Benchers' Bulletin interview with Tim McGee

This interview was originally published in the September-October 2005 Benchers' Bulletin.

Tim McGee, QCMeet our new CEO — Tim McGee

It is our pleasure to introduce the Law Society’s new Chief Executive Officer, Tim McGee. Originally from Victoria, Tim practised law in Toronto for several years before moving to the corporate world where he headed Canada’s largest satellite television company. Now back on the west coast, Tim talks about his background, his new job and his goals for the Law Society of BC.

Benchers’ Bulletin: Please tell us about your early years and schooling.

TM: I’m the second youngest of six children. I spent all my childhood in Victoria and went to elementary school there. For high school, I went to boarding school in Quebec, as had my elder brothers. Ostensibly, this was to learn French — but I can assure you my French language skills have not aged well! Also, my father was originally from Ottawa and my parents wanted their children to learn about Eastern Canada.

After that, in 1975, I went to Harvard where I took a degree in government studies — essentially a political science degree. We studied Middle East, American and international politics. There was also a liberal arts core curriculum, so I had to take art history, literature and other courses like that, and I just loved it. Some of the things I enjoy most in life are as a result of taking those courses.

I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the constitutional dilemma in Canada. There had been a series of federal/provincial conferences on repatriating and amending the constitution. My argument, having spent four years going to American government and constitutional law classes, was that we shouldn’t wait for these conferences as they are destined to fail to come up with an amending formula. Instead, I argued that a more activist Supreme Court could play an important role. One of the visiting professors at Harvard at that time was Robert Bourassa (who was then between terms as Quebec’s Premier). It was wonderful having discussions with him about this model and other topics.

Benchers’ Bulletin: Did you go to law school immediately after Harvard?

TM: No, I took some time doing other things. I spent a year backpacking around and then worked as a litigation paralegal in San Francisco for four months, working primarily on a large anti-trust case. I came back to BC in the fall of 1980 and interviewed with several Vancouver firms for what I hoped would be a paralegal job, but they didn’t really have paralegals here like they do in the States.

Then a great opportunity came along in 1980 to be the executive assistant to Attorney General Allan Williams, who was then one of the most senior members of Premier Bill Bennett’s cabinet. I was absolutely thrilled when he offered me the job because I was always interested in politics and law. I went from looking for paralegal work to having this dream job working for the Attorney General.

Benchers’ Bulletin: You spent two years as the Attorney General’s executive assistant. What were the highlights of your work?

TM: That was the time of the Clifford Olson crisis and the Attorney General was front and centre of it. It was a very, very difficult time, but it also forged my respect for how he handled such a terrible situation. His integrity and his leadership were awe-inspiring.

It was also the time when the municipality of Whistler was being developed and it was in my minister’s riding. One highlight for me was meeting Nancy Greene, who was my childhood idol, her husband, Al Raine, and their family to talk about their vision for Whistler. I was on cloud nine after that.

Benchers’ Bulletin: What other work experience did you have before going to law school?

TM: I worked on the greenchain in the BC Forest Products sawmill in Victoria. That convinced me to be a lawyer because I knew I’d never be able to hack hard labour. But it paid good money and it gave me an appreciation of the value of union membership.

Benchers’ Bulletin: Is that the only reason you opted for law school?

TM: No, it was something I’d always intended to do. My eldest brother, D’Arcy, was a lawyer, (Crown counsel) and later a Provincial Court judge. He was a great role model for me. And, I just always had an interest in the law. So I enrolled at the University of Ottawa law school, partly to go back to my father’s hometown and partly because of my interest in government. I remember by that time having an absolute laser focus on getting my law degree and getting out into the workforce.

Benchers’ Bulletin: You articled and practised for five years with the Toronto firm now known as Torys. What sort of legal work did you do?

TM: Ted Rogers was borrowing money to build his empire and his Cantel network. He was investing in everything from cable to wireless. There was a huge amount of financing work on Ted’s files and I got involved in that. He was an incredibly demanding client — your classic entrepreneur. I was primarily a finance lawyer and my clients were essentially telecoms. I also did a fair bit of corporate governance work.

