The Fixer

After a successful career spent driving change at top Canadian companies, McCarthy Tétrault COO Tracie Crook shares her strategies for transforming businesses

It’s a problem Tracie Crook has seen many times before. Companies struggle to keep pace with technology, so they race to attract and develop talent. As challenges increase, though, some firms take their eye off of the ball and mismanage overhead costs. Then, the wholes of those organizations suffer. In various industries, including automotive and telecom, Crook has made a career out of transforming top businesses and getting results. For the TSX Group, for example, she helped create $3 million in savings, and she developed an outsourcing strategy that saved Sprint Canada $60 million. Now, she has shifted to the legal industry during a time of great change. Below, she explains directly how she’s increasing efficiencies, providing innovative solutions for clients, driving engagement, and improving profitability for leading law firm McCarthy Tétrault LLP.

Before joining McCarthy Tétrault in 2011, I had never worked at a law firm. What moves me from industry to industry is the challenge associated with companies looking to make significant changes. I love stepping in to implement change and help turn departments and entire companies around. That’s what I came here to do.

When I started, the firm’s services team was lacking a vision and didn’t work in a collaborative fashion with everyone engaged. In many ways, the firm was complacent. We work in an industry that was in a stagnant period. Two trends are putting pressure on law firms today: clients are demanding the same services for less, and the total available work in the market is not growing. To address this, I have pushed the firm away from some long-standing traditions toward operating more like a business and meeting client demands for certainty in their bills without compromising quality.

I implemented a 100-day plan designed to build an internal infrastructure that would allow the firm to grow while meeting its clients’ needs. We called it the Engaged Changed Roadmap—a two-year strategy focused on infrastructure, improved client delivery, efficiencies, business intelligence, and people. We established a vision for the services team and made some changes in staffing and leadership.

We also started a leadership-training and performance-management program. I knew that if we were to succeed, it would be because of our people, so we started really investing in them and holding them accountable.

How Are You Growing?

“We have a client-service innovation team consisting of lawyers certified in six sigma that is constantly looking at how we can meet our client needs and provide the best service. We’ll continue to grow because we are delivering on our clients’ requests, we offer the best resources, and we’ve moved to a fixed-fee structure so that our clients know exactly what we’re going to charge them, and this is building loyalty and attracting repeat business.” -Tracie Crook, COO

Once those who work in a company know the vision, they can actually deliver on your goals. It’s important to communicate and to work together. Encouraging collaboration between formerly isolated groups and regions was the key. There had to be complete transparency, so every seven weeks, leaders ran update meetings with everyone from across all parts of the firm. Another important aspect of this is consistency. McCarthy Tétrault has five offices in Canada and one in England, so we now have a national leadership team. [It] has brought a clear line of sight between all leaders.

I was brought here to increase engagement, and I do that by developing a vision and making sure people understand their roles and responsibilities. The first step to that was understanding what drives our staff. Then I moved to put strong leaders in place. When you try to innovate—when you try to bring change—you have to accept that nothing will be absolutely perfect. I wanted to develop a culture where people can make mistakes and learn along the way because it’s impossible to get real impact and engagement otherwise.

How do you do that? You need approachable leaders that are transparent. You have to be genuine and build trust. You have to communicate very clearly what your expectations are, and you have to address the elephant in the room. You tell them the good and the bad but also help them understand how they contribute to the bottom line.

We have experienced dramatic increases in productivity, and our engagement scores in the first year in one group alone improved by 18 percent compared to an industry standard of three percent. This is outstanding, especially when you are implementing significant changes.

There are still changes that need to be implemented as we follow our two-year road map. We will continue to lead the industry in our innovative initiatives to provide the best service to our clients. The transition is under way, and it’s working. This year, the staff delivered 32 projects. That’s the most ever for our firm, despite a 10 percent head-count reduction. We’re in a much stronger financial position, and people are engaged. They’re doing work that they enjoy, they see our vision, and they know they can deliver on it.