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Focus: Flexible practices on the upswing

Lawyers finding new opportunities after leaving big firms
|Written By Marg. Bruineman

Alexandra Mayeski takes advantage of the best of both worlds: she hires litigation services out to a law firm and she has her own partnership.

“It works well,” says Mayeski, whose family finally made the move to live full time in Prince Edward County where they had spent time over the years.

“The thing with law these days is you have to be more creative than the standard offering. It doesn’t have to be the traditional model.”

As the legal profession changes, it’s becoming obvious to many lawyers that the status quo is no longer viable. As principal of Ottawa-based Edge International, Jordan Furlong sees a continued move towards more independent, project-based lawyers in the future and fewer of the traditional jobs as associates at a law firm, a change that will often require a more entrepreneurial approach to the practice of law.

“Those kinds of careers are really starting to flourish,” says Furlong.

He points to Lawyers on Demand in Britain. Furlong, who prepared a white paper for Lawyers on Demand, describes it as an agile and flexible legal service that provides assistance on an as-needed basis. Conduit Law PC and Cognition LLP follow a similar approach.

The platform that emerges provides a relatively easy way to connect to project lawyers. And what that means for lawyers is more opportunities for the entrepreneurial mind.

“Virtually every other industry has done this,” says Furlong.

Mayeski and her husband, fellow lawyer Philip Bender, tried a few different approaches to try to achieve a satisfactory balance when they decided to have a family. And all roads eventually led them away from the world of big law firms.

“When I got pregnant, I thought I couldn’t do babies and Bay Street,” says Mayeski, who worked for a firm in Hamilton, Ont., after leaving Heenan Blaikie LLP and returned there once again before she found a comfortable spot at Dykeman Dewhirst O’Brien LLP as a litigator.

While at Heenan Blaikie, she suffered from a rare disease that was temporarily debilitating. The situation, she says, was a wakeup call. The family decided to leave and Mayeski initially set up a satellite office for Dykeman Dewhirst O’Brien in the Picton, Ont., area and then established her own practice. She joined forces with Shelagh Mathers, who had a long-established, one-stop law shop in the county. All along, Mayeski has been working in an of counsel role for Dykeman Dewhirst O’Brien to assist its clients’ litigation needs.

For Mathers, adding Mayeski to the practice will provide for a smooth succession when she prepares to retire.

The changes didn’t end there. Bender, Mayeski’s husband, recently joined the firm. After he left Bay Street, he went into private practice and then worked as general counsel for a national construction company based in Guelph, Ont. After clearing up the company’s litigation issues and establishing the necessary protocols, he realized he no longer had to be there on a full-time basis.

Now, as part of Mayeski Mathers, about 70 per cent of his work is as a virtual in-house general counsel for the construction firm. He’s also extending similar services to small- and medium-sized businesses that have no lawyers on staff.

Mayeski and Bender say they now have the lifestyle they sought as they practise law on their terms.

“We even have hobbies,” says Mayeski with delight.

“It’s been very rewarding. Now we’re seeing the fruits of our labours.”

For Dykeman Dewhirst O’Brien partner Mary Jane Dykeman, the arrangement with Mayeski has worked well on several fronts. The firm can call Mayeski to consult on direction when litigation is a consideration or refer clients to her.

“In my mind, it allows us to be nimble. It has worked exceptionally well with Alex,” says Dykeman.

“It makes sense to have that pocket of expertise. It’s been a great relationship, especially since this was a person we knew well who was here.”

Bruce McMeekin was also looking for a better balance. For him, going out on his own after 25 years in the world of large law firms means something completely different.

McMeekin doesn’t have the typical sole practice as he doesn’t have clients coming to him to draft wills or close houses. Instead, he’s forging ahead in his particular areas of concentration on his own.

He concentrates on regulatory litigation, such as environmental and workplace safety, and largely does defence work. He also has a niche in the relatively new and developing area of anti-money laundering regulation and white-collar criminal defence work in select matters like penal negligence and foreign anti-corruption enforcement.

“It was both a lifestyle and a career change,” says McMeekin.

“I wanted to get out of the city. I put out my virtual shingle, work out of my home office, and have one associate, my English sheepdog, Wilby.”

The mid-career move out of the big city to Port Hope, Ont., was a bit scary as he had first articled with the government and then worked at the same firm for so many years. But McMeekin says he wanted a change and he’s happy with how it has worked out.

“My clients are throughout Ontario,” he says.

“With today’s technology, being in Port Hope is not a hindrance. I could practise just about anywhere.”

McMeekin makes himself available to small- and medium-sized firms. On the other end of the spectrum, he has access to less experienced lawyers in his community who are available to help him on larger files. But he’s not seeking to grow. He likes what he’s doing and he’s happy with the volume of work. More importantly, he says he now has the kind of balance he sought when he left the world of big law firms.

“I’m doing my own accounting and I’m doing my own administration and I enjoy it,” he says.

The only missing component is the ready access to technical help. McMeekin must now do his own troubleshooting or hire someone for help if things aren’t going so well on the technical side. But for him, he says that’s a small price to pay for the freedom he now has.   

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