Canadian Lawyer Magazine has named Hansell LLP one of Canada’s top ten corporate boutiques for 2020-2021. From the list:
While the work at Hansell LLP hasn’t changed much since the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic hit, “where that work is being done now certainly has,” says firm founder and corporate governance expert Carol Hansell as she goes on to describe the day the decision was made for all staff to work from home.
“It was Monday, March 16, and there was so much concern about COVID-19 and how it was ramping up,” Hansell says. “We had lunch and then at 2p.m. we all got together and agreed we probably shouldn’t come back to the office for a while,” Hansell says. “So, we opened a couple of bottles of champagne and said we’ll meet again — but we haven’t yet.” While a couple of people are now working from the office because they prefer it that way, Hansell says the experience of transitioning to working remotely “has been a fabulous one.”
Hansell founded the firm in 2013 after spending more than 25 years in private practice, including almost 20 years at Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP. The firm acts for boards, investors, shareholders, and management teams on various matters, and its clients include public, private and Crown corporations. It provides expert evidence in litigation, counsels on strategy, designs governance structures and processes and advises clients on board effectiveness. Sister firm Hansell McLaughlin Advisory provides government relationships and communications advice and, together with Hansell LLP, belongs to the Hansell McLaughlin Advisory Group. The two firms are comprised of five lawyers, three senior consultants, two senior advisors, a data scientist, a governance analyst and three administrative staff members.
Hansell says that, in general, the course of work at the firm hasn’t changed much. “COVID has made some issues come alive and put other issues to sleep,” she says. “The governance reviews, the board evaluations, they are just continuing on their own path.”
However, some clients are putting aside some projects, “not so much for cost reasons, but because management wants to focus on how to manoeuvre through what is happening — if it’s not mission-critical, it might be set aside.”
The firm also works on “crisis management” files, such as when a board member leaves a company, and that person needs to be replaced or if there is some problem with financial statements. Hansell says that type of work is still going strong, and the firm is also building up a significant litigation practice, dealing with, for example, situations in which boards are being sued. Hansell says one of the things she has noticed since she started practising law is that general counsel for companies increasingly understand the value of expertise on corporate governance issues. And being a boutique firm means there “usually aren’t the kind of potential conflict problems that large firms might have,” so her firm can “come into a situation more cleanly.”
One project that Hansell’s firm has worked on is putting together an opinion paper on how boards have a duty to consider climate change not only for the sake of the environment itself but as it pertains to any risk factors the company might face. “It sounds obvious, but we do make the case that boards have to align their strategies to make sure climate risks are being taken into account and how to navigate through those risks.” The firm is developing its use of data analytics to help benchmark what companies are doing in relation to each other.
One recent example is a paper gauging the sentiment of Warren Buffett’s annual CEO letter for Berkshire Hathaway. The study showed that Buffett’s letters are more “neutral” than the others studied (Alphabet, Johnson & Johnson, General Electric, Chubb and JP Morgan Chase). “Johnson & Johnson fell on the other end of the spectrum with consistently cheery letters,” the paper says. At the same time, Buffett’s neutral tone might contribute to the credibility of his personality and make him appear frank.
Hansell says these are the types of issues in the world of corporate governance that need to be examined “so we can make sure” that governance is aligned with best practices.
This is the third consecutive time that Hansell LLP has been included in this list, having previously been included in Canadian Lawyer Magazine’s 2018-2019 and 2016-2017 lists.