” Some of Mitchell’s key talents, as both a lawyer and a leader, might be his people skills. He is described by those who work with him as having infectious optimism, natural curiosity about what is going on in people’s lives, and having a “let’s try it” and “get on with it” attitude. “He plays an end game,” says Judith Macfarlane. “He always wants to know where the client (or associate) wants to be.”
A Clear Vision
What impresses Dean O’Leary is Mitchell’s ability to grasp the big picture, but focus in on the tiniest of details at the same time. “He has a remarkable photographic memory,” he says. One thing is certain, Keith Mitchell is crystal clear on Farris, Vaughan’s purpose, vision and strategy. “We are a niche firm,” he says, “and niche firms can gain pre-eminence either by practice area or region. We want to be the pre-eminent full-service regional firm.” Farris, Vaughan has no desire to be any larger than necessary and feels that by being about half the size of large firms it can achieve its vision. Mitchell’s strategy is equally clear. “Stay on top of your practice and work,” he says. “Act regional, but think global.”
“This whole enterprise is about people,” he adds. “We are agents not principals and unless you can sublimate your own desires to the client’s goals you cannot succeed.” In the end, his philosophy is quite simple. Good clients bring good work and good work brings good lawyers. With respect to people, Mitchell believes there is no substitute for listening and really understanding what is and is not important to them.
One Enormous Asset
“There is one enormous asset that Keith has, of course,” Jack Giles summarizes. “His wife. She is a wonderful partner in every way. As a physician, she is very well-respected in her own field. She is great fun. They do a lot of firm entertaining and they travel everywhere. She is an indispensable asset.”
Keith Mitchell and his wife, Mary Jane, live in Vancouver, and spend off-hours and summers at their beach house in Point Roberts, Washington. They have three children, Malia, Alexander, and Elisa. And, in their spare time, the family assembles MARS Surface Rovers.
Irene Taylor is a senior leadership consultant with Johnston Smith International, a Toronto-based management consultancy.
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