Prairie gold

  • Subtitle: Canadian Lawyer's top 10 prairie law firms are keeping very busy
Written by  Robert Todd Posted Date: October 3, 2011
Photo: Just a Prairie Boy
Photo: Just a Prairie Boy
It’s not easy being a full-service regional firm in Saskatchewan and Manitoba these days. When not turning clients away because you’re just too busy, you’ve got to field calls from national firms looking to link up and establish a presence in some of Canada’s most lively economic zones. And the firms featured in Canadian Lawyer’s list of top 10 Prairie law firms are sure to be on the top of anyone’s list of targets, whether for legal services or a law firm merger. So you can just imagine how swamped they are.

“The only way we’ve had to adapt is by stepping up the pace,” says Gordon Kuski, chairman of McDougall Gauley LLP, which has offices in Saskatoon and Regina. “We certainly have had significant demands put on our ability to handle what’s been demanded of us.”

National firms have certainly shown an interest in breaking into the Saskatchewan market, punctuated by Miller Thomson LLP’s December 2010 merger with the 24-lawyer firm Balfour Moss LLP, a firm founded in 1895. Kuski says his firm has resisted overtures — both formal and informal — to link up with other large national firms. “We have very good connections with a lot of the major firms, including the national firms in the major centres,” remarks Kuski. “Whether or not becoming a member of one national firm would be attractive remains to be seen.”

Glen Peters, managing partner of Fillmore Riley LLP in Winnipeg, notes that Manitoba has been inundated in recent years with mega-projects, such as a new international airport, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, and a new football stadium. It’s been up to lawyers at firms like Fillmore Riley to move those initiatives forward. “In our market there’s always been a strong small business base, but the main difference in the last few years is the mega-projects,” says Peters. “Many individuals have been in great demand in the last period of time.”

Of course, there will be those who say the booms Saskatchewan and Manitoba are experiencing are sure to turn to bust at some point. Lawyers on the ground level of the upswing would disagree. “We truly do think that the worm has turned — this is a long-term reality,” says Don Wilson, Regina managing partner for MacPherson Leslie & Tyerman LLP. “There is a great opportunity for law firms that focus on the Prairies and Western Canada, and the type of legal services that are required there.”

Read on to see the firms that are likely to remain front and centre as the region continues to develop.

How we did it

Canadian Lawyer asked lawyers, in-house counsel, and clients from across Canada to vote on Saskatchewan and Manitoba’s top full-service, regional firms. They were asked to rank their top 10 firms from a preliminary list, with a chance to nominate a firm that was not included on the list. Respondents’ rankings were based on firms’ regional service coverage, client base, notable mandates, service excellence, and legal expertise. To be considered in the vote, firms were required to have offices primarily in the provinces of Saskatchewan or Manitoba, and offer a wide range of legal services. The final rankings were determined through a points system, in which firms were rewarded on a sliding scale for the number of first- to 10th-place votes received.

Manitoba

1. Aikins MacAulay & Thorvaldson LLP
(www.aikins.com)

Total lawyers: 90

Office: Winnipeg

Core practice areas: Securities, tax, litigation, mergers and acquisitions, labour and employment.

Key  clients: CMPA, True North Sports & Entertainment Ltd., Exchange Income Corp., Artis REIT, Wellington West, Manitoba Hydro.

Notable mandates: Purchase by True North Sports & Entertainment of Atlanta Thrashers NHL franchise (Winnipeg Jets); Wellington West transfer to National Bank by way of plan of arrangement; acquisition of $2.8 billion of properties by Artis REIT since inception including equity raises; negotiation of a 27-year power purchase agreement and a $260-million loan transaction for Manitoba Hydro St. Joseph wind farm; acquisition by Exchange Income Corp. of Bearskin Airlines and Westower Communications.

Star alumni: James Aikins, the first president of the Canadian Bar Association; former Supreme Court of Canada chief justice Brian Dickson; Supreme Court of Canada Justice Marshall Rothstein; Federal Court of Appeal Justice Eleanor Dawson; Manitoba Court of Appeal justices Martin Freedman, Barbara Hamilton, Marc Monnin, and Richard Chartier; Manitoba’s Official Opposition leader Hugh McFadyen.

