Dunbar becomes general counsel at Fraser Milner

While the role of general counsel iscommonplace in many Canadian companies, the role is now beginning to appear inlaw firms to deal more efficiently with internal policies and procedures.

Jamie Dunbar voluntereed and says he's excited about becoming Fraser Milner's first general counsel.Law firms are generally governed by committees, but with an increasingly complex regulatory environment — especially in the post-Neil era — firms can lose the ability to respond quickly to issues.

Jamie Dunbar of Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP was appointed earlier this month as the firm's general counsel. The firm says it's a first in Canada but mirrors a growing trend in the United States, which sees larger law firms benefit from the efficiencies and enhanced client service brought about by formalizing the position.

A recent U.S. survey by Altman Weil, Inc. of the top 100 law firms found that the percentage that have designated a general counsel has increased from 63 per cent in 2004 to 69 per cent in 2005, with 92 per cent of the general counsel being partners and none being from outside the firm.

Dunbar, a partner who practises in the areas of professional liability and commercial and insurance litigation, will oversee a range of internal and external mandates, including conflict resolution, ethics, professional liability, and standardization of the firm's internal practices and procedures.

"It's a job that we do anyway," he says. "It's a job any law firm does anyway. The question is what's the best way of allocating resources to this and we think that rather than do it on an ad hoc basis we should do it on a planned basis that allows one person to make efficient and consistent and correct decisions about things."

Dunbar says Fraser Milner decided over the summer that this was the direction it wanted to go to become more efficient and enhance client service. Then it was a question of determining who should step into the role.

"I had indicated a willingness to do it; obviously that was a precondition to being assigned," he says. "It's not something that I'm ending up with, it's something that I want to do and am excited about.

"I've been a resource, I guess you could call it, that's been used in the Toronto office for probably 10 years, so this is not an area that's new to me either, professionally or as a matter of the firm's internal procedures. It's in a way kind of an evolution and a formalization of that process across the firm."

Dunbar says the problem with governing by committee is that issues are often dealt with in different offices in an isolated manner.

"Sometimes the result of the committee is a report that kind of gathers dust or it may be reinvented by a committee that addresses the same sort of thing another time," he says. "There's not a thread that runs through it all."

Dunbar says the main reason for the creation of the position is enhanced client service, because even though there may be things going on like checking conflicts, it shouldn't be something that creates delays for the client.

"Conflicts [are] a very significant issue because of the Neil decision and that's continuing to evolve and the methods by which that is implemented are ones that have to be organized carefully and implemented in a consistent way," he says. "Because conflicts must be resolved before work can proceed, client service may be affected — that simply doesn't need to happen."

The Neil judgment established that a lawyer cannot act for a client if its representation would prove adverse to the interests of another client, even if no confidential information is involved and the two matters are unrelated. In a series of more recent cases, courts have determined that the duty of loyalty continues to some extent even after a client becomes a former client.

"Even relatively small firms can become 'committee bound' and lose the ability to respond quickly to issues such as identifying and resolving possible conflicts that arise out of mandates for different clients," Dunbar says.

He says the dedicated general counsel role moves a firm from a reactive approach, in which committees with limited mandates "put out fires," to a proactive approach that has the benefit of strengthening firm practices and culture and enhancing client service.

"Developing and implementing policies on issues that affect client services is a key function in a law firm, and educating lawyers on those issues is an important ongoing responsibility."

Dunbar will split his duties between his litigation practice and his new role as general counsel.

"There's nothing rigid in that, in the sense that it could be more and it could be less. My practice and the role of general counsel are both flexible enough that I can accommodate blips for a day or two. It's really a matter of estimating what amount of time it will likely take and then we'll be able to compare against what it really takes perhaps after a little while.

"I'm very excited about it and I think it's a terrific opportunity to take the initiative and I hope to set a standard that will allow our clients to be better served. It's all about client service in the end."

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