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Montreal lawyer is first non-American Bar officer

William Rosenberg
William Rosenberg

Lawyer William Rosenberg can’t practise in any state in the union or even vote south of the border, but he heads a major section of the American Bar Association (ABA).

In September, Rosenberg, a senior partner at Stikeman Elliott, began a one-year term as chair of the ABA’s business law section, which has nearly 53,000 members. He is not only the first Canadian, but the first non-U.S. citizen, to hold the post.

In fact, he was the first non-American officer when he began his ascent up the organizational ladder three years ago as the section’s secretary. His five-year mandate continues through next year, when he becomes immediate past chair.

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Rosenberg is walking in the footsteps of a long list of legal heavyweights. Among his illustrious predecessors are William Webster, a federal judge who went on to direct both the FBI and later the CIA, and John Creedon, who became president of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.

It’s heady stuff for a kid from Chomedey.

The ABA’s bylaws had to be amended to permit him into the inner sanctum, Rosenberg said in a telephone interview from Washington, where he was chairing a conference attended by 400 members.

In 2008, he was approached by section leaders to get on the officer track. It took two years to get the ABA’s 400,000 members to agree to and complete the amendment process, he said.

The ABA apparently wanted to snag Rosenberg, 52  because he is a sought-after attorney in major cross-border transactions between Canada and the United States, as well as Europe.

The McGill University graduate has been with Stikeman Elliott, one of the largest law firms in Canada, since 1989. He practises corporate and commercial law, with a focus on mergers and acquisitions, and private equity.

“As the first non-U.S. lawyer to hold this position, I look forward to using my unique perspective to help expand and strengthen the section’s global network of business lawyers, and to reinforce our position as the premier community for business law professionals by constantly improving our valuable member benefits and services,” advantages he readily acknowledges that have enhanced his career.

Rosenberg was lead counsel in a big business deal recently in the news between the French multinational Alstom and General Electric. The American giant acquired Alstom’s energy business for US $10.5 billion, while the latter bought GE’s railway signalling division for US $760 million.

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“The practice of law is not getting easier, it’s more challenging than ever,” he said. “Technological advances mean people expect immediate responses. [But] you need time to think, to find adaptive, creative solutions.”

Reflecting on the differences between the United States and Canada, Rosenberg agreed it is “a fair statement” that Americans are more litigious.

“The reason is that damage awards are significantly higher in the U.S., meaning there is a greater incentive to fight in court.”

Canada can expect to see more litigation launched by American shareholders as they increasingly invest in Canadian public companies, he said. Such activism is common in the United States among shareholders demanding changes in companies’ boards or executives, he said.

Rosenberg, a graduate of Chomedey Polyvalent High School, has never forgotten his roots. For the past 15 years or so, he has led a daylong seminar for high school students interested in the law, for one of the public school boards.

“One significant difference between Canada and the U.S. is the cost of legal education. In the U.S., it’s almost a crisis with students graduating with huge debts into a difficult job market. A good percentage of young lawyers are not able to find full-time employment and are defaulting on those debts…

“In Canada, the costs pale in comparison and there are more options for the practice of law.”

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