In June of 2017, Megan Keenberg opened her own firm, Van Kralingen & Keenberg LLP, with partner Alex Van Kralingen – all while maintaining a busy commercial litigation practice and completing her LLM in Dispute Resolution at Osgoode Professional Development.
Megan’s journey to opening her own practice started ten years ago with some sage advice from a senior lawyer during her articling year.
In this second part of our Ready for Year 10 blog series, we talk with litigator and mediator Megan Keenberg about the logistics of forming a new firm, and the challenges she’s faced in the first few months of operating.
Q. Once you decided you were going to open your own firm, what were the steps you took to make it a reality?
The most important step towards making this dream a reality was selecting the right business partner. I have known Alex Van Kralingen for my entire legal career – we met when I was a student and he was an associate at Goodman & Carr LLP. From the outset, Alex has always been someone I turned to for legal and professional advice. He is an exceptional lawyer, exercises excellent judgment, and is a man of integrity. He is also hilarious, which is a nice plus. When we initially spoke about joining forces, I knew he was the right person, but I didn’t feel ready in my practice. After I got a couple more years of confidence-building experience under my belt, I resumed our talks and we got the ball rolling.
The initial planning stages were really tied up in thinking about, drafting, and negotiating our partnership agreement. It’s a key document that forms the foundation and backbone of the entire firm: it sets the tone for the firm’s culture, values, priorities and future plans for everyone involved in the firm – the associates, clerks, and people we haven’t met or hired yet but will work with us at V|K in the future as we evolve.
During our planning phase, I happened to be taking a class on ‘Culture and Power’ in the Osgoode LLM in Dispute Resolution. I wrote a paper for that class about law firm culture in which I argued that a firm’s compensation scheme – as set out in the partnership agreement – directly and indirectly drives firm culture in many unanticipated ways. I think I was acutely attuned to those issues as we worked through our plan, and I think it inspired us to be a bit more creative and thoughtful in our approach.
Q: What was the most daunting thing about transitioning to your own firm?
My primary concerns centered on business development and being able to generate sufficient steady work for our staff and associates. Alex had already been operating under his own banner for a few years and had a clear understanding of his own demonstrated ability to generate work and billings. While I had some degree of confidence in the clients who would likely follow me, and in my ability to develop new business, I really needed to take a leap of faith in order to put this venture into place. My plans depended, to a large degree, on how my clients and the broader market would react to the news of my departure and the new venture. But I was precluded from sending out feelers or discussing my plans in any way with clients until it was a done deal. I had to make a pretty big decision with an incomplete factual record. That was uncomfortable. I’m a lawyer: we are risk-averse creatures.
Thankfully, by following Sam Schwartz’s good advice on setting the goal of going out on my own in year ten, I was able to be systematic and deliberate in terms of hitting benchmarks for substantive legal skills; I gained the necessary client management and business development experience, and dug into the entrepreneurial aspects of a law firm. These skills served as the foundation for my confidence and empowered me to take the leap.
Ultimately, the risk paid off: many clients came with me, a number of former clients have renewed their relationships with me in new mandates, and a whole lot of new work has been coming in the door. Taking risks takes practice. In this case, the positive reactions and support I received from my family, friends, clients and colleagues have reinforced my belief in myself and my willingness to take risks and put myself out there.
Q: What do you think are the benefits of being part of a smaller practice?
I think clients are moving away from the idea that ‘bigger is better’ because ‘bigger’ also applies to their bills. There remain those who think that small firms can’t compete in a firefight with a large firm, but that idea is becoming more and more outmoded. If you think about it, fighting fire with fire is a pretty dumb strategy: in the end everyone gets burned. I’d rather fight fire with water, or oxygen deprivation, or prevention! And that’s how we operate at V|K.
As a boutique firm, we have the opportunity to, more easily, implement strategies that permit us to work smarter, not harder. We are constantly challenged to be creative in the way we approach litigation strategy and problem-solving for our clients, in many cases because the traditional models of big-firm litigation just aren’t available to us – we can’t simply add more bodies to the team. We are forced to be smart about how we spend our time, which results in significant savings and value-adds for our clients.
Both Alex and I cut our teeth at Seven Sister Bay Street firms, so we have that foundation and training, but we also bring something more to the table, and that is a deep understanding and appreciation for entrepreneurs. Our mission is to pass on that high-level training to our associates, Katherine Chau and Mark Repath, while promoting and fostering their own entrepreneurial spirits. Katherine and Mark prove to us everyday that you don’t need to have a big team in order to have a great team and do big things.
Q: Now with your move into law firm management are you getting as much time working on cases as you’d like to?
Before we started this firm, the vast majority of my workday was spent on file work, with some time spent on business development and mentoring. Now, my days are split pretty evenly between firm management, business development, associate supervision and mentoring, and my own file work. I’ve also started up my mediation practice which is taking its fair share of my time and attention.
The real trick is to understand the interconnectedness of all these responsibilities, and play to their synergies, instead of chipping away at them in isolation. When approached in this way, the added responsibilities don’t necessarily equate to added hours on my workweek. The work is simply more intensive rather than extensive. I actually think that the additional responsibilities have helped me to become a better advocate. I’ve stepped into the leadership role that I have always felt more comfortable occupying, and everything else seems to be falling into place.
Fortunately, I still get to spend as much time as I want on the fun parts of my practice: arguing in court, leading strategy sessions, meeting with clients and learning about their businesses, and conducting mediations and arbitrations.
Q: Has it been a challenge to walk away, switch off and achieve some sort of life-balance?
I believe in the power of momentum, and that this is my moment to harness that power to realize my dreams. Stepping into this leadership role, I have discovered that I am far more suited to cope with the acute stresses of being a general than the more diffuse stresses of being a soldier. So right now, I’m not switching off. Right now, I’m going full throttle. And I can keep going for quite some time. This is the fun part.
Read Part I of our ‘Ready for Year 10’ interview with Megan, where we discuss Megan’s transition from larger law firms to opening her own boutique firm, and the challenge of balancing the completion of an LLM with maintaining a commercial litigation practice, all while launching a business.