Affiliations: World Services Group

The firm: Founded by James Aikins in 1879, this firm is one of Canada’s oldest. First clients included the Canadian Pacific Railway and Great-West Life. In 1914, the firm’s Hugh Robson helped found the University of Manitoba’s law school, Robson Hall. In 1969, Aikins merged with Thorvaldson and Co., led by senator G.S. Thorvaldson. The merger made Aikins the largest law firm between Toronto and Vancouver at that time. Today Aikins is one of Manitoba’s largest and most diversified law firms, and is consistently involved in files that shape the province.

“Very strong employment and labour lawyers — especially Milt Christiansen and Shandra Czarnecki,” said one in-house counsel who gave this firm top marks. “Overall great corporate commercial and litigation department as well. A very rich and deserving history.”

2. Fillmore Riley LLP (www.fillmoreriley.com)

Total lawyers: 58

Office: Winnipeg

Core practice areas: Banking and finance, business law, insurance, litigation, real estate and commercial development, and tax and wealth management.

Key clients: Royal Bank of Canada, Public Utilities Board of Manitoba, Richardson International Ltd., MacDon Industries Ltd., The Great-West Life Assurance Co., and lead Manitoba counsel for multiple major insurance companies.

Notable mandates: Lead counsel for the sale of Custom House to Western Union, which involved a US$370-million cash transaction and required 25 regulatory approvals in seven countries; lead counsel to Winnipeg Commodity Exchange in respect to its demutualization and electronic conversion, and eventual sale (now ICE Futures Canada Inc.); member of the legal team that represented the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation in its negotiations with Manitoba Hydro to develop a 223-megawatt hydroelectric generating station; successfully acted as lead counsel to the Great-West Life Assurance Co. in an appeal of a $32-million judgment in a class action by retired members of its pension plan.

Star alumni: Retired Manitoba Court of Appeal justice Alan Philp; Justice Shelley Fitzpatrick of the Supreme Court of British Columbia; Steven Kroft, CEO of Conviron; Jean-Marc Ruest, vice president, corporate affairs and general counsel at Richardson International.

Affiliations: TAGLaw

The firm: Established in 1883 as Richards & Coutlee, the firm is now named after two long-time members of the Manitoba bar, W.P. Fillmore and H.J. Riley. Originally founded on the core practice areas of banking, financial, and insurance law, the firm has grown to full-service status, with expertise in areas of law relevant to its local and international client base. It boasts being the first law firm in North America to become ISO 9001 certified.

“They are incredibly knowledgeable, service oriented, and practical,” said one respondent, who added that the firm is “efficient and offers amazingly fast service.”

3. Thompson Dorfman Sweatman LLP (www.tdslaw.com)

Total lawyers: 74

Offices: Winnipeg; Steinbach (part-time satellite office)

Core practice areas: Litigation and dispute resolution, labour and employment law, government and regulatory, corporate-commercial, property and development.

Key clients: Toronto-Dominion Bank, Manitoba Hydro, HudBay Minerals Inc., MTS Allstream Inc., The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, Boyd Group Income Fund.

Notable mandates: Counsel to Manitoba Hydro in negotiating a partnership and development agreement with First Nations for the development of two new hydro-electric generating facilities; HudBay Minerals Inc. in obtaining environmental regulatory approvals for its $700-million Lalor zinc-copper-gold project near Snow Lake; St. Joseph Wind Farm Inc. and Pattern Energy Group LP in connection with the development of Manitoba’s largest wind farm project; University of Manitoba on the development of the new $190-million football stadium; MTS Allstream Inc. in a dispute with Bell Mobility Inc. regarding the provision of wireless services in Manitoba.

Star alumni: Manitoba Chief Justice Richard Scott, Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench Associate Chief Justice William Burnett, Manitoba Minister of Family Services and Consumer Affairs Gord Mackintosh, Attorney General Andrew Swan, and the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba Hugh McFadyen.

Affiliations: Lex Mundi

The firm: Thompson Dorfman Sweatman LLP is the continuum of firms dating back to 1887, but it adopted its current moniker in 1973. In 2009, the firm announced the launch of its affiliate, Acumen Corporate Development Inc., which co-ordinates companies’ corporate development matters. In June 2010, TDS merged with Perlov Stewart LLP. Its services have expanded in recent years with the addition of tax litigation and business immigration practice groups.

