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Young lawyer picks little boutique over big firm

|Written By Julius Melnitzer

It’s not likely that John Adair, barely out of law school and called to the bar only in 2006, had access to Citigroup Private Bank’s Managing Partner Confidence Index last September - some six months before the survey was released in March 2007.

John Adair says he knew what he was getting into at Davies but later left after deciding he wanted to have more control over his life. Photo: Paul Lawrence.

Still, there was a touch of prescience in the 28-year-old’s decision in March to leave his gilt-edged future as a litigation lawyer at the Toronto office of Canadian legal icon Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP, a 250-lawyer firm, for cross-town employment with Pape Barristers Professional Corporation.

Citigroup found that more than 80 per cent of managing partners at 100 Am Law 200 firms expected their associates to bill more hours in 2007 than they did the previous year, and that more than half of those leaders expected an increase exceeding three per cent.

Meanwhile, a study released by Desjardins Financial Security found that while Canadians are putting increased priorities on their families and personal life, 65 per cent of respondents felt that values at their workplace were out of sync with their lifestyle values.

That’s clearly what happened in Adair’s case. Putting it bluntly, Adair just didn’t want to work as hard as getting ahead at Davies - and by all accounts that means working harder than almost anywhere else - required.

On the other hand, Adair made an instant impact at Pape Barristers. Indeed, it’s hard not to notice someone when his accession increases the size of the firm by 50 per cent - which is what Adair did by joining Paul Pape and Susan Chapman at the highly-regarded litigation boutique.

That’s not to suggest that Adair hadn’t made an impression during his time as a student and almost a year as a lawyer at Davies.

“John was a very special young lawyer, and that was obvious to me even when he was a summer student,” says Kent Thomson of Davies. “He has a spark that made him one of my favourite people.”

Thomson is clearly not describing a malcontent.

“I was very, very surprised when John said he was leaving - to the point where you could say I shed a tear,” Thomson says. “Never once did he complain while working with me, which says a lot about his commitment. He was as keen as you get and a very valuable member of our litigation team.”

The affection and respect is mutual. “I really like the people at Davies, especially Kent, Sandy Forbes, and Luis Sarabia,” Adair told Law Times.

Which would just make it all the more surprising to Thomson that Adair never liked the work he was doing.

“I worked exclusively on huge corporate suits, which tended to have a life of their own, but it was hard to move them forward in a significant way, and even harder to resolve them,” Adair says.

So why did Adair return to Davies after summering and articling there gave him a chance to realize what he was getting himself into?

“I had worked out a deal with the firm where they guaranteed hire back, and that gave me a sense of security, because I then had something as opposed to nothing,” Adair says. “I also figured, better back to the devil you know then the devil you don’t.”

What makes Adair’s decision to join Davies more surprising is that he would have been in high demand after clerking with Court of Appeal justices David Doherty, Robert Sharpe, and Russell Juriansz after graduating from the University of Toronto.

And as the son of Geoff Adair of Adair & Morse LLP and Ontario Superior Court Justice Gloria Epstein, he would have been familiar with the ins and outs of the profession.

The turning point, it appears, was Adair’s involvement in the Beaverbrook case, an arbitrated dispute over the rights to some of the art treasures collected by the late Lord Beaverbrook. Former Supreme Court justice Peter deCarteret Cory heard the case, which spanned July to September 2006 and took place in Fredericton. That meant going to Fredericton every Sunday morning, returning to Toronto only on Friday night, and working on Saturday most of the time.

“My wife had just become pregnant, we were doing work on the house, and my departure hung her out to dry with all those responsibilities,” Adair recalls. “I was working 300-plus hours a month, real hours that were absolutely crushing.”

Even at that, Adair adds, Thomson worked “harder than anyone else.”

“There was never a question of rescheduling or restructuring to make our lives easier, no approach that allowed the thing to be a little more sane,” Adair recalls.

At the same time, Adair won’t point the finger at his former firm.

“There are never any false illusions about what life will be like, and when you’re offered a job in that environment, it’s up to you to take it or leave.”

So Adair took it, then he left it.

“Working on Beaverbrook - which was a great experience - brought all my doubts home to me,” he said. “The $95,000 salary I was earning wasn’t even close to enough money for the sacrifice. I don’t know if there’s enough money out there for what I was being asked to do.”

Adair hasn’t taken a salary cut at Pape Barristers, but is foregoing the inevitable bonus that he would have earned at Davies.

He expects, however, to work fewer hours, especially with a baby due this month. And his wife is a resident in family medicine, which makes for two very comfortable incomes in the family.

“I have friends pulling in $300,000 a year in investment banking, but they’re in the office 19 hours a day, six days a week,” he says. “It’s easier to walk away from that when you don’t already have the lifestyle that demands that type of sacrifice.”

Adair had other offers, but chose Pape because of his low-key approach; the appellate thrust of the firm’s practice, which lends itself to more flexible hours; and his excellent reputation.

“I saw Paul argue twice when I was in the Court of Appeal and he put on a clinic,” Adair says.

Thomson says he has nothing but respect for Adair’s decision.

“Some people are prepared to live with the stress and commitment it takes to be at a firm like ours, and some don’t,” he says. “But most firms are finding that there are fewer people prepared to do so.”

The conundrum, says Thomson, is that there’s no sign expectations will soon change.

“Clients are becoming more demanding and less flexible all the time,” he says. “It’s got to the point where we take incredible intellect and acuity for granted when we’re recruiting and focus on the kind of commitment and fit we need.”

As Adair sees it, change will have to come, though it may come slowly.

“The best large firms are facing a crisis because - speaking anecdotally - it seems that they’re not set up to handle the needs and wants of my contemporaries,” he says.

“They’re going to have difficulty recruiting the type of talent they need for the next generation.”

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