“Breaking Boundaries – A Talk with Thomas von Hahn”
By Anton Rizor
Thomas von Hahn was born in Vancouver, but both of his parents are Germans with a background in the Baltics. After obtaining the International Baccalaureate in Wales, he received a Bachelor of Arts from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He then went on to York University’s Osgoode Law School in Toronto. Currently, von Hahn is one of the leaders of the Real Estate team at Blakes, Cassells & Graydon LLP in Toronto. Von Hahn has won a plethora of individual awards and is widely recognized to rank among the best Real Estate Lawyers in Canada. His ability to speak German fluently has made him the top address for German companies and individuals in need for legal counsel upon making an investment. Von Hahn is married to the Toronto Star columnist Karen von Hahn. They have two kids together. I was fortunate enough to sit down with von Hahn and discuss his career, his key to success and his connection to Germany.
DKG: In the annual list of top lawyers and law firms, Legal 500 Canada wrote about you: “Thomas von Hahn is valued for his ability to ‘provide solid advice in situations, where clarity may not exist’”. Legal 500 uses research data and feedback from 250.000 clients worldwide to analyze law firms and lawyers. What is your secret to providing exceptional legal service and receiving such high praise?
Thomas von Hahn: I think ultimately it is important to get to a level where the client receives what they desire. Most importantly, I have to cut through a lot of information to determine what is important for the client as far as results go. People come to us, because they want to get a deal done and our job is to make that happen.
DKG: In order to make it happen, is there one particular thing that is required?
Von Hahn: Some of it is experience and expertise in the Canadian market. Deals happen differently here than in other places, for example Germany. I see that the clients from Germany and Europe, which I represent, are used to a different way that deals transpire. Some people might argue that the market place in Canada is more transparent with more information available to the participants. There are certain steps that are perhaps simpler in Canada, for example there is often no notary required. This means that it is highly significant to ensure that the client is not surprised, so I have to clearly communicate the way deals occur in Canada.
DKG: How can we imagine a deal go through? Is there a clear winner or loser as often portrayed in TV shows or movies?
Von Hahn: It is important to realize that deals are not a zero sum game. Sure, the seller wants to sell for a higher price and the buyer wants to buy for a lower price, but at the end of the day there is this objective of getting the deal done on both sides. Sometimes, however, lawyers have a lot of ego, which can be not helpful to a deal. Sometimes during interactions people get on the edge and want to fight. This, however, does not get you anywhere. It is better to be friends than not, because in the end you have to work with these people. You cannot just bash yourself through a deal and then hope that this will not come back to you. It is not about winning or losing, it is about doing the best job for your client.
DKG: You mention the importance on offering the best service to your clients and you represent a lot of people from Germany. What in particular is important when dealing with German clients?
Von Hahn: I notice that German clients like to see that things are organized and are unfolding in a way that is not surprising. German clients to not want to be hit out of left field.
DKG: While we are on the topic of Germany, aspiring German lawyers usually start their law education right after receiving their Abitur. In Canada, students are required to receive an undergraduate degree before attending law school. Do you think earning a Bachelor’s degree before attending law school is helpful?
Von Hahn: I think that at a younger age the German Allgemeinbildung is higher in Germany, since students do not read as much in High School here. This might shifted more to the undergraduate degree here.
DKG: How have you experienced the difference in law schools in Germany and Canada?
Von Hahn: I think in Germany law school is a lot more self-directed. At the end of your studies you have to pass the Staatsexamen, while here law school is more school oriented. You write exams semi-annually.
DKG: How does that translates into differences between lawyers in Germany and Canada?
Von Hahn: The biggest difference between lawyers in Germany to Canada is that a German lawyer will give their opinion about whether a deal is good or bad. A lot of my German ask me what I think about the deal. However, our Canadian law society would prefer us not giving that kind of advice, as we are not business consultants. We are purely here to make transactions happen, not judge whether clients receive value for money.
DKG: Some argue that Law is a protected business (those who obtain the bar in Ontario, stay in Ontario…). While it is possible to write the Bar in a different province/ country labour movement is not as globalized as in other fields.
Von Hahn: The process is starting to become easier, however it is certainly still very difficult for a German lawyer to come practice here in Canada.
DKG: Why is it so difficult for lawyers to move around?
Von Hahn: There is a difference in legal proceedings between common law and civil law. It is already visible with my colleagues from Quebec that are used to a very different system. It seems to me that it is not easily translatable. Written agreements in Germany are much shorter, because much is derived from the civil code. Here, we do not have a civil code, as we derive most things from precedent. Thus, it is much more crucial to have everything codified here than in Germany where there is the civil code.
DKG: Personally, you are fluent in German and have dealt with a lot of German clients. Would you have liked to practice law full time in Germany?
Von Hahn: I did think about it for a while and I suppose in retrospect it would have been helpful for contacts in Germany. However, I am not sure if it would have benefited my career here in Canada.
DKG: So if a lawyer does not necessarily need to move around, how is international experience significant?
Von Hahn: I think the real estate market in particular has become much more international over the past twenty years. Now, most buyers in Canada are from all over the world. The real estate markets in Vancouver and Toronto are particularly influenced by the investments from around the globe. For us as a firm a huge amount of our clients are internationals and it is crucial to be able to explain our legal system to foreign clients. In order to be a good lawyer, it is highly important to be able to go across borders.
DKG: Clearly you have a lot of these excellent lawyers in your department at Blakes, which Legal 500 determined to be the best in Canada. How do you lead 40 of the most distinguished lawyers in the country?
Von Hahn: I certainly hope I am not an authoritative figure by all means. It is important to put egos aside and have a collegial approach. The clients wants to see a team effort and that is what we try to live by. After all having such a large number of great lawyers allows us to use the expertise of every single lawyer. Here we find another difference to Germany, as most Canadian lawyers are much more specialized. In Germany, most lawyers are litigation and transaction lawyers, which would be unthinkable in a large law firm in Canada. In small firms, this may be, but not in the big firms.
DKG: You mention small law firms. How do you evaluate the development of larger firms expanding at the cost of smaller firms?
Von Hahn: I think there is definitely a place for smaller law firms to do a specialized job. It is especially important to keep lawyers affordable. Smaller firms help those who do not intend to pay the fees for a lawyer from a large firm. Certainly, an advantage of a smaller firm is that you have more independence.
DKG: So if working in a small firm has the advantage of having more independence, what are the advantages of working in a large law firm?
Von Hahn: The biggest advantage of a large firm like this one are the resources. Often times the answer to a question is in the head of one of the people working here. All the resources we have are a luxury.
DKG: Lastly, what advice would you give an aspiring lawyer?
Von Hahn: Unfortunately, marks are very important. In order to be looked at by a firm like this one, it is absolutely crucial to be among the best students in your class.