One in-house counsel praised TDS for possessing a “great understanding of law, but also of the political climate,” add-ing the firm “is another pair of ‘eyes’ in the province for our company.”

4. Pitblado LLP (www.pitblado.com)

Total lawyers: 62

Office: Winnipeg

Core practice areas: Business law, litigation, labour and employment, tax and estate planning, and Aboriginal law.

Key clients: Investors Group Inc., Regional Health Authorities of Manitoba Inc., Credit Union Central of Canada, CitiFinancial, and the Winnipeg Football Club.

Notable mandates: Development of the new Winnipeg football stadium; multiple appearances in seminal cases in the Supreme Court of Canada in support of Aboriginal, treaty, and constitutional rights; representation of the Public Utilities Board in connection with an order for a $320-million rebate to Manitoba motorists; acted on behalf of a major lender who in part financed the return of the Winnipeg Jets to the city; acted on behalf of Manitoba First Nations in the development of new casinos.

Star alumni: Israel Asper, late chairman of the board of the former Global Media Network and visionary of the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights; Richard Leipsic, former general counsel and senior vice president of Canwest Global Communications Corp.; Jeff Norton, CEO of Teachers’ Retirement Allowances Fund; Terry Wright, former general counsel for Investors Group.

Affiliations: Meritas

The firm: Pitblado is the modern-day result of the amalgamation of several firms throughout the years, and dates back as far as the 1880s. It started to pick up steam in the 1950s, when it became Manitoba counsel for the International Nickel Co. in its multimillion-dollar investment at Thompson. Alfred Erskine Hoskin led the operation for the firm. In 1971, the partners of Pitblado Hoskin & Co. amalgamated with Johnston Jessiman Gardner & Twaddle to form Pitblado & Hoskin, and moved to the Richardson Building at the corner of Portage Avenue and Main Street.

“Pitblado have always been a top-notch firm to deal with,” said one respondent. “They are efficient, professional, and intelligent.”

5. Taylor McCaffrey LLP (www.tmlawyers.com)

Total lawyers: 63

Office: Winnipeg

Core practice areas: Business law, labour and employment, civil litigation, taxation, and domestic law.

Key clients: The City of Winnipeg, Apotex Fermentation Inc., MTS Allstream Inc., Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Palliser Furniture Ltd., and the University of Manitoba.

Notable mandates: The City of Winnipeg in connection with the disposition of its electric utility, the former Winnipeg Hydro, to Manitoba Hydro; Apotex Fermentation Inc. and Cangene Corp., members of the Apotex Group of Companies, on commercial, regulatory, and litigation matters since 1992; the University of Manitoba in collective bargaining negotiations with faculty; retained by MTS Allstream Inc. to bring an appeal from a $100-million judgment rendered against it in favour of union members and retirees in relation to its pension plan; acted for the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and other lenders in connection with a $700-million syndicated loan to a Canadian agricultural sector borrower.

Star alumni: Justice Joe Hershfield of the Tax Court of Canada, Justice Nicole Garson of the British Columbia Court of Appeal, former president/CEO/chairman of Investors Group Ltd. Sanford Riley, Canadian Wheat Board general counsel James McLandress, National Leasing Group Inc. vice president and general counsel Jacqueline Lowe.

Affiliations: State Capital Group

The firm: Taylor McCaffrey LLP formed originally in 1979 as a result of the merger of Richardson & Co. — a firm dating back several decades and whose senior partner was J.F. Reeh Taylor — and McCaffrey Akman Carr Starr and Prober, whose senior partner was D’Arcy McCaffrey. In 1980, it merged with Brazzell & Co., and in 1991 linked up with Newman MacLean to form Taylor McCaffrey LLP. Since the early 1990s, the firm has expanded through internal growth and the addition of individual practitioners.

One respondent said Taylor McCaffrey fits into the upper echelon of Manitoba’s full service firms for its “commitment to excellence,” and applauded its lawyers
for being “leading practitioners in their fields.”

Saskatchewan

1. McKercher LLP
(www.mckercher.ca)

Total lawyers: 58

Lawyers by office: Saskatoon 41; Regina 17

Core practice areas: Civil litigation, labour and employment, corporate-commercial, mining, and First Nations and Aboriginal law.

Key clients: University of Saskatchewan, Wal-Mart Canada Corp., Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority, Assiniboia Farmland Limited Partnership, 49 North Resources Inc.

