Ask Christopher Hirst what he sees as his top challenge as the new managing partner at Alexander Holburn Beaudin + Lang LLP and he points to the war for talent in the Metro Vancouver area. Finding lawyers who can afford to live in the area, or are willing to commute is becoming a significant challenge.
In fact, he puts recruitment and retention alongside the adoption of new technology. He says artificial intelligence will be a significant differentiator for firms in the next two years and indicates the firm is closing in on making investments in the area of AI.
It was announced late last week that Hirst, who is a partner and leader of the firm's construction and engineering practice, was appointed managing partner. Hirst began his career at Alexander Holburn in 1994 as a summer student and became a partner in 2003. His areas of practice include construction and engineering, environmental and insurance.
“The primary challenge right now is really retaining young talent,” says Hirst. “The cost of housing here is extraordinary, and we’re finding that young lawyers with families want to purchase homes within reasonable commuting distance of Vancouver and even a lot of professional two-income families can’t afford to do so.”
In many cases, he says, once young lawyers at the firm have a few years under their belts, they are looking outside the Metro Vancouver area to continue their careers and are choosing heading to the interior, or over to Vancouver Island.
“It’s that sweet spot of a three-plus year of call that is particularly hard to hire right now,” he says. “The problem is magnified with support staff. The question of affordable housing is magnified by the difference in the compensation scale, which has resulted in an extremely tight market for support staff.”
The firm is looking at providing more flexible working alternatives for staff. In particular, one lawyer works out of Kelowna now, where the firm is planning to open a new office. That lawyer commutes to Vancouver about once a month and works in a small office in Kelowna. Hirst says the firm is also more agreeable to having lawyers work from home rather than commute to Vancouver every day.
“I think there is going to be greater demand for that from our young lawyers and we need to be prepared to accommodate that,” he says. “That means lawyers who are used to being able to walk down a hall and talk to an associate about a problem will have to think differently about how they work with people.”
The challenge is one shared by other firms in Vancouver. During a panel discussion in Vancouver last month at the B.C. Legal Innovation Forum, lawyers from Lawson Lundell LLP, Pushor Mitchell LLP (based in Kelowna) and Hamilton Duncan Armstrong + Stewart Law Corporation (Surrey) discussed the expansion of firms to regional hubs such as Kelowna.
Mike Macaulay, partner at Lawson Lundell in the technology/corporate finance practice, spoke about how he was at that firm’s Vancouver office until he recently relocated to the newly opened Kelowna office seven months ago.
Kelowna has an innovation centre that houses a number of early-stage technology companies.
James Paterson, managing partner of Pushor Mitchell in Kelowna, noted that community has changed “dramatically” since the mid-90s when the busiest solicitor in town had 100 companies as their client base and now there are 6,000 companies based in the Okanagan.
“The size of transactions has changed dramatically,” said Paterson. “It’s a very different legal environment. So, I think you’re seeing a growth that has occurred due to many reasons but I peg it back to the development of UBC [University of British Columbia] and opportunities that arose from that including a burgeoning technology sector.”
Alexander Hoburn has been growing steadily over the last two years and are up to 87 lawyers from 74 lawyers two years ago.
“We’re renovating one of our floors to make better use of it and accommodate the growth,” Hirst says.
The two practice areas that have seen the most growth are wills and estates and corporate commercial clients.
“There is a huge transfer of a significant amount of wealth happening as the baby boomer generation ages. This is magnified in Metro Vancouver where property values have increased exponentially over the last 25 years or so,” he says. “What we are finding is more and more people are looking for advice on how best to protect that wealth as it passes to the next generation and that’s a complicated area of law. Our wills and practice group has been growing as a result.”
The firm has also been doing work in the cannabis space and Hirst says it involves a lot of entrepreneurs who are making the work fun.
“It’s amazing how much work there is in a brand-new sector of the economy,” he says. “It’s everything from taking companies public, intellectual property issues that are constantly arising, providing work in mergers and acquisitions and incorporating new companies and providing advice on governance structures and the federal regulatory scheme.”
When it comes to investing in technology to better enable the firm to keep up with the demands of legal work, Hirst says the pressure to do so is coming more from competitors than clients. Alexander Holburn is in the research and “just about to purchase” stage with artificial intelligence.
“The pressure, with respect to AI technology, is coming more from competitors than clients, who I don’t think quite understand yet where it is going to make an impact on lawyer efficiency and cost effectiveness. I think what’s happening is that AI will significantly drive down the legal cost of transactional work and law firms who aren’t prepared to invest in it will be priced out of the market by competitors who have made that investment,” he says. “It’s starting to happen now and will pick up in the next three years. If you don’t have AI you won’t be able to compete price-wise with competitors who do have it.”
Computer technology is one of the highest costs the firm has right now, says Hirst. “It’s a continued source of increased cost for us.”
Hirst succeeds Bruno De Vita, who held the position from 1998 to 2002 and then again from June 2012 to December 2018.
“Chris is an outstanding choice to serve as the firm's new Managing Partner. He's an excellent lawyer and a natural leader. Most importantly, he is universally respected by all who deal with him, including our lawyers and staff and our colleagues at other firms. His career success is built on his commitment to his clients and the longstanding relationships he has built in the industries he serves, as well as the leadership he has provided to the firm as a practice group leader and key decision-maker,” stated De Vita in a press release from the firm.