Mike Thackray came to Calgary for two reasons – a woman and the excitement of duelling in court. “I really wanted to be a litigator,” says the son of a British Columbia judge. Instead the would-be legal gladiator found himself pushed – “resisting all the way, yelling that it couldn’t possibly work out” – into a far less glamorous practice.
In corporate law, transferring title to oil and gas properties isn’t the stuff of television drama. It is, however, important. Careless handling of ownership issues can lead to serious grief. Based on this “bread and butter” work, Thackray and his partner Pat Burgess have built an energy legal service with just over 40 lawyers; their clients’ activities now extend to the United States and the North Sea.
Burgess articled with his father Don, himself an independent petroleum lawyer. Although the oilpatch can no longer do the bulk of its business purely on the strength of a handshake, Pat Burgess values that tradition. “Our people work hard at being fair to all parties in a transaction,” the 23-year legal veteran says. “This approach helps keep disputes and delays to a minimum. If we’re handling the file, it’s not uncommon for the other party not to bother hiring its own lawyer.”
Thackray insistently advises clients not to approach property transfers with an adversarial mindset. The avid marathon runner (more than 40 completed) uses a football analogy to illustrate his point: “A property transfer does not involve two teams in the centre of the field, each trying to push the other back toward its goal line. In a property transfer, there are two teams with just one goal line – to get the job done.”
In the early 1990s, the two principals worked for major law firms and realised that transactional work could be structured more efficiently. Those concepts are now embedded in Thackray Burgess. “We take a systems approach,” Thackray explains. “We maintain a complete and thorough list of precedents and industry standard forms. We’ve also developed systems to efficiently move information in and out of those forms. And we have databases which house the firm’s collective expertise.”
Law firms mutate as easily as oil and gas companies. In 1992, Thackray co-founded Blain & Company with David Blain (who later moved on to start EnerLink, an oil and gas data vendor). Their sixth lawyer was Pat Burgess. In 1997, Burgess left to launch his own outfit but merged with Blain & Company to form Thackray Burgess in 2001. In a profession accustomed to working on a case by case basis with scope for individuality, the fledgling firms developed what amounted to assembly line processes for conveying titles and related property work. “We don’t permit pregnant files to develop in our shop – jobs that take nine months to deliver,” Thackray says.