Notable mandates: Acts for Assiniboia Farmland Limited Partnership in all aspects of its agri-business, including raising capital through public offerings and acquisitions of farmland; acted for Wal-Mart Canada Corp. in the attempted unionization of its retail stores in Saskatchewan; lead counsel for Athabasca Potash Inc. during its initial public offering and as local counsel during its acquisition by BHP Billiton Canada Inc.; represented the defendant in Baert v. Graham, a medical negligence case involving catastrophic personal injuries; represents various clients in the film, television, and multimedia industry, including Corner Gas and Little Mosque on the Prairie.

Star alumni: Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice R.D. Laing; Justice Denis Pelletier of the Federal Court of Appeal; former Supreme Court of Canada justice Emmett Hall; former Saskatchewan Court of Appeal justice Percy Maguire; Casey Davis, president and CEO of Morris Industries Ltd.

Affiliations: Lawyers Associated Worldwide; Risk Management Counsel of Canada

The firm: McKercher dates back to 1926, when Emmett Hall relocated his practice to Saskatoon. With the appointment of Hall to the bench in 1957, the firm was renamed Maguire Wedge McKercher & McKercher, reflecting the addition of Donald and Robert McKercher, who continue to practise with the firm. In 1989, it merged with Regina’s Whitmore & Co., solidifying its presence in the province’s two major cities. The firm assumed its current name in 2008.

One survey respondent from a global law firm said McKercher has gained a positive reputation for its “Proactive and highly responsive lawyers who give careful, considered, and practical advice within requested time frames, however short those may be.”

2. MacPherson Leslie & Tyerman LLP (www.mlt.com)

Total lawyers: 116

Offices: Regina, 44; Saskatoon, 40; Calgary, 19; Edmonton, 13

Core practice areas: Corporate-commercial, commercial litigation and class actions, labour and employment, tax, privacy and technology.

Key clients: Harvard Developments Inc., Greystone Managed Investments Inc., Cameco Corp., AREVA Resources Canada Inc., The Mosaic Co., Saskatchewan Power Corp.

Notable mandates: Earlier this year acted on the $56-million sale of Canada’s largest producer of sulphate of potash to Kansas-based Compass Minerals by way of a share purchase transaction; acted for the seller on the $50-million sale of a Saskatoon Class A office tower; counsel to Access Communications Co-operative Ltd. on a $125-million acquisition of cable systems in Saskatchewan in 2009; worked on a $1.6-billion sale of Saskferco Products Inc. to Yara International ASA in 2008; Companies’ Creditors Arrangements Act restructuring of approximately $100 million in secured and unsecured debt from the operations of pork producer Big Sky Farms Inc. in 2010.

Star alumni: Chief Justice of Saskatchewan John Klebuc; former chief justice of Saskatchewan Donald MacPherson; Saskatchewan Court of Appeal justices Marjorie Gerwing, Georgina Jackson, Robert Richards; former attorney general of Saskatchewan Murdoch MacPherson; former Saskatchewan minister of Health and Minister of the Environment John Nilson.

Affiliations: Lex Mundi

The firm: Founded in Regina by Murdoch Alexander MacPherson. Everett Leslie joined him in 1925 and David Tyerman in 1929, with the firm name becoming fixed in its present form in 1951. MLT expanded to Saskatoon in 1980, Calgary in 2002, and Edmonton in 2006 to meet client demand for legal support in Alberta. The firm has maintained a focus on practice areas that support business operations. Growth has been largely internal, through a strong student recruitment and mentorship program, supplemented by some key lateral hires.

“We’re very focused on becoming a strong regional firm in what we think is the strongest region going forward,” says Regina managing partner Don Wilson.

3. McDougall Gauley LLP (www.mcdougallgauley.com)

Total lawyers: 73

Offices: Saskatoon, 38; Regina, 34; Moose Jaw, 1

Core practice areas: Litigation, including complex commercial, class actions, and insurance defence; corporate-commercial; insolvency and restructuring; banking and financial services; labour and employment.

Key clients: Royal Bank of Canada, Saskatchewan Power Corp., Enbridge Pipelines Inc., CitiFinancial Canada, John Deere Ltd., Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan Inc.

