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CORNERSTONE AWARD for MENTOR Steve Weese
Some people measure success not only in what they accomplish but by being a part of what helps those around them succeed as well.
Stephen Weese – Steve to just about everyone including his grandkids -- has a long list of personal accomplishments but so do the people around him, which reflects why he is being recognized as the Cornerstone Mentor in 2023. This award is presented to a member who has created a culture or environment where others will benefit from shared wisdom, experience and opportunity.
Born and raised in Trenton, Weese recalls how his father (a serial entrepreneur with interests in everything from Canadian Tire to hospitality) was fascinated by Canadian lawyer J.J. Robinette, suggested he become a lawyer. He was the first in his family to go to university and after graduating with a commerce degree, “never had a better idea” so went on to complete his law degree from Osgoode Hall and was called to the bar in 1974, standing 25th of more than 700 lawyers called at that time. He returned to Belleville to work for John O’Flynn where he’d articled while in school.
After three years, O’Flynn became a federal court judge, leaving Steve with the law practice.
“I was 29 years old with one lawyer, three staff and a seven-year lease at Century Place,” he recalled. “By the time I retired in 2020, I had been running the practice for 42 years, we were up to 11 lawyers with my own building.”
Steve explains his own success was nurtured by O’Flynn’s influence in terms of how he approached and treated people. He said the atmosphere and environment he tried to create when he ran the firm were modelled on what John O’Flynn had done, including how O’Flynn treated him when he first started – putting him in front of clients even in the early days.
“More important, he believed I should be listened to; he opened his door, let me in and was willing to let a young person act on their ideas. And I carried that all the way through. In lawyer’s meetings, the youngest lawyers were encouraged to participate and express ideas to soak up the atmosphere we were trying to create”.
“John O’Flynn was a tremendously successful lawyer, but he was tremendously unpretentious. He was known as John to everyone in the office. And throughout my legal career I was always Steve. Whether you were a law student or staff or a lawyer I always tried to create a comfort in approaching me.” This also helps to ensure that when people run into a problem, they reach out for help rather than trying to hide.
He added respect for everyone and making them feel at ease wasn’t limited to just staff and lawyers at the office, but clients as well and stressed the importance of communicating with them in a way that didn’t “over lawyer” them but rather built them up and reassured them.
“You have to understand why they came to you in the first place,” he explained. “A lot of lawyers beat around the bush with all the options, but ultimately, the client wants to know what advice I’d follow if it were me. And in order to give good advice the lawyers had to understand their client’s business and what their needs were. They needed more than the law. They needed someone to participate in the decision they were facing and I wanted lawyers that were ready to own their advice.”
This approach also embodies community involvement. O’Flynn had him join the board of the Belleville Chamber of Commerce in his very first year, where he quickly acceded to the role of President at a fairly young age. Steve moved on to head the United Way campaign, raise money for the YMCA capital campaign and other significant community efforts.
Bill King & Matt Gemmell followed in his footsteps with the Chamber and over the years, three O’Flynn Weese lawyers – starting with John O’Flynn – have been appointed as court justices. Two others have become Crown Attorneys and others have joined the Children’s Aid Society.
“We had the wonderful occasion of these people doing things we are very, very proud of and our success made us a target for people who were looking for really good lawyers.” Weese asserted. “People want to come and harvest the crop at O’Flynn Weese. The trouble is we are left holding the bag and, in some ways, having to start over again though we have had huge success at having long term employees… I would venture to say 80 to 85 per cent of the employees have been there 20 years.”
But creating an atmosphere where people can succeed is only part of the job, Steve noted. You need to start with good people in the first place, up and down the line.
He recalled seeing a slogan for a law firm in Seattle with the motto: “Good people make great lawyers.”
“I always try to find good people to become great lawyers,” he said. “And once you find good people, you need to work hard to keep them” which he did with great health care plans, benefits, assistance for retirement, not just for the lawyers but for all the staff. “You bring more to the table then just the law,” he said of running a successful firm. “When you have employees and lawyers as long as I acted with them, you are there when they get married, you are there when they have kids, you are there when they get divorced, you are there when they retire.
“I wanted a culture where people felt their ideas and participation were valued, but I also wanted a culture where they thought we were taking good care of them. I purposely created that culture and that culture to a very large extent has carried on.”
These are the legacies of Stephen Weese, and what his leadership and mentorship have left behind.
And from that legacy, we received the following insights from two of those good people Steve has worked with:
From the moment I walked in the door to start my law career, Steve immediately began to provide lessons about the business side of practicing law – lessons that I have put into action and I am now teaching our newer lawyers.
The first thing I learned from Steve is that if you hire someone because you believe they are competent, treat them like they are competent and if we were responsible for our work, we didn’t need to ask for time out of the office.
The second lesson I learned from Steve during a family crisis was that family comes first. I should figure out what I needed to hand off and get that done ASAP, let the staff know how to contact me in case of emergency, and then leave – for as much time as I needed and everyone would pitch in to cover me – the youngest and newest person and lawyer in the firm. I was incredibly grateful for the understanding and support that he and the firm showed to me, and I have always followed his lesson since: Family comes first, and we are all here to do whatever needs to be done in a time of need.
The third major lesson I learned from Steve flows from the first two, and it’s this: there is no hierarchy at our firm. Everyone is equal and has input. Steve put this into action by having monthly lawyer meetings which all lawyers – partners and associates – attended, and everyone had an equal vote. Not believing this to be true, I sat there quietly the first few meetings, only occasionally offering comments. Eventually, I began to speak more and provide input and opinions, and I discovered that it was in fact true that what I said mattered as much as what he – the managing partner – said. He treated staff the exactly same way – with respect, listening to their concerns, and not making them feel that he was any better or different than them. He also spent just as much time socializing with staff as he did with the lawyers, either just to say hello, or sometimes even to learn more about their families. At firm parties and get-togethers, he was adamant that the lawyers not sit together or just talk shop with each other. He wanted us to spread out and engage with the staff so that they understood and felt that they were important and equal.
Steve’s unique business management model – particularly unique to how one would expect a law firm to operate – is why our firm remains a great place to work. We hire great people and enable and entrust them with responsibility. In return, our people stay, grow and make our business successful.
I was fortunate to have direct mentoring from Steve, since I practice in the same areas of law. As a junior lawyer I sat in on many client meetings with him.
Steve always had an open door and was extremely approachable from day one, as a new lawyer joining the firm. He was always willing to help out with a legal issue and provide his invaluable insight as an experienced lawyer. However, his mentoring provided far more guidance than knowledge of legal issues and practice management; Steve guided the way on how to treat clients. He was adept at making clients feel comfortable by opening with a funny personal anecdote or joke. Steve was a master at distilling all of the information and emotions that the clients were providing, analyzing it all, and arriving at the heart of the matter in record time. He invariably recommended a practical, common sense solution that would resolve the issue.
Steve would always see beyond the minutiae of the application of the law and look at the bigger picture, the needs of the client, and how all the moving parts would work together. It is this skill together with his knowledge and profound common sense, that often saved clients a lot of money, and added significant value in serving our clients’ needs.