In 1992, when the CRTC began deregulating long-distance services I went to Unitel Communications (which became AT&T Canada) as in-house counsel. In 1998, Bell Canada then asked me to sign on as vice-president and general counsel. At Bell, I had a small law firm working for me — 45 lawyers in three cities.

I became President of Bell ExpressVu in 2002. It was a fascinating time leading Canada’s fastest growing and largest digital TV provider in a highly competitive market. One of our toughest challenges was dealing with signal theft or satellite piracy. We had to rally both public opinion and our competitors to raise awareness and gain their support for counter-measures.

Benchers’ Bulletin: What did you like most and least about practising law?

TM: The most satisfying aspect is that, done well, you can achieve business objectives with results that really make a difference. Lawyers add a huge value to a deal, but it has to be a team approach. At Torys, we were very proud of what we did for the Rogers companies. The success they had in getting their financing in place, their security negotiated and their strategic plans depended on a lot of blood, sweat and tears from the legal team, but it was very satisfying.

The part I liked least was, ultimately, the sense that the practice of law can be an all-consuming occupation. I have immense respect for lawyers who can deal with it that way and who can service their clients that way.

One of the reasons I chose to go into in-house practice was to specialize in an area in which I had a lot of business interest, but also to give me an opportunity to have the law not be all consuming — to understand how a business runs and how the decisions are made, to branch out in my skills.

So now, the combination of the business of law and the regulation of a profession is fascinating to me. I think I bring a love of the law and a knowledge of the law, plus I can bring some management perspective about how to run a regulator.

Personally, I want to serve my province. I have a very strong desire to provide something in a public service context. For me, I can’t think of a better place to do that than with the Law Society.

Benchers’ Bulletin: What are your priorities for the Law Society of BC?

TM: We, as a Law Society, have a very serious and profound mandate to protect the public interest and to ensure that lawyers are honourable and competent. I look at everything I do as relating to that mandate. The staff and the Benchers take that mandate very seriously — that is obvious to me. I think that commitment should be comforting to the public. I think it bodes well for opportunities to build on that commitment and then to do things even better.

Benchers’ Bulletin: What has been your focus in the five months you’ve been with the Law Society?

TM: Well, I know where the coffee machine is! Seriously, I’m concentrating first on building effective working relationships with the Benchers, our staff and volunteers within the Law Society.

I’m also committed to transparency in the work we do as staff and to making sure we have an agreed set of priorities. Together with my senior managers, I have worked on an operational plan for 2006 and we are making good progress. But I also want to engage our staff at all levels. I’ve begun regular “Town Hall” meetings and breakfast meetings to bring everyone up to speed on developments and ensure our staff work well across departments. I’ve supported the introduction of a new performance management system. I’m encouraged by the enthusiasm of the staff for these initiatives and impressed by their commitment to the important work we do.

For any Law Society CEO, external relationships are also very important. This includes our relationship with the courts, as well as with the law schools, the CBA, the CLE Society, the Law Foundation and others in the legal community. I’m also pleased that I can build on the long history and strong ties we have with the Ministry of Attorney General, and I’m encouraged by my initial meetings with Deputy Attorney General Alan Seckel and members of the Attorney General’s staff. For our government relations to be effective, we also need to reach other ministries because changes that affect the delivery of legal services and the legal profession can come from anywhere within government.

Benchers’ Bulletin: What is your passion outside of work?

TM: My family, first and foremost. My wife Mary and our two children, Charlotte and Fraser, are settling in well in BC, and I am very happy to be back. My roots are here, and I’m excited that my kids will have a chance to experience some of the things I did growing up here, and more I expect.

I love outdoor sports, and coming to the west coast has also brought back my appetite for rowing — which has been both a sport and a life passion for me. The Canadian National Rowing Team trains near my home and I have fond memories of rowing competitively while at college. As for now, I think the old saying “The older I get, the better I was” probably applies!