Notable mandates: Steered class action litigation for Monsanto Canada Inc., Hollinger International Inc., Imperial Oil Ltd., Telus Corp., BCE, and Pfizer Canada Inc.; represented Royal Bank of Canada at the Supreme Court of Canada in Royal Bank v. Radius Credit Union Ltd.; representing the monitor in the CCAA restructuring of Meadow Lake Pulp Ltd.; advised Investment Saskatchewan Inc. on the sale of its 50-per-cent share of Saskferco Products Inc. to Yara International ASA in a $1.6-billion transaction; currently representing Potash Corp. in its case against The Mosaic Co., disputing the terms of their supply contract.

Star alumni: Saskatchewan lieutenant governors George Brown and Frank Bastedo; Saskatchewan Court of Appeal justices Thomas Wakeling, Hector MacDonald, and Neal Caldwell; William Ready, chancellor of the University of Regina.

Affiliations: Canadian Litigation Counsel

The firm: Founded when Norman MacKenzie settled in Regina, N.W.T., in 1891. The firm has a history of developing partners from within, but major growth came in 2001 with the merger of McDougall Ready and Gauley & Co. Many of its present and former partners have held leadership roles in legal industry organizations, such as the Law Society of Saskatchewan, the CBA Saskatchewan branch, and Federation of Law Societies of Canada.

One government lawyer praised the firm for “Excellence within the criminal field and a broader approach to civil litigation and family law. The breadth of the firm is exemplary.”

4. Robertson Stromberg Pedersen LLP (www.thinkrsplaw.com)

Total lawyers: 22

Office: Saskatoon

Core practice areas: Mining and energy, insolvency and restructuring, complex litigation, urban development and construction, professional regulation.

Key clients: Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan Inc., Canpotex Ltd., Scotiabank, Northland Power Inc., Saputo Dairy Products Canada GP, Chartis Insurance Co. of Canada.

Notable mandates: Counsel for the successful appellant at the Supreme Court of Canada in Housen v. Nikolaisen; counsel for Potash Corp. in matters relating to the expansion of its Rocanville mine; represented senior creditors in a series of CCAA proceedings that restructured the pork industry in Saskatchewan; counsel for Northland Power Inc. in the development and construction of two gas-powered electrical generating plants; counsel for Great Western Diamonds Corp. in the recent acquisition of the Brazilian operations of Santa Elina Mines Corp.

Star alumni: Saskatchewan attorney general and Supreme Court of Canada justice J. W. Estey; University of Saskatchewan College of Law founding dean Arthur Moxon.

Affiliations: The ARC Group Canada

The firm: Tracing its roots back to the firm of Estey Schmitt & Moxon, Robertson Stromberg Pedersen took its present form in the 1980s under the guidance of Robert Stromberg. He helped position the firm for its involvement in the privatizations of the potash and uranium industries, which the firm has used as a springboard to foster solid relationships with international and national clients.

One of this firm’s clients praised it for its lawyers’ “ability to advise using common sense and straightforward thinking, and a commitment to excellent work.”

5. Kanuka Thuringer LLP (www.kanukathuringer.com)

Total lawyers: 28

Offices: Regina, 24; Swift Current, 4

Core practice areas: Business law, energy and natural resources, financial services, construction, and transportation.

Key clients: Local counsel for many oil and gas companies, ranging in size from large public companies to small private corporations; local counsel for a number of major financial institutions and financial service providers; represent hundreds of provincial, national, and international trucking, bus, rail, and courier companies.

Notable mandates: Withheld

Star alumni: Former Tax Court of Canada justice John Goetz, former Saskatchewan justice minister Bob Mitchell, Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Duane Koch, late chief justice of Saskatchewan Edward Bayda.

Affiliations: State Capital Global Law Firm Group

The firm: In 1955, Murdoch Alexander MacPherson Jr. left his father’s firm. He was soon joined by Melville Neuman and Robert Lorne Pierce. The group of men, all born and raised in Saskatchewan, founded the firm that would become Kanuka Thuringer LLP. It has since expanded to two offices, in Regina and Swift Current, serving clients throughout the province and beyond.

“We are trying to add people all the time; internally, we’ve shifted people from some areas to others,” says managing partner Keith Boyd, regarding the firm’s response to the province’s recent economic boom. “As much as we like the new mandates, we also have obligations to new clients. That’s been our challenge — making sure we can accommodate that.”

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