September 30, 2013 by Regan Reid
Ian Gold is not your typical lawyer. For starters, he’s incredibly well liked. He’s also a founding partner of an insurance litigation firm with a unique mandate: to serve the entire insurance industry. “When people talk about insurance lawyers there’s a knee-jerk reaction. ‘Oh, you do car accidents, and slip and falls, and you act for insurance companies and that’s the end.’ And in fairness, lots of firms do exactly that. They do insurance defense work,” says Gold from his corner office overlooking the Hilton Toronto’s swimming pool. “We want to be a little broader than that.”
By “broad,” Gold means that his firm, Thomas Gold Pettingill LLP, will not only handle cases on behalf of insurance companies, at other times it will also act for policyholders. This, according to his broker clients, makes Gold and his firm unique in the industry.
A New Beginning
It’s perhaps fitting that an unusual law firm was born out of unusual circumstances. Thomas Gold Pettingill LLP (TGP) began as the insurance litigation department at Toronto- and Vancouver-based law firm, Cassels Brock (CB). Bruce Thomas, then head of the department, hired Gold as a litigator in 1987. Gold had graduated from Osgoode Hall in 1983 and had no particular interest in insurance law; he just wanted to litigate. But to escape a job at a general litigation firm, he joined the insurance litigation firm Laxton, Glass, & Swartz and was from there hired by Thomas. Gold spent 21 years at CB and would gladly have continued on as a partner had the firm’s business model not changed. “When I joined Cassels Brock, it was primarily a litigation firm. It has changed significantly over the years to become more of a transactional business law firm,” he says. Though Gold believes this was the best move for CB—in fact, he was on the executive committee that helped shape the business plan—it was at odds with the growth plan of the insurance litigation department, which had always operated as an independent unit. So, Thomas, Gold, Alex Pettingill and several other CB partners from the insurance litigation department left to start TGP in 2008. “We went with their blessings,” says Gold. “The bonus for us, and unusual in law firm separations, was that there was no fight. So virtually all the clients and all the files came with us.”
The majority of the work TGP does can be divided into three main areas. The coverage/commercial litigation group will write complex policy language for companies and also handles commercial loss cases and coverage disputes. The second area can be described as insurance defense work, and the third group specializes in accident benefits claims. To best serve his clients in each of these areas, it’s incredibly important for Gold to fully understand the issues and challenges they face. To do so, he has immersed himself in the industry—he speaks at industry conferences, he develops strong relationships with those he does work for and, of course, he attends industry events. “There are people who believe that I’m involved one hundred percent in marketing, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m a hundred percent involved in practicing law full-time,” says Gold. But if you’ve seen Gold at social functions, it’s because he and his partners have made a conscious decision to “infiltrate the industry.” The firm is now celebrating its fifth anniversary and its downtown Toronto office was recently gutted and expanded to make room for its now 24 lawyers and counting.
Some of the words Gold’s clients use to describe him include, “warm,” “funny,” “positive” and “well-liked.” Though his personality and sense of humour are often the first things people mention about him, they’re quickly followed by praise for his professionalism. “He’s obviously, very accomplished—very intelligent—and when he does work for us, it gets done promptly and professionally,” says Neno Cappadocio, senior vice-president, regional claims manager at Aon Reed Stenhouse. Cappadocio recently had a situation in which an Aon client had a property loss that should have been covered by his policy, but which the insurer declined. Aon submitted an opinion backed by jurisprudence to the insurer explaining why the coverage should be triggered, but the insurer continued to deny coverage. The brokerage then recommended the client retain Gold. “[Ian] successfully resolved the claim. He got the whole [amount] claimed plus interest, plus solicitor/client costs,” Cappadocio recalls. “It was a minor, minor case with not a lot of money involved. It was a $50,000 claim, but it was a small business owner and $50,000 means a lot to a small business owner.”
It’s scenarios such as these that illustrate the value of broker/litigator relationships, says Gold. He believes brokers should serve as the trusted advisors of their clients and if a broker can point a client to an expert litigator when needed, that will only serve to help the broker. “The benefit for them is that they can establish their added value,” he says. Insurance litigators can also help brokers interpret difficult policy wordings—information that brokers can then pass on to their clients. “You need a professional insurance lawyer, like Ian, to assist with the interpretation of the policy wordings, which allows us to better serve our clients,” says Darlene Cade, principal at Cade Associates and a frequent client of Gold’s. Lawyers also keep brokers up to date with how policy wordings have been interpreted in recent case law. Why does a broker need to know that a judge just awarded a personal injury claimant $15 million, Gold asks rhetorically. “It helps them sell insurance, because they need to know that those risks exist,” he answers.
