Brian Levitt is a former partner and Co-Chair of Osler, a mentor and a friend.

October 02, 2018

Q: You started your career with a civil engineering degree; took an administrative position at U of T, practised in a small firm in Shelbourne, Ontario; then joined the Anti-Inflationary Board before joining Osler. How did those experiences inform the decisions you made about your career since then?

Brian: I learned that people succeed when they do what suits them. I was just looking around for something that would suit me. What I discovered about working in a small firm was that the practice was so varied that I’d never be any good at anything. So it wasn’t for me.

When I joined the Anti-Inflation Board I knew it was a temporary program. After several years, I had to move on. My choices were either to stay in Ottawa and work in the Department of Finance, or come back to Toronto. I applied to a lot of firms but there was a recession on in 1976, and so nobody was hiring. The only reason I got hired at Osler was because Jack Ground was a partner at Osler. My job at the AIB was to write the price regulations and bulletins, and I had settled the price control regime for lawyers with Jack. So when he heard that I was available, he talked to one or two other people and I got a job offer.

Q: How did your career begin at Osler?

Brian: When I was looking for a job originally, I was looking for a litigation job, because that’s all I had previously done. The only opening was in Corporate and I needed to eat, so it sounded good to me. In hindsight, I turned out to be better suited for business law than I would have been for litigation. So if there is a lesson to impart, it would be to keep trying things until you find something that works for you.

Q: You practised at Osler for 15 years, and then left to join Imasco Ltd as President and then CEO. You returned to the firm in 2001, why?

Brian: I was looking for something to do – I was 53 and I was looking for a job that would last about 10 years, and I had a preference for staying in Montréal because I liked living there. So when the firm said that they wanted to open an office in Montréal, it seemed like a good fit. As I moved around, what I have found was that the mistakes I made were about the people, not about the business. So the idea of going into a business that I knew with people that I knew and respected, appealed to me.

Q: Was it difficult to launch a new office in Montréal?

Brian: It wasn’t that hard. Having been a customer, I had a view of the market and I could see where there was a white space. I tested my view on half a dozen people before I decided to do this, and they confirmed my thesis. You make money in business by differentiating yourself, and so we had a basis for differentiation which I thought would work – and it did. I also took the view that to be successful we needed to attract about 10 leading practitioners and I figured we would be able to do so.

Q: Many firms operating in Montréal belonged to national firms. How did Osler differentiate itself from the others?

Brian: The big differentiator was and is that Osler operates on an expertise-based “one-Osler” model. What I discovered as a customer in Montréal was that if you hired a national firm to do something, very often you got the best person they had locally, and not necessarily the best person in the firm.  Clients are attuned to the way firms are organized and how law firm incentives impact behavior and service – the incentives aren’t the same as the clients’ incentives. So that was the point of differentiation and it worked – and it’s still working pretty well.

Q: What makes a trusted legal advisor?

Brian: I think the key success factor for a lawyer to develop the trust of a client is the ability of the lawyer to understand what the client’s problem is (although not better than the client – once you start thinking that, you’ve got one foot on the banana peel). But if you understand what problem the client is trying to solve and why they’re trying to do what they’re doing, then the legal answer can be figured out.  The key to getting the right answer is getting the right question.

I think it’s also a question of whether you can engender confidence in the client. That’s what it’s really about, and different people do it in different ways. For me, it goes back to an interest in business and fit. It’s about “are you interested in business?” and if you are, then you can understand what the problem is.

Q: Can you give an example of somebody whom you saw do that well?

Brian: Any of the people who have been successful partners here have done it well. I think the strength of the firm is that we’ve had a lot of people who have been able to do it well in different ways, in their own way.

Q: Young lawyers especially may feel that making a mistake is a career-ending activity. What have you learned from your mistakes?

Brian: I’ve had those feelings. The key thing about making a mistake is not sitting on it. The advantage of being in a firm as opposed to practising on your own is that you have people you can share these burdens with. And usually what you find out is that it’s not as bad as you think. So the key thing is to ask for help; if I had one learning from mistakes it’s that I was slow to ask for help, and you don’t make it better just by stewing and doing nothing about it.

Q: One of your law school professors was an important referral for you early on. How important is it to make connections with law professors, or other members of the legal and business community?

Brian: It’s important to get to know people, because nobody’s going to ask for help or engage a lawyer that they don’t know or who they’ve never heard of. When clients go to work, they don’t think about hiring a lawyer until they have a problem. When they do, they usually call the first person that comes to mind.

You can tell people who are networking in the same way that you can spot people who have taken dancing lessons but they have no rhythm. The best way is just to be yourself. I think more so today than ever, people respond positively to authenticity. So be yourself. If you’re not comfortable and not interested in developing relationships with people, not necessarily just for the purposes of getting business from them, but getting to know them for who they are, and what they’re doing, then maybe you’re not in the right business.

Q: You have devoted time to charitable causes over the years. How do you choose the organization? Why do you think it’s important to spend time this way?

Brian: When you’ve been as fortunate as I have, I think you have a duty to give something back. I didn’t do much of this for the first 20 years because I was working. So once I had a little more time and a little more scope, what I decided to do was, rather than do a multiplicity of things and have no impact anywhere, pick one or two things and spend real time on them and have some impact. So that’s what I did. I’m still involved with the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts and I’m still the Chancellor at Bishop’s University. That’s all I do.

Q: Twice you led Osler as Co-Chair. What advice would you give a lawyer who’s interested in taking on leadership roles?

Brian: Become a successful lawyer, first and foremost. Leaders are people that have followers, and so again, back to authenticity. Nobody is likely to follow somebody who they think is a scheming politician. You have to have an interest in management and think it’s worthwhile. And then you start to demonstrate that in small ways, and then in larger ways. But it gets back to if you do things that you like doing and that you’re suited for.

Q: What did you like most about being involved with the management of this firm?

Brian: What interested me about the firm, typically in my later years, was thinking about the firm as a business in the context of the evolving economy, and trying to think about the things that the firm needed to do now to be where it would need to be in five years. All of us who joined this firm benefited from the good decisions and the things that were done by our predecessors. And so our responsibility here is to leave the firm in a better position than we found it. So, you think about “what do you think needs to happen for that to happen?”

Q: The legal business landscape has shifted in seismic ways – more and different competitors, clients who are focused on price and value. Do you think it’s harder to manage a successful firm today than it was when you were our co-chair?

Brian: All businesses are competitive and they get more competitive every year. This is the reality of business, and we are not isolated from this reality.  When I started, there were 15 or 16 firms that we used to deal with regularly, and now there’s four or five. I think the firm’s structurally well-positioned and that it has to be on us to keep up and execute, and respond to the changing requirements of clients. I remember when people were shocked and dismayed that we were going to have to disclose our rates and our hours. The business has evolved significantly since then.

Q: Who is your favourite author?

Brian: My favourite author is Ron Chernow. He’s a great biographer; he wrote a lot of economic biographies including J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and Alexander Hamilton – he’s the guy who wrote the book on which the play “Hamilton” is based. He’s a great writer … he just did a biography of Ulysses S. Grant. They’re very interesting biographies because they’re expositions of the economic history, and some social history, of the United States, seen through the lens of the life.


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