Mara Nickerson, Osler’s Chief Knowledge Officer, reflects on her 37 year career at the firm.

December 20, 2018

Q: You have carved out a unique role at Osler over more than three decades. Did you ever imagine beginning your career as an articling student would lead to becoming our Chief Knowledge Officer?

A: No! I practised for six years and after my second maternity leave, I became the corporate department’s first dedicated knowledge management lawyer. It wasn’t called that, then. I was charged with organizing our precedents. My first project was updating a model asset and share purchase agreement that Tim Kennish had created – the only model precedents we had at that time – and all these years later his documents are still the basis of our core private M+A precedents. After several years in that role I went back to full-time practice for a while, but then the firm undertook its first comprehensive strategic planning effort. As a result of that plan, I was asked [by our Managing Partner, Heather McKean] to take on the role of establishing both professional development and precedents firm-wide. And the position has grown from there.

Q: What made you particularly well-suited for that work?

A: From my time as an associate in the corporate department, it was ingrained in me that our work needed to be done efficiently, with a high level of quality control and a disciplined approach to risk management, both for the client and the firm. I think I understood that these are the three things that are at the heart of knowledge management. I have enjoyed putting content, systems and processes in place that have had a broader impact on how our lawyers work. I guess I also had a bit of self-starter gene: I had to teach myself how to type when I was the first lawyer at the firm to be given a computer instead of an assistant!

Q: How did knowledge management, professional development and project management evolve at Osler?

Professional development and KM are really two sides of the same coin. Both are fundamentally aimed at enabling our lawyers to gain expertise and work efficiently; they take different approaches, but they must be aligned. When I started out in this area 20 years ago, it was just about precedents and a handful of substantive PD programs in corporate and litigation. The focus was on content. Over time, we also focused on systems and created a central precedent system, closing book library, our intranet, matter and client pages, matter information system and more. And our PD programs started focusing on key “moments” of transition – articling students coming out of law school, first-year associates joining a practice or mid-level associates transitioning to more senior roles and expectations – and started creating intensive programs that sometimes spanned a week to get them launched, with every effort to leverage our KM content in the related PD programs.

The 2008 recession was a turning point as clients became much more focused on project management and efficiency. Largely championed by leaders such as Mike Fekete and Chris Murray, the firm’s strategic planning process and our objective to ensure we are providing greater client value led us to an increased focus on legal project management and process improvement. With this in mind, we first launched our Five Steps to Effective Matter Management and then began hiring professionals schooled in those disciplines to work side-by-side with our lawyers to support a new approach to providing client service. We trained our KM team on lean six sigma and fully moved to driving change in the process of legal practice.

Q: It is difficult to be the first in a leadership role in a law firm? What helped you succeed?

A: First, the managing partners over the years have each played critical roles in supporting me and communicating to the firm the importance of and need for transforming our business. Without the guidance and support of partners like Heather McKean, Terry Burgoyne, Jean Fraser, Tim Kennish, Steve Sigurdson and Dale Ponder, we would not have made the strategic leap we did in this area.

Also, having an external focus is essential. I have stayed very involved with industry groups focused on KM and PD in the legal industry outside of Canada as well as within it. I have also had the opportunity to talk to and work with several of our clients who were interested in driving change in the legal industry. People like David Allgood and Emily Jelich at RBC were early adopters and important voices. I cannot over-emphasize the value of keeping the client imperative and their priorities and needs at the forefront. It keeps us focused on the right things.

Q: Effecting systemic change within a law firm is one of the hardest tasks. How were you able to achieve that?

A: I would say that no one person, certainly not me, is able to achieve real change in an organization. For the projects I have been involved in, the most important thing is to include our lawyers in the changes that are being contemplated — early on — and getting top-down support for the initiatives. When we introduced what was, at the time, a controversial practice, conducting 360 reviews of our partners, it helped that Purdy Crawford was instrumental in supporting it. I also learned that whatever you want to launch has to be at the pace that lawyers are ready for it. I used to think “if you build it, they will come.” They won’t. No matter how good an idea you have, you have to implement change at the pace driven by the lawyers. It is important to “nudge” but ultimately go in the direction that your constituents want.

Q: Innovation in law is an overused concept. What does it really mean at Osler?

A: Real and sustainable innovation is not a short-term journey. It isn’t a quick fix and it isn’t a shiny new thing. For innovation to take root, we are talking about business transformation that will reflect our clients and their needs, the technology available and the industry we are in … 10 to 20 years out. At Osler it is all about putting the clients at the centre of everything we do, and then developing the right processes and putting the resources in place to move things.

Final question: tell me about the tattoo.

A: It represents joy, faith, love and hope. It is how I try to live my life and my career. And what I hope for all my Osler friends.

Thank you, Mara.

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