Having a relationship with TGP, specifically, can also prove beneficial, as finding a law firm that will take an insurer to court on behalf of an insured can be an issue. “Often what happens is lawyers in the insurance business do a lot of work for insurers, so they’re conflicted; they can’t take on a case against an insurer,” says Cappadocio. “Ian is willing to work for insurers or insureds if necessary.”
Though Gold admits that working for and against insurers can be a “ticklish issue” for companies, TGP has a very clearly defined stance on the matter. First and foremost, Gold admits that there are three P&C insurers that TGP will not act against because the firm does a significant amount of work for them. “It would be a bad business decision,” he says. For the remaining insurers, Gold says the firm is happy to work for them under two non-negotiable conditions. “The first one sounds a little trite, but the first is that you pay our hourly rate,” he says. (“When we started the firm we decided not to be a high volume, low rate firm.”) The second condition is that insurers must accept that TGP may act against the company in the future in an unrelated matter. “Now I can tell you there’s generally two responses to that. The response that we hope we get is, ‘Understood. We agree because we know who you guys are and the type of firm you are.’ And if I’m right about who I think we are—and we’re one of the best insurance firms in the country—then it shouldn’t matter.” The second response that insurers will offer, however, is a resounding ‘No.’ “We’ll have insurers that will say, ‘We are not prepared to use you under any circumstances if there’s a chance that you may act against in the future,’ ” he says. “I don’t want to call those insurers unsophisticated, but I do take a little bit of an issue with that position because, why should it matter?”
One insurer that TGP does a significant amount of work for is The Dominion. “Thomas Gold Pettingill is an important member of our defense roster. They have done a substantial amount of work for The Dominion for many years,” says Nora Hohman, senior vice-president, claims, at The Dominion. Hohman worked with Gold while he was still practicing at Cassels Brock and says he’s become an integral part of The Dominion team. “We describe Ian as a very good friend of The Dominion—part of the family, actually,” she says. “Over the years, [he has] developed a very strong relationship, not only with the claims folks at The Dominion, but with the entire team.” What helps Gold stand out from his peers, she says, is his understanding of the value of the broker/insurer relationship. “He understands those relationships and he works hard to understand the challenges and the issues that we face and that our brokers face. And he makes himself available, whenever he can, particularly with our brokers, to answer questions, to discuss issues and share his perspective.” In this respect, Gold is, once again, described as “uncommon.”
As Thomas Gold Pettingill celebrates its fifth anniversary, Gold and his partners are looking to new and bigger challenges. For TGP, the most exciting challenge of the day is the Lloyd’s market. Though the firm has done some work for Lloyd’s syndicates, it recently decided it is ready to target the market with more enthusiasm. Firstly, Gold feels they now have the right people in place to handle that work. TGP has recently hired new talent from some of Canada’s top law firms, who Gold describes as having “staggering” intellectual abilities. TGP also decided it could commit to the face-to-face relationship that the Lloyd’s market demands. This will mean frequent trips to London. “It’s not a scenario where you write and say, ‘We’d like to do your work,’ or even pop over once, and say, ‘Okay, now you’ve met me, please start sending me work.’ You have to commit to going there regularly.” Gold recently travelled to London and met with 22 different companies in four days. Gold and his colleagues think this amount of effort is warranted because Lloyd’s syndicates write some of the most complex risks in the world—concert venues, mega yachts, “unusual risks”—and they want in on the action.
As Gold describes the Lloyd’s market, it’s obvious he is excited by the prospect of this new business. “The firm has a vision. So what I’m doing is in furtherance of that vision,” he says. “But I’d be lying if I said that for me the challenge of taking the steps to further that vision doesn’t make me happy, because it does.” The first challenge, of course, has been establishing the firm in a new market. And this is a challenge Gold clearly relishes.
In Canada, of course, TGP is well known and well respected—something Gold takes great pride in. “It was never one of my goals to have my name on the door,” he says. “Having said that, …what I do like is building a firm of significant reputation with significant expertise. And that’s sort of funny to me because at one point in my career I probably thought I was more shallow than that. But it’s become important to me to create a firm that is well respected in the community and I enjoy the growth that we’ve had. I enjoy being part of the insurance business.”
Copyright 2013 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the May 2013 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine.
This story was originally published by Canadian Insurance Top Broker.