In June of this year, Megan Keenberg opened up 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 first installment of a two blogs series, we sit down with Megan to discuss her journey; the steps she took to 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, while launching a business.
Q: What has your journey to this point looked like?
I started off as an articling student at the midsize Toronto firm of Goodman & Carr. I chose Goodman & Carr to start off my career because everybody there was extremely warm, spirited, and entrepreneurial, and they valued those qualities in the candidates they were interviewing.
During my articling term, Sam Schwarz, a senior partner at Goodman & Carr, gave me a piece of career advice that I took to heart and never forgot: he advised me that, no matter my future plans, I should organise myself to go out on my own in year 10. By setting my sights on my own firm, I would naturally build the necessary skills and hit the necessary benchmarks to achieve that goal, such as building a book of business, developing my advocacy skills, building and maintaining a referral network, and learning the business of law. The development of these skills would maximize my options, making me an attractive candidate for partnership in private practice, or for senior in-house positions, or even taking up a career outside of the law in business or government.
Unfortunately, Goodman & Carr dissolved while I was articling. Following the dissolution, I reassessed how I could best position myself in the market and I decided to actively pursue a position at McCarthy Tetrault. I joined McCarthy Tetrault as an articling student with only two months left in the articling term. I was told, from the outset, I had a 1% chance of getting hired in because they had already made their hire-back decisions. I figured as long as it wasn’t 0%, if I got my foot in the door and showed them what I could do, I’d have a decent shot.
I called all my legal contacts to research who had decision making clout at McCarthy’s, and I made sure that I worked for those senior lawyers. When it was time for my performance review, those decision makers gave me positive reviews. I enlisted them in the “Get Megan Hired In” Campaign, and, to my surprise and delight, it worked! McCarthy’s was a terrific launch pad for my practice. I got to work on complex commercial cases with large teams, while also getting tons of in-court, on-my-feet, advocacy experience on the med mal cases.
One of those senior lawyers I had worked with at McCarthy Tetrault left for Thornton Grout Finnigan, and I joined him there in my second year of practice. I stayed there until June of this year, working on complex commercial litigation cases.
When did you start transitioning from boutique firm to opening your joint practice?
During my time at Thornton Grout Finnigan, Alex Van Kralingen, my friend of many years, and former colleague at Goodman & Carr, had gone out under his own banner after practicing at a seven sister firm and a boutique law firm, following the same trajectory I was on. We talked about teaming up in a partnership. I was intrigued by the idea of creating a new firm with him, but I didn’t feel I was ready. I work in high-end, sophisticated commercial litigation and I was nervous that I was I too junior to attract that work by myself. I thought that if I made the move, I’d have to radically alter my practice, which was not something I was interested in doing. It turned out these fears were unfounded.
Over the next couple years, I continued building my book and network. I also started worked on my LLM in Dispute Resolution and was reinvigorated by the new perspective it was giving me on my career and practice. Then, around this time last year, something just kind of clicked. I had lunch with Alex and said, “You know what? Let’s try it!” We worked through the logistics over a few months, and on June 19, 2017, we launched Van Kralingen & Keenberg LLP. When we were announcing our launch on social media, a Facebook memory popped up, reminding me that it was literally 10 years, to the day, since my call to the Bar. It hadn’t occurred to me before then how closely I had followed Sam Schwartz’s sage advice. Of course, Sam was delighted by the news, and remains a major champion for both Alex and me.
Q: How have you found balancing completing your LLM in Dispute Resolution with your professional transition?
I’ve always been a busy person and I’m naturally organized. I’ve got natural systems in place for ‘touch it once’; you get an email, you respond to it right away – you don’t leave stuff waiting for you to come back to.
I’ve always been a ‘work first, play second’ person. But when you get into law, there’s no such thing as “Oh, I’m done!”. There’s always more. If you wait until you’re done to enjoy yourself, sleep, eat properly, go to the gym, spend time with your partner – you’ll never get to it. The challenge for me has been to just walk away from a work in progress and take breaks – and I’m getting better at it.
How has the LLM in Dispute Resolution influenced your practice?
My LLM experience in Dispute Resolution has been extremely validating and rewarding. While getting back into academia has reignited my love of writing and critical thinking, the Dispute Resolution program is also incredibly practical – we did a ton of mediation and negotiation simulations, which enabled us to put the theory into practice and test out various strategies in a meaningful way.
Delving into these mediation skills has prepared me to take on the type of mediations that I am most interested in as a mediator– the complex, multi-party disputes that have been the hallmark of my commercial litigation practice. At the same time, it has made me a better litigator, and a better client manager, and most likely, a better boss than I otherwise would have been.
As a litigator, everything you do to prepare your client for a productive mediation session you should also apply more generally to a case. You should help your client realistically assess risk, not only on the merits of the case – but also on the so called “soft factors”, the legal costs, the stress of being cross examined, the time commitment, the diverted attention away from other professional and personal pursuits, and forfeited opportunities. This is an area where clients need a little extra help. Clients often come to a litigator when they’re steaming mad and want to punish the other side. You need to have tough conversations with your client for their own benefit, to ensure they really want to proceed and that they’re doing so on a principled economic basis – not just on the basis of emotion.
I’ve completed the Masters now, and am scheduled to graduate in February 2018. In the meantime, I’ve done a “soft opening” of my mediation practice, essentially just getting the word out that I’m available and taking on a handful of mandates. Once I have my degree in hand, I plan to market the mediation side of my practice more formally, to the point where it’s a more meaningful split with my litigation practice. Eventually, I would like to transition into pure mediation for the later years in my practice. But not yet. I love litigating too much to give it up so soon.
We’ll continue our interview with Megan in part two of ‘Ready for Year 10’ blog series in January 2018 when we discuss the practice management challenges of running a joint law firm.